To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to document the use of CHPs containing phytoestrogens in a random national-level sample containing all detailed medical records. We focused on active ingredients that could be considered to be potent phytoestrogens, namely coumestrol, genistein and daidzein, in women who sought medical treatment from CM doctors. Among the licensed CHPs in Taiwan, 7% contained coumestrol, genistein and/or daidzein. However, these products comprised 22.2% of the CM prescriptions consumed by about half of the female population in Taiwan during the 11-year study period. Diseases of the respiratory system were the most frequent disease category for which CGD-CHPs were prescribed, constituting 40% of CM visits. This finding indicates that female CM users in Taiwan may not have expected to be exposed to phytoestrogenic herbs when they used CM therapies to manage the discomfort of a sore throat, cough, and runny nose. Exposure to Puerariae Radix was the most extensive, and nearly 5% of female CM users consumed cumulative doses of Puerariae Radix above 60 g.
In addition, the present data show that the major consumers of CDG-CHPs were aged between 20 and 49 years. Little is known about phytoestrogenic herbs and their potential interactions with the endocrine system, and therefore special attention should be drawn to the herbal formulae containing phytoestrogenic herbs, especially the prescriptions for female patients of reproductive age suffering from respiratory diseases.
According to CM theory, Puerariae Radix can dispel exterior cold syndrome of the excessive type and alleviate muscle aches in the neck and back caused by cold constriction. Previous in vitro studies have indicated that Puerariae Radix is rich in coumestrol, genistein and daidzein as soya, which may reduce cancer cell viability and induce apoptosis[13, 14]. And, epidemiological studies also suggested that exposure to relatively high concentrations of phytoestrogens early in life may decrease the prevalence of cancer development later in life[15, 16]. CM doctors should observe the potential effects of phytoestrogenic herbs on consumers’ endocrine systems proactively at the early stage to avoid any consequences of chronic CM therapy administration.
Our study has two limitations. First, the NHI system only reimburses CHPs, and decoctions are not included and cannot be generalized for their usage. In addition, this study did not include Chinese herbal remedies and health foods containing herbs that can be directly purchased from CM pharmacies. Thus, the frequency of phytoestrogenic herb consumption might be underestimated. Because the NHIRD collects all prescription information prospectively, we can rule out the possibility of a recall bias concerning intake dosages and different types of herbal prescriptions. In addition, as the rate of insured individuals in the NHIRD has consistently exceeded 96% since 1997, we can exclude the possibility of a selection bias. Therefore, the estimated prevalence rate presented here is close to the true use of CGD-CHPs by female beneficiaries in Taiwan. Another limitation is that only herbs containing coumestrol, genistein and/or daidzein were included in the study, meaning that there must be caution in generalizing these findings to use of phytoestrogens among the female population.