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Can You Count on Natural Medicine?

March 23rd, 2011

natural-herbal-remedies.jpgThe topic of natural medicine often leaves consumers confused. Some well-informed people argue that such medicines are much safer than the more toxic pharmaceuticals pushed by drug companies and doctors. Other people argue that natural medicine is itself a big business and that its products are completely unregulated, and therefore unsafe.

Chris Sumbs of UndergroundHealth.com argues in the book Alternative Therapies that natural remedies are safer than prescription drugs for a number of reasons.

  1. The number of lawsuits brought against pharmaceutical companies proves that unsafe products make it to the market.
  2. Doctors too quickly write prescriptions and often receive kickbacks from drug companies for doing so.
  3. Sumbs himself had a bad personal experience with an anti-anxiety drug.
  4. Doctors and the pharmaceutical industry are driven by maximizing profits, not by helping people.
  5. As a caveat, Sumbs does allow that in life-threatening cases and in extreme crises strong pharmaceutical drugs are warranted.

While Sumbs’ article raises important questions about conventional pharmacy products, nowhere does he make the case for the safety of natural medications. Showing that there are problems with the pharmaceutical industry does not in any way show that there are not serious problems with the natural medications industry. He does not prove that natural medications are safer, on balance, than conventional ones.

Sarah Houlton, a science writer in residence at Columbia University, argues against the assumption that natural means safer. She claims that many herbal medicines, such as St. John’s Wort and ephedra, are as toxic and as likely to produce side effects as conventional pharmaceuticals. What’s more, their dose is not regulated, which means the consumer may be receiving too much of a dangerous substance.

She argues that we need to institute a number of things in order to feel confident about herbal and natural remedies:

  1. Formal clinical trials need to rigorously and thoroughly determine the efficacy and the danger of each particular remedy.
  2. Since the ill are most likely to take these remedies, such trials need to focus on them. Even more disturbing is the fact that they may not tell their doctor that they are taking these other remedies, which can result in serious interactions when pharmaceutical medications are prescribed.
  3. A Canadian study of 200 different natural products found that the composition of the product in the bottle varies greatly depending on growing conditions and climate.
  4. Changing products from their natural state to the pill state can bring major changes. Kava kava is apparently safe as a water extract, which is the way it has traditionally been taken in the Pacific Islands. However, it likely causes liver damage as a pill. As a result, several countries, including Canada, have outlawed kava kava in this form.

Houlton’s central point is that we often do not know what we are getting when we are purchasing natural medicine. It is not regulated and there is no way to determine the actual chemical composition of what is in the bottle. However, with pharmacy medication we get government oversight and extremely careful measurement.

As with Sumbs’ article, Houlton’s piece only proves a negative: natural remedies have a lot of problems with them. It does not follow that pharmaceuticals are somehow safer. She does not show that, on balance, the problems with conventional medicine are less than the problems with natural medicine.

To solve this impasse, consumers need to do a couple things. The first and most important is to discuss with your doctor the advisability of taking any over-the-counter or natural medications, particularly if you are on pharmaceuticals. The second is to look up the results of scientific tests on herbal and natural remedies. The Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine has an entire long chapter that discusses in detail all of the most popular dietary alternatives. Balanced Healing by Larry Altshuler, M.D., offers a more thorough discussion of the issues.


This article on natural medicine was supplied by Raymond Winters from Constant Content.

Related article: Alternative Medicine vs. Conventional Medicine


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