“It’s natural, so it must be safe and good for you.” Talk about a sentence that makes almost every health care provider cringe. Although we briefly talked about this in a previous blog post, keep reading below as we thoroughly bust the myth that all herbal, natural, or organic remedies, personal care products, and cleaning products are safe and non-toxic.
What is “Natural?”
There has been a big increase in the use of natural and herbal products in recent years. Instead of visiting the doctor for a prescription or the pharmacy for an over-the-counter medication, people have started to treat their symptoms with herbal and “natural” remedies, such as essential oils and non-traditional supplements. Did you know that any product can be labeled “natural” and sold if it is made with a substance found in nature? Even some prescription medicines are made with natural substances, including:
- ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure, which first came from snake venom.
- Exenatide for type 2 diabetes, which comes from the venom of a lizard known as a Gila monster.
- Statins to help lower cholesterol, which are similar to a substance in red yeast rice.
Drug companies have long refined and purified helpful substances found in nature. This provides a consistent quantity of a drug, without adding other active and harmful products.
Natural Does Not Always Mean Safe
- Well-known poisons such as cyanide and lead are found in nature, but everyone knows these substances are not safe to consume. These are good examples that show why products labeled “natural” are not always safe.
- Many herbal products and supplements are known to be dangerous if taken in large amounts. These products can also be unsafe for people who are taking certain medicines. Ask your doctor if a product is safe for you to use before you start taking it.
- Because parents might assume that “natural” products are safe, they may leave them within children’s reach. These products should be treated the same as other medicines and cleaners. Store them up, away, and out of sight of children.
When the Risk Isn’t Worth the Reward
Damage to the Body
Some herbal products are known to harm the body, especially the liver and kidneys. The liver is a very important organ. It helps flush toxins from the body, fuels the body with energy, and aids in blood clotting when we get injured.
Some herbal products known to harm the liver include:
- Black cohosh (an herb used to treat post-menopausal symptoms)
- Green tea extract (used to lose weight)
- Kava kava (an herb used to treat anxiety and depression)
The kidneys are also important in helping to flush toxins from our bodies. But, many herbal products have been found to injure the kidneys.
Unexpected Side Effects
Because herbal remedies and supplements are not tested as carefully as medications, we do not have a lot of information about how these supplements affect medicines.
Also, patients sometimes forget to tell their doctor or pharmacist that they are using herbal products. This makes it almost impossible for the doctor or pharmacist to watch for possible drug interactions. Always remember to tell your doctor or pharmacist about every medicine and supplement you take.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets standards that all drug companies must follow. They also have the power to test medicines to make sure they are safe for people to use. But, the FDA cannot test herbal products and supplements. In the past, some supplements were found to be tainted with arsenic and lead. Unfortunately, since the products were not tested before they were sold to customers, we only learned about the contamination when someone got sick.
What You Can Do
Always be suspicious of any “miracle cure” claims you hear from friends, family, and the internet. Talk to your pharmacist or health care provider about any herbal or natural product before you start taking it. If he or she does not think it will help you, do not take it.
If you use cleaning or personal care products that are labeled natural or organic, remember that they can still be dangerous if used in the wrong way. If someone eats, drinks, or inhales a natural or organic product, it can cause symptoms just like regular cleaning or personal care products.
If you or someone you know has used a natural product in the wrong way, or in the wrong amount, call the expert pharmacists and nurses at the poison center. Your call to 1-800-222-1222 is free and confidential 24/7/365. Don’t wait for symptoms to call.
James Leonard, PharmD, DABAT
Specialist in Poison Information, Former Toxicology Fellow