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MYTH BUSTER: Why ‘natural’ does not always mean better!

Most days that I work in the pharmacy, I hear a customer say ‘oh no I don’t like to take medicines, I prefer to take something natural’, or words to that effect. Usually when people say they use ‘natural’ products to me, they mean herbal products. Supplements, such as milk thistle, Valerian root (Kalms), St John’s wort, Arnica, Echinacea and ‘Devil’s claw’ to name a few. These products are available over the counter in lots of pharmacies and health food shops, and generate lots of annual sales due to their popularity.


Why do people use natural products?


People like to use ‘natural’ products for a number of different reasons. They may think it is safer than using conventional medicines, as they feel they have less side effects, or because they are ‘free from chemicals’. Some people may believe they are healthier for you, or that they are better than ‘unnatural’/synthetic medicines. I would like to point out that I am not against the use of natural/herbal supplements, just I believe that they have a certain place in healthcare and that when self-medicating, you should be as educated as possible about what you are using, and its potential benefits and risks. In healthcare in general, decisions are always based on benefit versus risk to the patient. If you are taking something which has no proven benefit for a serious illness, instead of using evidence-based medicine, this is where the quality of treatment, and the outcomes of care, are affected.

Why nature is definitely the gift that keeps on giving, and how nature and science work together

I think that something people do not often realise is that nature has given us so many of today’s conventional medicines, such as aspirin, morphine, some anticancer medicines, penicillin.. and so much more. For example, with aspirin, it was discovered because people used willow bark (this was long before clinical trials were a thing!) to treat aches and pains, rheumatism and fevers – but this purely natural product resulted in serious toxicity for many. They did not know at the time that the component that was effective in terms of fever, pains etc was salicylic acid, however this chemical (that’s right – natural products contain chemicals too! Chemicals are in everything . - even water, apples, air...) caused awful side effects, such as nausea and vomiting.


Later, this chemical was altered to give acetylsalicylic acid, a.k.a. aspirin, which meant the beneficial effects remained, and the side effects previously experienced with the natural product were no longer experienced with this synthetic drug. Aspirin is just an improved version of the natural chemical. I think this concept that nature is so valuable in terms of the compounds it gives us, is really important to understand, and to understand that tweaking these molecules to give the desired therapeutic effect is not harmful, and has led to life-saving medicine being discovered and being suitable for clinical use. Therefore synthetic drugs are not the devil when used to treat illness, and are often an improved version of what nature has presented us with.

Regulation/safety/efficacy: why natural products are not always better


The other thing with natural products is that the ones you buy over the counter are not regulated in the way that OTC/prescription medicines are. Before a drug can be released onto the market, companies conduct extensive research on the drug’s effects in the body, including lab research, research in animals, and finally clinical trials, before it is released onto the market. These drugs are regulated and monitored for their safety, and their efficacy is evidence-based. While there have been studies done with natural products, such as valerian root (Kalms) to determine its efficacy, it has been shown to improve sleep quality only based on long-standing use (so one would have to take this daily for a few weeks before any improvements in sleep quality are realised).


Natural products surely don’t interact with each other/other medicines right?

Wrong. they can. Interfere with the enzymes in your body just like regular. Medicines. Always speak to your pharmacist if taking herbal supplements with other medicines.


Natural products don’t have any side effects.

Wrong again I am afraid, as there can be side effects to natural products, and they are not as well studied as conventional medicines so they may not all be listed in the product information as they may not be known/reported. Natural substances can cause serious safety concerns so always be in the know about what you are putting into your body, natural or otherwise.


If it’s natural, it’s okay to take during pregnancy/breastfeeding?

Wrong! do not take any vitamins/minerals or supplements during pregnancy or breastfeeding without first speaking to your doctor or pharmacist. Natural does not necessarily mean safe, especially for a vulnerable developing baby.


Conclusion:

It is up to you to decide what you choose to put into your body, but do not do so. without being fully informed and educated about the benefits versus risks of doing so, from reputable sources and educated, qualified health professionals. You will read endless articles on the internet advertising natural supplements and telling you that medicines are the devil. This all needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. If you are googling your illness or medication, make sure to use reputable sources, such as the HSE website, the HPRA and more which I will link below. Your doctor and pharmacist will be able to advise you and help you to make the best decision for you. Make informed decisions, and listen to your health professional’s advice, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Again, I do think that herbal supplements are useful in certain circumstances, but I just wanted to shine light on the fact that they are not always better, nor are they without harmful effects/potential for interactions, and that you should always discuss their use with a healthcare professional.


Love,


Lauren x



Helpful/educational links:

www.hpra.ie


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