Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Safe


I really do like the people at Health Freedom USA.  They are not speaking the truth, however.  Every day people are killed by natural phenomena, as we have been recently reminded by the tragic earthquake in Haiti.  Some people who walk into my office and tell me that they want to “go natural” are barely holding themselves together with complex lists of prescription medications.  I understand their desire to find relief without drugs, but I can’t help but jump up and down and yell, “Tornadoes are natural!  Earthquakes are natural!  They kill a lot of people.”

Alternative MedicineI have seen too many people harmed by “nutraceuticals,” a relatively new term for natural substances that are supposed to take the place of prescription drugs.  Some of these natural regimens have been devised by health professionals, but most are the result of individual research and curiosity. I am not yet aware of any sure-fire replacement for a doctor.  The closest we have today is the internet.  After all, I never claimed to have knowledge that the public could not find out with a little help from their favorite search engines.

On the other hand, few people want to sit around in school as long as I have.

I love it when people save my time by doing as much of their own research as they can.  I have spent plenty of time at the best medical library locally, part of a hospital and medical school, and they never asked me if I was even a doctor, although many white coated types slipped in there.  I am a citizen taxpayer so I have a right to sit down at their computer consoles, search their databases, and if I desire (although I swear I never did this intentionally) drive their charming librarian insane.

They actually have one their whose name is “Marion,” just like in “The Music Man.”  People need to know what they are doing when they dive in with “naturals.”  Many of the problems I have heard of seem to come from herbs.  If people are taking herbs, I ask them to tell me which ones and to let me search them and to monitor themselves, too.  I know a few “backyard herbalists” whose qualifications I am unsure of, and sometimes a person becomes my patient after suffering ill effects from an intuitive blend of folk-remedies. So be careful here what goes in your mouth.

Ephedra sinica — also known as Ma Huang has been a political football more than a pharmacologic one.  I once spoke to a pharmacist of Chinese origin who had been thoroughly trained in these matters and he respected the strength of this herb, which he said he almost never used. It is now illegal in the United States.  It has been linked to a large number of both deaths and serious side effects.

Larrea tridentata — also known as Chapparal herb has caused liver damage, not always reversible.  I knew that some people used this for (would you believe) the common cold when I worked with various populations in Oklahoma.  It is not on sale as far as I know.  You don’t need this, even if you only want herbs, as there are many substances that have similar effects.without the dangers.  I do have a couple of favorites – intellectual favorites, rather than favorite treatments.  It is possible to have favorites among things dangerous, if they have colorful enough stories.

I love Datura stramonium, also known as Jimson weed. It gives seizures and hallucinations and all kinds of unpleasant side effects and medical problems, mostly neurological.  Every once in a while there is a story in the newspaper about a bunch of boy scouts who used it because of confusion in plant identification.  I surely cannot imagine anyone enjoying this as recreational or getting addicted.

There is an Agatha Christie short story in which someone killed someone with repeated transdermal use of a form of datura – atropine —  through shaving cream.

If you want to amuse yourself with a list of herbs which have been reported to be dangerous, our friends at Duke University have put one at the end of this report.

People die, often from things as seemingly benign as, for example, water intoxication.

The problem is that people suppose, since knowledge of human physiology seems amazingly accessible, that they can use generally safe things without getting into trouble.  Such is not always the case.  I remember giving all kinds of speeches where people asked me about safety and lethality.  The general principles are:

1.  If something does not seem to have killed somebody yet, that does not mean it cannot.  Allergy, shock, are always possible even with naturals.

2.  The quality of the preparation is a factor, as impurities abound.  Whether it is a story about bacterial infections that can or cannot be verified, they can always happen, and may be more frequent with preparations from other countries, especially those with little or no regulation of this kind.  (In a foreign country best unnamed, I talked to a young woman who supplemented her income by taking animal matter from the slaughterhouse, making it into “pills” at home with a machine she had bought, and selling them to traveling Americans, whose later communications with U.S. customs I can only barely imagine.)

3.  The quality of the subject or patient is a factor, as some people are sick enough from something else (think liver, kidney, heart) that they are particularly vulnerable.  My personal feeling is that belief systems effect how the body uses substances, but no real proof exists of this notion.

4.  People can be inventive at new ways to get injured or die from a known substance.  Lack of bed rails can cause a head injury from rolling or falling to the ground from a mild weakness or dizziness side effect.  You can choke on a pill or a liquid or its bottle, natural or not.

So, ask questions, get an advice, and work with a doctor who does his/her homework and whom you can trust.

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