“Natural” Remedies — Still Drugs

There are many “natural” remedies which are effective in the treatment of medical, including psychiatric, problems.  For example, fish oil is thought to be helpful against depression, as is St. John’s Wort.  But remember, just because these are “natural” substances does not mean they are not also drugs.  In fact, in some European countries such supplements are controlled in the same way as prescription drugs are in this country. 

There are three things to keep in mind if you are considering taking natural substances for relief of physical or psychiatric problems.  First, they interact with prescription drugs just as prescription drugs interact with each other, so it is essential to check with your doctor before starting to take supplements as well as to tell any new doctor which supplements you take so he can prescribe new medications appropriately.  St. John’s Wort, so highly touted for the relief of depression, turns out to have more problematic interactions with other drugs than the most commonly prescribed anti-depressants.  And many supplements act as blood thinners so taking them while also taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or prescription blood thinners, as well as taking multiple such supplements, can lead to serious bleeding problems. 

The second issue with supplements is that there is less research done on them by pharmaceutical companies because that is not where the money is.  As a result, less is known, in most cases, about side-effect profiles and potential long-term damage from such substances.  Because of the demand for natural remedies, there is more research occurring than ever before but in very few instances does our knowledge about such remedies match our knowledge about drugs that are FDA-approved.  And we know that even with lots of study and FDA approval, many problems with drugs are discovered only after they have been on the market for some time.

Thirdly, because the FDA does not have jurisdiction over supplements, there is also no quality control.  Testing of various supplements has often shown that the amount of the active substance purported to be in any given pill or capsule is inaccurate, with pills sometimes having only traces of the substance and sometimes having many times the amount listed.  There is also a lack of quality assurance regarding what other substances may be contained in tablets in addition to the active ingredient. 

None of this means you should not consider supplements.  But be cautious.  Check the remedy out with your doctor; do your own web search on what information has been gathered regarding side effects and interactions, and buy only from well-established companies.  This last is not a guarantee of quality but certainly improves the odds that you are getting what you pay for.  Some nutritionists also sell supplements made by companies they have come to trust so buying from your nutritionist may also be a safer avenue of acquiring these natural treatments.  When it comes to your health, it is important to be an informed consumer.


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