It`s natural - But what does it do?

One of my pet peeves as a health care professional is something I come across very often. A patient will tell me they are going to begin taking a certain remedy because it is “natural”.

Now it isn’t the naturalness that bothers me, it is the mistake in reasoning behind the statement that is the problem. The question should not be whether or not something is natural, but whether it works to deal with the health problem and what effects the substance produces.

Many pharmaceuticals are “natural” and yet can have potent effects - both helpful and harmful.

Digitalis is a good example. This is a drug derived from the foxglove plant that is used to treat congestive heart failure and certain heart arrhythmias. Digitalis strengthens the contraction of the heart muscle, slows the heart rate and helps to eliminate fluid from body tissues. It is extremely powerful and can save your life or kill you depending on how it is used.

Another recent example is L-arginine, an amino acid supplement that is sold in many health food stores, but which was recently linked to some deaths in studies in the U.S.

Many “natural” products that are taken as treatments do not have any harmful effects but also don’t have any proven effectiveness as medical treatments. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one gets any benefit from the products, but simply that the same number of people get a benefit as would from a sugar pill or placebo when these are given as a treatment with a positive message about their likely beneficial effects.

Nearly everything that is ingested can be harmful if taken inappropriately or excessively. Even water - the essential substance for life - can cause severe medical and psychiatric problems if taken excessively. Potassium is necessary for life and found in many healthy foods but will kill you if taken excessively.

Also, determining what is excessive is not always the same for everyone. Harmful amounts can vary from person to person depending on kidney and heart function. This is why studies are so important – to determine safe doses for people of different ages and health profiles.

Grapefruit juice is another example of a natural substance that is very healthy for many people, but can also be dangerous in some instances as it can increase the blood levels of certain drugs by decreasing their metabolism in the liver.

Sunlight is natural. It can cause sunburn and skin cancer but is also necessary for the production of vitamin D and can help alleviate seasonal depression. In bipolar disorder sunlight can induce mania as can any other treatment that is effective for depression.

Any book on native plants will provide a long list of plants that can be toxic if eaten. They are natural but not necessarily healthy. Mushrooms are a good example. They can be great food, hallucinogenic drugs or toxic poisons.

Many marketed medications are merely concentrated ingredients of natural plants and can be therapeutic if taken according to directions.

Any medication can also produce ill effects if taken excessively, combined with incompatible drugs or natural substances that increase or decrease their metabolism - or if taken in the presence of certain disease states.

Instead of evaluating a health product based on its origins – whether natural or synthetic or prescribed by your naturopath or family doctor – evaluate it based on its effects. Does this product produce the effect you want without causing too many other effects that you don’t want?

Can you see information and studies showing both positive and negative effects and data about its potential interactions with other medications and products you are using?


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