Agnus Castus: Holland & Barrett an ethical company?

I had a disturbing insight into the tactics of the big herbal suppliers when a homeopath called Maeve, who used to work at Holland & Barrett, commented on my blog recently (see the comments under ‘About’ for the full conversation). In our correspondence I asked her if the sales staff were informed about the massive reduction in dosage of Agnus Castus tablets forced onto the herbal industry by 2011 legislation – see this post and this one for more on the impact of these changes.

Maeve replied:

“I can honestly say that they [Holland & Barrett] never sent through a training update or any info on the new doses, there was never any explanation, this has most likely left staff floundering, forcing them to tell customers that they are equivalent to the same levels as the whole herb.”

This is shocking. If the change in dosage was minimal then you might forgive H&B for not informing the sales staff, but the dosage was reduced from the equivalent standardised extract of 20mg to 4mg (1/5 of the original dose). If your GP prescribed you a drug at a dosage five times lower than you had used before (and your health was damaged as result), this would constitute gross negligence. But it appears Holland & Barrett, Healthspan, Boots and so on can do this to a herbal remedy with no explanation to the customer nor a legal imperative to provide one.

Taking Agnus Castus at the correct dosage is vital for my continued well-being. Prior to taking it I was prescribed morphine for period pains and routinely missed 2 to 3 days a month of work. I was depressed and desperate and even contemplated a total hysterectomy at the age of 35 (which, without taking a hormone replacement, would have brought on early menopause and the risks to bone density as well as an assault on my sexuality and identity). Thankfully, I have reached 43 with my ovaries and womb intact and take nothing stronger than ibuprofen for period pain.

As it is Agnus Castus is not on the list of prescribable drugs for PMT despite being recommended by Dr Nick Panay, Consultant Obstetrician and trustee for NAPS (see this post for more on guidelines to GP’s). This means many women are being prescribed antidepressants with their long list of side effects (e.g. loss of libido), when trials for Agnus Castus reveal it is at least as effective if not more so (with none of the side effects). On top of this inability to prescribe the herb, Agnus Castus is rendered ineffective by draconian and frankly bizarre licensing decisions by the European Medicines Agency – see this document for the responses to consultation prior to licensing.  Even if women do their research and buy Agnus Castus on the UK high street, they will believe it be a con when they find their symptoms do not improve (RCT’s reveal that 20mg is the optimal dose – see this study). Because of the prohibitive costs of obtaining a product licence for Agnus Castus (£100,000 approx), retailers have opted for the cheaper Traditional Herbal Registration option (£10,000 approx), restricting dosage to no more than 4mg per tablet with the corresponding advice to take 1-2 tablets a day with a warning not to exceed the stated dose. I am not one to buy into conspiracy theories, but you only have to read this post on ‘Sarafem’ (Prozac in disguise) to realise big pharmaceutical companies will do anything to ensure their drugs are sold as widely as possible, including eliminating the competition.

As Maeve comments:

“This erosion of choice will have a serious impact for the next generation. The goal of all this is to create a complementary health free world, free of herbalists and homeopaths and all natural practitioners to be ruled and dominated by the Pharmaceutical drug lords. Sounds like fantasy- it is happening now. In the next 10-20 years, we’ll either need to learn the old ways and grow our own herbs or forget they existed entirely.”

With recent news about doctors in the US receiving ‘perks’ from drug companies in ‘return’ for prescribing a particular drug, the world Maeve predicts doesn’t seem that far-fetched. She is right, it is happening now. We are already forgetting remedies our grandparents routinely used and believe everything can be solved by a pill, from acne and addiction to schizophrenia and weight loss.

Take statins and cure dying!

Of course it is not just Big Pharma that is corrupt, it is capitalism itself. Profits for the few at the expense of the majority is bound to result in the blurring of ethics, or, as this satirised advert makes plain, absence of ethics altogether. Holland & Barrett are no worse than the majority of high street chains that ‘claim’ to put their customers first and as Maeve points out not everyone at H&B is corrupt (just the ones at the top it seems).

“I joined H&B hoping they were an ethical company. I left a year later deeply disillusioned and disappointed. I know there to be a lot of good people in H&B but there is a constant tug of war going on and unfortunately, the sales force is stronger than the integrity force. H&B are not investors in people. Having said that. It is still possible to find good products in an H&B along with lovely, knowledgeable staff if you know what you’re looking for.”

In my quest to make women aware of the incredible benefits of Agnus Castus I have been confronted with the selfish, self-interested nature of capitalism. Curing a distressing condition is only worthwhile if it makes a lot of money for a niche few. The dystopian future of Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) where pharmaceutical corporations manufacture diseases in order to sell drugs to cure them, seems less like speculative fiction and more an inevitable reality.

So what can us little people do? (I am only 5ft 2 so this is a literal statement for me 🙂  We can keep sharing knowledge of herbs and vitamins, passing this information onto the next generation so it is not lost and we are not beholden to big Pharma to ‘solve’ all our health problems (when nature has already provided us with solutions). We can seek out like minded others and support campaigns such as this one or write to our MEP’s  – see this post for template – but don’t expect a reply. We can do our own research on the web; I find this blog gives a refreshing perspective on modern medicine, although I don’t always agree with every view it espouses, it has certainly made me question in whose interests am I being ‘sold’ a particular cure. I also find medical journalist Jerome Burne’s blog an insightful and at times shocking read. We can also, where our climate is favourable, grow our own herbs and learn how to harness their properties. There are many books and internet guides out there to help you achieve this.

“Herb users are going to have to learn the old and safe ways of using safe, medicinal herbs if they don’t want to be a captive consumer audience 🙂 ” Maeve

I, for one, will keep blogging about it and plan to grow my very own Agnus Castus bush. Join me. Please. Let’s start a backyard revolution!

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4 thoughts on “Agnus Castus: Holland & Barrett an ethical company?”

  1. Another thought – apparently horse breeders feed this to their mares. Presumably the dried fruit would be wholesome enough if ground up?
    e.g. http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/like/301149467660?limghlpsr=true&hlpv=2&ops=true&viphx=1&hlpht=true&lpid=108&device=c&adtype=pla&crdt=0&ff3=1&ff11=ICEP3.0.0&ff12=67&ff13=80&ff14=108&ff19=0

    My understanding is that standardised extract is 6-8 times smaller than dried fruit, so 20mg of extract = between 120-160mg of these berries pounded up in a pestle and mortar.

    If you are thinking of growing your own, then maybe this is an option?

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