why natural doesn’t mean safe or effective

February 4, 2010

Have you heard about the patient who forgot to take his homeopathic medicine? He died of an overdose! Or at least that’s how the joke goes. In reality, on January 30th, a group of UK skeptics publicly took an overdose of homeopathic medication and demonstrated that taking lots of sugar pills does absolutely nothing. Of course, the homeopaths were quick to point out that you can’t overdose on their cures because they’re so natural, safe and work in magical ways that science still struggles to understand. Or in other words, tried to pretend that the stuff they’ve been selling to the tune of billions isn’t just placebos with fancy names and big promises. Now, if the skeptics in question tried to do the same thing with herbal supplements, they might’ve suffered dangerous drug interactions, especially if any of them were on widely prescribed blood thinners or heart medication…

Proponents of alternative medicine like to claim that their remedies are perfectly safe, even without any clinical testing to support this assertion, and somehow couldn’t harm a soul, unlike those evil chemists working for a pharmaceutical cabal hell bent on poisoning people for fun and profit. But the same people who can easily recall every conventional drug that’s ever been pulled off the shelves for any reason whatsoever, don’t seem to care that the supplements they pitch so passionately have a record of harming the people who take them. For example, at least 130 people taking the alternative cold remedy Zicam permanently lost their sense of smell. Supposedly all-natural diet pills which use herbs to kick start weight loss can often contain illegal drugs like methamphetamines, and toxic chemicals because there are absolutely no controls over their manufacturing process, courtesy of DSHEA. And you probably shouldn’t look at the pictures which can accompany accounts of what “cancer-battling” herbal salves can do to your face on a full stomach…

And there’s even more reason to be careful when you a buy herbal supplement with ginko biloba. According to a review by a trio of cardiologists, they can interact with blood thinning drugs used to prevent blood clots and increase the risk of bleeding. Patients taking blood thinners already deal with prolonged bleeding, even from minor cuts. Taking something that would make them bleed even longer is probably not in their best interests, especially when ginko’s supposed memory benefits are also highly dubious and the resulting trade-off is all pain, no gain. And we’re not done with ginko yet. German researchers reviewing how the active ingredients in ginko-based products make their way through the brain, found that the supplements can increase the risks of seizures for those with epilepsy and reduce how well their medication helps control them. Likewise, St. John’s wort will could be pretty bad for your health too, increasing the risks of arrhythmia, elevated levels of the kind of cholesterol likely to build plaques in arteries of heart disease patients, and finally, hypertension.

Natural supplement purists might counter that if the herbs are interacting with conventional medication, it’s the medication that needs to go. After all, you can buy a herbal remedy that promises to cure just about anything if you believe hard enough. And there will be none of that evil, unnatural Western medicine with its man-made poisons to pollute your body, right? Well actually, no. Let’s note that ginko causes a greater risk of seizures for epileptic patients even when the medication used to control these seizures is not in the picture. Plus, we also need to take into account that other herbal supplements have their own risks and none of their claims are put to the test. They’re sold on faith and impassioned rhetoric alone. So here’s something to consider. When your questions about the safety of putting something unknown into your body are met with endless dumping on Big Pharma, you should be very cautious and for the sake of your health, keep asking questions…

See: Leistner, E., et. al., (2010) Ginkgo biloba and ginkgotoxin JNP, 73 (1), 86-92 DOI: 10.1021/np9005019

Tachjian, A., et. al., (2010) Use of Herbal Products and Potential Interactions in Patients With Cardiovascular Diseases JACC, 55 (6), 515-525 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2009.07.074

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  • David

    Wow… very useful information. I take Ginko occasionally when it’s around in my house thinking it couldn’t hurt if it works (always a little skeptical about supplements though). Figured what’s there to lose, right? Well, money is now the answer. Thanks for that link and your continued daily awesomeness!

  • I once had a coworker who decided that during cold season, she would use a “natural” preventative she called “smudging.” This consisted of burning sage in a metal bowl and letting the smoke “cleanse” the air of “harmful toxins.” She was unable to specify the toxins to which she referred.

    About 10-15% of any population has an allergy to sage, and there were about 60 people working that shift. At least 7 people had allergic reactions. Two were severe enough to require trips to the ER. My coworker just couldn’t understand why everyone was being “difficult.” Sage is natural! Why was everybody so mad?

    I tried to explain to her that natural was not objective. Smallpox is “natural,” but the vaccine that defeated it is “unnatural,” i.e. made by humans in a laboratory. Naturally, SageGirl never spoke to me again. The supervisor cut her hours back until she got the message and moved on. And my employer’s workman’s comp account to a serious hit.