Alcoholic-tainted herbal beverages have a long history in Nigeria, with many people using them for medicinal purposes. However, in recent years, their production and consumption have skyrocketed.
Health experts believe this development poses potential significant health risks, insisting there is a need for greater regulation and awareness about the dangers of consuming them.
Until recently, such herbal drinks were often used as a remedy for various health conditions. However, they have become a growing menace in Nigeria, with many people consuming them, especially those living in the suburbs, without understanding their inherent dangers. Moreso, these drinks often are marketed as natural and safe.
Made by fermenting herbs, roots, and other natural ingredients and alcohol, they are often sold in unregulated markets. They are not subject to the same safety standards as commercial alcoholic beverages.
One of the many concerns about alcoholic herbal drinks is their potential to contain toxic ingredients.
This reporter visited some parts of Jikwoyi, Zuba, Nyanya, Dutse Alhaji, and Lugbe, some of the satellite towns in the Abuja Federal Capital Territory, FCT, where these alcoholic herbal drinks are sold and consumed in large quantities.
Findings showed that activities in most of the drinking joints in the locations come alive early morning time and in the evening.
Some customers said they resorted to taking alcoholic herbal beverages because one could quickly get high with a small amount of money while serving as a drug for a particular ailment.
However, a recently conducted study by researchers from the University of Ibadan, Oyo-State, titled “Nigerian Psychoactive Alcoholic Herbal Mixture Impacts, Behavioural Performance and Caused Brain Biochemical and Histopathological Alterations in Mice” found that alcohol herbal mixture caused neurobehavioral and biochemical perturbations in mice.
The results showed an enhanced reduction in locomotor activity and impaired motor coordination in mice following acute and sub-acute administrations of an alcoholic herbal mixture combined with ethanol.
The study further provided evidence of behavioural perturbations such as anxiety, poor working memory, and brain biochemical changes, including increased oxidative stress biomarkers.
According to the study, this implies that consuming an alcoholic herbal mixture might produce substance-attributable harm and quicken neurodegenerative diseases in humans.
Some herbal drinks contain high levels of methanol – a toxic alcohol that can cause blindness and death, interact with medications, or exacerbate pre-existing health conditions.
The Nigerian government has taken steps to address the problem of alcoholic herbal drinks, including banning the production and sale of certain brands. However, enforcement of these bans is often lax, and many people continue to produce and sell them illegally.
The Director of Savehealth Pharmacy, based in Port-Harcourt, Giginna Mathias, said in an interview that standardisation, a critical issue in drug formulations, is lacking in alcoholic herbal beverages.
According to the health expert, standardisation implies the quantity or the amount of substance one needs to take that would give one a specific result.
Mathias noted that since alcoholic herbal beverages do not have a specific dosage, there is a lack of standardisation, and it could make content differ from region to region.
He further noted that they pose a risk to health because alcohol, he said, is a substance of abuse and can build up a tolerance in someone’s system.
”The issue with herbal formulations, generally, before you start talking about alcohol itself, is that they lack standardisation.
“Standardisation actually means the quantity or the amount of that substance that you need to take that will give you a specific result.
“Let’s say, for instance, you are using it to treat malaria, what is the quantity you need to take that will give you malaria treatment? And is it uniformly the same dosage formula across board?
”For instance, if you say you are using ‘dogo yaro’ to treat malaria, what is the dosage of ‘dogo yaro’ in it? Is it the same dosage you are going to use in Ibadan, Enugu or Lagos whenever you want to take it?
“Since it does not have a specific dosage, there is a lack of standardisation. And the content can differ from region to region. In other words, you are not actually sure of what you are taking.
”Then, when you go further to add alcohol to it and call it a ‘alcoholic herbal formulation’ as we have in the market now, it poses a risk because alcohol is a substance of abuse and a substance that can build up a tolerance.
“And with the perception that it has the ability to treat a kind of particular ailment because a lot of people who take it have the perception that if they drink herbal formulation, that if they are sick with malaria, typhoid or any other thing that a herbal part of it will take care of whatever sickness they have.
“So they tend to take it more than it is supposed, which exposes them more to internal organ damage and kidney and liver dysfunction.
“These are very much prevalent, and you can attribute it to too much consumption of all those herbal alcoholic formulations that are everywhere in the market because they lack standardisation and uniform basic formulation.
“And there is no approval system basically in terms of NAFDAC, Pharmaceutical Council, or regulatory agencies ensuring that what the manufacturers sell today is what they will sell tomorrow. So it is more of a health risk”.
He concluded by insisting that ”There is basically no reason someone will wake up under trado-medicine and start formulating alcoholic drinks, beverages or alcoholic herbal beverages they are selling in the market without standardisation of the process.
“These are supposed to fall under nutraceuticals, which cover the area of beverages. And standardisation is a major challenge in the herbal formulation.”
Meanwhile, an expert in Plant Physiology and Biotechnology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Mr Hyacinth Obayi, stated that herbal remedies have not been segmented in terms of dosage.
Obayi revealed that alcoholic herbal beverages pose a threat to the human kidney, liver or any other essential organ when their lethal dosages have not been determined.
He said, ”Herbal remedy for now has not been segmented in terms of dosage. These people formulate alcoholic herbal drinks locally, if you ask them the dosage, they will tell you that you can take as much quantity as you want because it is a natural product, which is not correct.
”Every drug has its lethal dose at which the effect will now become negative instead of positive.
“So, the implication is that the herbalist, to say, may not have determined the lethal dosage at which it will become a problem to the human kidney, liver or other essential organs.
“This is because, for every drug, the transformation takes place in the liver. At the end of the day, if the chemical content in that substance becomes higher than what the liver can transform, it will become an issue.
”So the problem is that they have not been able to actually determine the right dosage to be taken, which of course determines the bioavailability in the human system.
“In essence the challenge lies in the bioavailability and dosage determination, which may harm the liver and the kidney.”
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