• Dr. D

"Natural" may not mean safe


People ask me all the time for “natural” ways to treat depression, anxiety, menstrual cramps. You name it.


And I’m a big supporter of natural approaches to a number of medical and environmental problems.


We know many of them work – and work well. And even if the people who originated them don’t know why they work (there are lots of times we can say that too), they often came up with ingenious approaches to common issues.


One example is the traditional native American planting called the three sisters. This consisted of corn, climbing beans and squash. The beans draw on nitrogen that it gives to the corn which needs lots of nutrients. The cornstalk supports the beans. And the squash is a great ground cover, so helps keep weeds down.


A perfect combination that worked for all of the members of the group! This is certainly an example of “natural” at its best.


But it’s always important to keep in mind that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.


Good uses of "natural" approaches


I’ve talked before about using chamomile to help with sleep and anxiety. Lavender is great this way too. Its aroma is sometimes piped into clinic offices to help sooth people looking for help.


St. John’s wort is helpful in treating mild depression.

I don’t recommend it for more severe depression, but it certainly has a place in treating on going down times.


Willow bark was used for thousands of years to treat headaches and fever – and it worked. Eventually it became the basis for aspirin.


I could go on for a long time, because natural solutions to problems have helped people for centuries.


Too much of a good thing


But like always, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Even “natural” substances are no exception.


There is such a thing as too much vitamin D. If you get more than your body needs, you can

get kidney stones, bone pain and urinary problems.


If you think iron might help you feel stronger and you take more than your body needs, you might find that you’re horribly constipated. And if your small child takes too much, he can end up with fluid in his lungs, dizziness, low blood pressure and even

seizures.


Strangely enough, it’s even possible to get too much water in your body. It’s uncommon, but can happen when the body can’t regulate how well you keep and lose water. This can cause “water intoxication.”


When this happens, the water that was being abnormally held in your body waters down the body’s normal salt levels and can cause seizures and even death if it gets bad enough.


“Natural” medicine: a mixed bag


The term “natural” is being abused more and more. And even when it isn’t, it’s important to know that “natural” doesn’t always mean “safe.”


We also need to keep in mind that some things with “natural” beginnings can be concentrated and become something entirely different.


Think about whiskey. We know that when wheat and barley and other grains ferment, they make alcohols. These alcohols can then be cooked down and concentrated, resulting in well-known alcoholic beverages that people enjoy as scotch, rye and other high potency drinks.


Marijuana is another example of the “natural” substance being highly concentrated and becoming a much different drug. THC can be extracted from the original plant and boiled down to increase its strength.


While there’s no doubt it increases the high, it can result in a substance that can cause a serious vomiting syndrome, among other problems. This syndrome has sent many people, mostly adolescents, to the emergency room.


If you pick some of the pretty blue berries that grow all over the country and decide to try one, you may have gotten hold of a plant known as “deadly nightshade.”

Just like its name says, being exposed to this can be fatal.


Every year there are reports of children being poisoned by nightshade.


But nightshade is absolutely “natural.” What’s more, it’s found everywhere, including in my back yard. I have to be constantly on guard against it, too, because goats and other farm animals can also be poisoned by it.


And of course, there are many times that the use of natural substances is controversial. One example of this is Pennyroyal. This plant has a lavender flower and grows wild all over the southern United States.


You can find it in the grocery as a type of relaxing tea. Sometimes it’s called “mosquito plant” because it supposedly repels the little blood suckers.


And we’re told that at certain doses, it can cause miscarriage (or abortion) in pregnant women.


You don't always get what you want


In fact, you may not even be getting what's advertised on the bottle.


I’ve mentioned it before, but I want to emphasize how important it is to know that when you buy “natural” or “herbal” medicines, you don’t always know what’s really in them.


The alternative market has done some incredible lobbying, and seen to it that no one regulates what they do.


Now, I’m sympathetic to the idea of not wanting someone looking over my shoulder. But there is a huge difference in the purity of some of what you get in terms of “natural” substances.


And some things advertised as “natural” substances often have a lot of other chemicals in them. But there’s no law that says the manufacturer has to list them, so you may never know they’re there.


It’s also true that there may be little or none of the substance that’s advertised. So it’s hard to know how much or what, exactly you’re taking in.


So, what should you do?


I have a number of suggestions for what you can do to reduce the chances of being harmed by using “natural” treatments and increasing the chances that they’ll do what you want them to do.


1. Don’t fall for the “it’s natural so it’s okay” argument. If you boil down, concentrate, and then ferment or distill a natural product, it’s not really “natural” anymore. Think 90 proof whiskey or 55% THC.


2. Do your research. Know what a certain substance is supposed to do. But also be aware of what it can do under different circumstances. Refer to the American Botanical Council (https://www.herbalgram.org) and the National Center for Complementary and

Integrative Health (https://www.nccih.nih.gov) for information based on science and experience as well as for references to other possible resources.


3. Don’t be tempted to take more of a substance than is recommended. There is too much of a chance of getting too much of a good thing.

4. Buy only from reputable sources. You may see the same substance advertised from multiple companies, and it all looks alike. But check out where the company is and whether or not it has a reputation for looking out for its customers.


It doesn’t matter if you buy ibuprofen as Walgreen’s brand or from McNeil in the form of motrin. It’s all going to be ibuprofen and at the dose it says on the bottle. This is because drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must follow very strict standards. This is not at all the case with vitamins, herbs and supplements, the “alternative” treatments.


5. Use alternative approaches to common problems if you can. But don’t be blind to the fact that in-the-clinic kind of health care may be what you need instead.


Image of erupting volcano by @CanStockPhoto Inc/colematt

Image of natural medicine by @CanStockPhoto Inc/ gajdamak

Image of vitamin D by @CanStockPhoto Inc/serbor

Image of deadly nightshade by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Teka7