This Week in Research: Toxic Herbal Medicine & “Race-Aware” Blood Pressures

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Photo via Wikimedia
Photo via Wikimedia

Herbal remedies have been in use for centuries to treat all sorts of ailments. But Johns Hopkins researchers have recently identified a particular (and popular) herbal remedy used to fight arthritis, gout, and inflammation has one unfortunate side effect:  it causes cancer.

Aristolochic acid, a plant compound found in the vine commonly known as birthwort, turns out to be a toxin that causes certain genetic mutations. That’s been known for a while. What the Hopkins docs did (in partnership with pharmacologists from Stony Brook University) was to pinpoint the link between those mutations and upper urinary tract cancer.

Despite the cancer links — and the fact that birthwort has also been identified as an environmental carcinogen, in that it contaminates food supplies — the herb is still present in certain herbal remedies and is available for purchase online. Check your labels and stay away!

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Hypertension has long been linked with stress, but recent Johns Hopkins research has shown that a particular kind of stress — “race awareness” — puts black Americans at a higher risk for high blood pressure.

Black Americans already have the highest rates of hypertension of any group in the United States, and one of the highest in the world. When you add “race awareness” into the mix, things get worse, according to Johns Hopkins professor of medicine Lisa Cooper. This may explain why black Americans tend to have higher blood pressures than average, even when controlling for things like genetics, diet, exercise, and reduced access to health care.  “A preoccupation with race among blacks leads to hyper-vigilance, a heightened awareness of their stigmatized status in society and a feeling that they need to watch their backs constantly,” she says.

Cooper examined hundreds of patients in Baltimore health care clinics, using the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System “Reactions to Race” module to determine how often each person thought about his or her race. Race-conscious black patients were found to have higher average blood pressures than black patients who reported not thinking about their race very often. No such disparity was found between race-conscious and non-race-conscious white patients.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult (if not impossible) for black Americans to just become less race aware. “We think that a tense social environment, the sense of being treated differently because of your race, could also possibly explain some of what’s behind the higher rates,” Cooper notes. She sees this firsthand with her own son, she says:  “It’s stressful for him to walk around thinking at any time someone might think he’s dong something wrong just because of his race. That’s just something he lives with. If you don’t live with it, maybe it’s hard to understand it. It’s something people often don’t want to talk about.”



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