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Are Natural Medicines Safe ?

Many people believe that because a medicine is natural, it is automatically safe.  Whilst natural medicines are generally well tolerated and have fewer side effects than pharmaceutical drugs, not all natural supplements are safe for everyone. This article will help you understand why.

With about 50 pct of the population taking some form of natural supplement and only 20 pct of those consulting a qualified complementary practitioner, it is important the message gets out there that safety issues surround the inappropriate use of natural medicines. Natural medicines are not benign compounds and they do specific actions within the body.

When prescribed by a qualified practitioner who is trained to understand the pharmacological action of a natural medicine in the body and its possible interaction with conventional drugs, it can promote a therapeutic change in the body and initiate healing. However, when used without the supervision of a qualified practitioner they have the potential to produce negatives outcomes for the patient.

For example –

Natural medicine / drug interactions –

Concurrent use of some natural medicines with certain pharmaceutical drugs can alter the response and efficacy of the drug and thereby put the patients at risk. This is especially critical when considering drugs that have a very narrow therapeutic window. Some herbal medicines speed up the metabolism and transport of a particular drug whilst others slow a drugs absorption into the system. For example St Johns Wort increases the ability of the liver to break down and excrete numerous drugs and hence concomitant use with many pharmaceuticals is contraindicated.

Current state of health –

Patients with certain health conditions such as gastro oesophageal reflux, cancer, HIV, cadiovascular disease, liver disease or renal impairment need to take particular care when considering certain natural medicines as they can aggravate pre existing conditions. For example patients with hypertension should not take liquorice as it elevates blood pressure in the medium term. There is an extensive list of cautions and contra indications for many natural medicines and existing health conditions. So always consult a qualified practitioner about natural medicines if you have a pre existing condition.

Quality assurance of natural medicines – 

Not all natural supplements are produced under the same strict guidelines. This results in variations between the quality and quantity of the content of many natural medicines. Poor identification of a raw herb could result in serious harm due to mislabelling. As a practitioner, when considering a natural medicine I look at factors such as the origin of the raw herb, quality assurance protocols of the manufacturer (to ensure the product is pure, devoid of toxic compounds such as heavy metals and contains expected levels of active constituents). I also consider how the medicine is delivered to the patient (ie capsule, powder, liquid, tea, pessary etc), the bio availability of nutrients used and the addition of any excipients ( ie non therapeutic agents ). I also consider the extent and quality of clinical and scientific research supporting its use.

Special Populations

There are many natural medicines that have not been adequately studied with respect to special populations. If you are in this category you should always consult a qualified Naturopath who will determine what is right for you and will work with your    primary health care provider. Special populations include –

For more info please contact Sydney Naturopath Kathleen McFarlane.