Last night the ABC TV show The 7:30 Report ran a piece on the Natural Medicine fallacy. In a nutshell, the fallacy is that because something is natural, it is good. There are many things wrong with this claim, but before I get in to them and the dangers of natural/herbal medicine, take a few moments to watch the video yourself.
As Professor Byard points out, plutonium is completely natural and it is anything but safe. Some other natural things are arsenic and venom. The natural fallacy is one put forth by people from many fields from medicine to farming, clothes, engineering. The list is phenomenal.
When it comes to medicine though the most common type being referred to is herbal medicine. John Baxter from the National Herbalists Association claims that the area of hazard comes when people mix herbal medicines with pharmaceutical medicine. He’s only partially right here – that is only one of the hazards. To expand on this one hazard, a lot of the time when people see a doctor and give a history they generally only refer to the conventional medicine they may be taking. Often times they will skip over supplements or alternative medicines. If a doctor isn’t aware of these things they may prescribe something with similar active ingredients that could easily cause an overdose, simply because they were not told. This is quite a large risk that doctors face quite regularly.
Pharmaceutical or conventional medicine grew out of herbal medicine, a desire to find which actual ingredients and chemical structures were causing the effects as well as refining them, controlling the dosages better and improving on them. They both have active affects because they both have active ingredients. Conventional medicine though is a very tightly controlled and regulated field. Before a drug can be released to market it must be tested for efficacy. Before it can be tested for efficacy it must be tested for safety. These tests are very strictly controlled to ensure that the substance they are testing is what actually causes the results they are looking at. Any failure at any stage and it’s back to the drawing board.
Herbal medicine on the other hand, despite being listed with the TGA, does not have to go through the same testing. Products can be put on the shelves for sale without any testing for efficacy, or worse yet without any testing what so ever for safety. The TGA can and does call on manufacturers randomly to perform a full series of tests, but these are only done on an ad-hoc basis or if there is a complaint.
The majority of herbal medicine you buy here in Australia ultimately come from the same “big pharma” pharmaceutical companies thanks to a series of buyouts, though this often can’t be seen in the names of the products as these stayed the same. The companies apply the same level of thoroughness, safety and caution in the production of herbal medicines as they do for conventional medicines so you can be sure that when they say a product has 3mg of X per tablet, it actually DOES have 3mg of X per tablet.
That doesn’t stop people importing medicines from back alley “traditional” sources overseas or even in this country. These “traditional” sources for herbal and alternative medicines do not have the same production controls in place, so while they state a pill may have 3mg of X, one may actually have 300mg of X while the pill next to it in the same container has 0.003mg. This could easily lead to an overdose.
Taking medicines in natural forms (leaves, bark, stalks etc) suffer from the exact same problem. One section of the leaf may be significantly more potent than another. You can never be sure how much exactly of the active ingredient you are taking leaving you at a huge risk of an overdose.
On top of this, both back-alley sellers and natural forms will also contain a host of other ingredients and chemicals many of which are bad for you if taken too much. This is the whole point behind conventional medicine coming in in the first place, to strip out these unwanted and unrelated chemicals leaving only the desired ones.
People die every year from accidental overdose or correlated poisoning after taking natural medicine. If you’re going to take herbal medicines or supplements, please, be careful. Let your doctor know, find out what else you may be inadvertently taking and hence what extra risks you are taking. Just because something is natural does not make it good.