Sometimes "Natural" Can Be Harmful

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We've said it before, and we'll keep saying it: The fact that a food or supplement is "natural," i.e., non-synthetic, doesn't necessarily mean that it is always safe. Such beliefs underlie at least some of the popularity of herbal supplements the market for such products reached an estimated $20 billion plus last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.1 Unfortunately, along with the increasing popularity of these products comes the potential for increasing health risks.

It's becoming increasingly clear that even all-natural, theoretically healthful herbal remedies can cause serious problems especially for people taking some types of prescription medications. This was the topic of ACSH's "What's the Story" brochure on drug-supplement interactions. Since then, even more problematic interactions have been documented. For example, as the Journal noted, there is possible harm from such popular herbal remedies as St. John's Wort (which can interfere with birth control pills, chemotherapy medications, and immunosuppressive drugs), Ginkgo Biloba (which can accentuate the effects of "blood thinners" like coumadin), Echinacea (which might increase risk of side effects of several drugs), and even large doses of garlic (which might also intensify the effects of blood thinners). This is not to say that only herbal supplements can be problematic. Even calcium, a necessary nutrient that is now included in products like orange juice, can decrease the effectiveness of some antibiotics.

And of course, since supplements are not as regulated as prescription medications, there is always at least a slight risk of poorly controlled or adulterated products. So even people not taking any prescription medications should question the purity of herbal products.

The problem is global. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently warned that reports of bad reactions to so-called alternative treatments have more than doubled in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal.2 Up to 80% of the population in developing countries may resort to traditional treatments that involve herbal or other "natural" remedies. Many people do not inform their doctors about their use of such treatments, a failure that can create health risks.

The lesson to be learned here is that for people taking prescription medications it is imperative to check with a knowledgeable physician or pharmacist before adding any supplement, natural or not, to their dietary regimen.

1The Risks of Mixing Drugs and Herbs. Jane Spencer, Wall Street Journal. June 22, 2004. Page D1.

2Alternative-Medicine Usage Holds Risks, WHO Reports. Jane Spencer. Wall Street Journal, June 24,2004. Page D5.