“Every plant that has toxic affects, if used in a small enough amount, has the opportunity to be useful,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, one of the first integrative medicine departments in an academic medical center. She is a recognized expert on the use of alternative and integrative therapies and botanical supplements in optimizing wellness and managing chronic disease; and her book, The SuperStress Solution, is scheduled to come out in January.

[Thunder god vine’s] window of being useful and becoming toxic is pretty narrow,” she adds.

Dr. Lee co-wrote a paper about thunder god vine that was published in the November/December 2001 issue of Alternative Therapies.

She concluded that she could not, in good conscience, suggest her patients take the herbal supplement until more is known about its efficacy, side effects and potential interactions. She maintains that opinion, even after reading this new study.

“What this study does is begin to help us see how it might be useful. I think what we have to do next is have a standardized presentation," she says. “I think this particular kind of plant needs much more definition in production and quality assessment because it has significant toxic effects. It’s one of these examples where this plant should be treated more along the lines of pharmaceuticals than perhaps other plants."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate herbal supplements, and Dr. Lee says there is no way to guarantee the strength of the dosage or what part of the plant was used to make the supplement.

She says other botanicals, such as ginger, rosemary and tumeric, could be safer herbal supplements if people with rheumatoid arthritis are looking for alternative therapies to deal with inflammation. 

And she advises getting help from a herbal medicine specialist. 

“For people with Rheumatoid arthritis, the cure is very complicated. It’s probably going to need a multi layered intervention,” she says.