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