Student researcher finds that medicinal Chinese herbs are unsafe when not skillfully and carefully prepared

Sales of Chinese herbs in the U.S. have increased in recent years, with many people viewing them as a less expensive, and more effective alternative to traditional pharmaceutics with fewer adverse side effects. However, medicinal teas brewed from these herbs are unsafe if not properly administered, VCU student Julia Grzymkowski has found in her research.

A senior majoring in forensic science and chemistry, Grzymkowski tested various brewing methods to determine their ability to eliminate bacterial cultures, and identified bacterial species found on medicinal Chinese herbs. Grzymkowski works in the lab of Michelle Peace, Ph.D., associate professor of forensic science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who has published a number of studies on the properties of natural and plant-based materials.

The case of a woman who died after ingesting a traditional remedy without consulting her doctor piqued Grzymkowski’s interest in the possible deleterious effects of Chinese herbs. The woman sought relief from symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome and became ill when the herbs counteracted each other. She experienced flu-like symptoms and died from multiple organ failure during surgery. Post-mortem microbial toxicology analysis of sampled lung tissue revealed a common pneumonia-causing bacteria.

Grzymkowski said that while Chinese herbal remedies can be effective, they should be administered under the guidance of a licensed professional, or at the very least, the accompanying brewing instructions followed.

It’s important to use high temperatures to kill the bacteria.

“These are unsterilized substances that come from the earth and are handled by a variety of people before they make it to you,” she said. “It’s important to use high temperatures to kill the bacteria. You would rather be safe than sorry.”

Grzymkowski analyzed 11 Chinese herbs known for their analgesic, anticonvulsant, sedative or hypnotic effects.

She tested the efficacy of three brewing methods in killing bacteria by exposing samples of the herbs to Bacillus cereus — a bacteria that contributes to foodborne illness — to determine if the germ would survive brewing. While brewing instructions accompanying every herb eliminated some bacteria, a method prescribed by an herbal pharmacist to steep herbs in boiling water for 1.5 hours was the most effective at decontamination. Steeping the herbs for only a few minutes, as is done with many western teas, was less effective.

The fastest brewing method did not kill all of the spores placed on the herbs. Upwards of 3,000 bacterial cells with growth viability still existed in the tea.

“Any bacterial colony that can grow on a plate can potentially grow on human tissue,” Grzymkowski said. “It only takes one viable bacteria cell to start growth.”

In subsequent tests, she did not add bacteria to the herbs but classified existing bacteria on herb samples taken directly from packaging. She cultured the bacteria and identified species by isolating their individual fatty acid chains, which are important and unique structural features of their cell membranes.

Grzymkowski identified disease-causing bacteria such as Bacillus cereus and Bacillus anthracis, the latter of which is a known bioterrorism agent.

She found the work rewarding because it expanded her knowledge of microbiology.

“After mostly studying chemistry, I dove into a different discipline with this microorganism study,” she said. “I learned a lot of new techniques I would not have otherwise.”

Peace urged Grzymkowski to undertake the project to add to a previous student’s work identifying the drug-like compounds in Chinese herbs. Peace is helping Grzymkowski publish two papers, one on Chinese herbs and the other on the properties of kratom; a plant-based drug that can act as a stimulant or depressant, depending on how much is taken.

Peace encourages Grzymkowski to pursue a doctoral degree and sees a bright future for the budding scientist.

“Anything Julia sets her mind to, she just devours!” Peace said. “She is so efficient, so competent and just brilliant.”