Does the word “natural” on products mean the product is safe?

Written by Herschel Lessin MD

I am constantly amazed at the power of the word “natural”.  People seem to think that if something is “natural” then it must be completely safe.  If only it were true.  If “natural” means coming from herbal or other sources arising in nature, then most of our prescription drugs (made by the “evil” pharma companies) are “natural”.  “Natural” medicines, sold in “health food” stores, online, and in pharmacies are not without serious side effects ,and are not sold without profits in mind.  The heart drug, digitalis, comes from the foxglove plant.  This was used as a natural herbal remedy for years. If you eat too much of the “natural” Foxglove herb, you are likely to suffer a cardiac arrest, since it is the source of the drug Digitalis.

Just how do these “natural” remedies actually work?  If herbal remedies actually are effective (which a few certainly are), then they must have an active ingredient.  But many people, blinded by the word “natural” (and cursing the word “drug”) think they work without any such ingredient.  Do they work by magic?  Of course not.  Any compound that has effects on the body or brain is a drug, regardless of whether it is “natural”, or created in a lab.

Almost all drugs that exert good effects also exert some bad ones, known as side effects.  When I see people ingest an herbal remedy without any knowledge of how the drug it contains works, I get quite concerned.  They have no idea exactly what drug they are taking. There have no studies to determine proper dosing.  There have been no experiments to discover how the drug works (if it works at all). There have been no efforts to learn about side effects. The person taking such remedies is really taking a leap of faith that these compounds will do no harm.

Even with massive studies, many pharmaceuticals have unexpected side effects when taken by large numbers of people.  So do many herbal products when anyone bothers to take the time to examine them.  For example, the herb Ma Huang, or ephedra, taken by many, is associated with stroke, hypertension and cardiac arrest. St. John’sWort interferes with birth control pills. The list is quite long. What do we really know about these remedies?  When we take one, we are hoping it will work, without knowing how, without knowing the effective dose, and without knowing the side effects.  We are reassured, because it is “natural”.  Why would you give such a drug to your child?

Dr. Lessin has been practicing Pediatrician in the Hudson Valley since 1982. He is a founding partner and serves as both Medical Director and Director of Clinical Research at the Children’s Medical Group


2 thoughts on “Does the word “natural” on products mean the product is safe?

  1. You question a person’s decision to take an herbal remedy, yet do not question the average American’s blind acceptance of manufactured drugs. No one should take anything that they do not know the correct dosing or potential side effects of- herb or pharmaceutical.
    During my (normal & healthy) pregnancy I was warned me against drinking any chamomile tea- it could relax the uterus & cause miscarriage. I would have drowned in tea before being able to consume enough for that to happen. It seems to me there is a fear of herbs by the modern medical community. A fear of the unknown? Then educate yourself! Herbalists are probably some of the most willing to share people I’ve ever met!
    One reason herbal remedies are less studied is that they are traditional cures & have been used for centuries. You need to relax? Chamomile tea. Digestive upset? Slippery Elm. People knew this long before “modern medicine”.
    Whatever you call it, Herbal/Traditional/Alternative, it has a place in healthcare & the sooner the two sides can work together the healthier we all will be!

  2. I question the blind acceptance of anything. That being said, it is one thing to accept something because someone told you so vs. something that is based on scientific studies. One can argue whether these studies are biased, but they are the best information available and are better than no studies at all. Consulting an herbalist is not the answer unless he can show some controlled studies. The plural of anecdote is not evidence. There have been several controlled studies on herbs including Echinacea, St. John’s Wort and others that demonstrated that they were not effective despite the herbalist’s experience that they are helpful. St. John’s Wort in particular was shown to interfere with the efficacy of birth control pills. I wonder if the herbalist knew that before the study was performed? Complementary medicine does have a place, but only if it is based on evidence, not anecdote. Lots of things we all “know” turn out to be false when they are examined. Certain complementary therapies such as fish oil, accupuncture, and meditation are quite effective. You just have to look at the evidence.

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