Natural Remedies Are Far From Being ‘Harmless’ Options

By Alan Boyle on Monday, September 30, 2013
remedy
“There are no grotesques in nature; not anything framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces.” —Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

In A Nutshell

If you search online for natural remedies or herbal supplements, you’ll find them touted as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. The “natural” tag leads many people to believe pills from alternative medicine are harmless. The truth is that plants contain a cocktail of chemicals, all of which will have a varying impact on the human body. Research has shown time and again that herbal remedies can range from useless to actively harmful. Unlike conventional healthcare, the industry is highly under-regulated. Natural remedies have caused everything from minor allergic reactions to death in people taking them.

The Whole Bushel

Marketing a product with the use of “natural” is known as appeal to nature—it’s a logical fallacy. If “X” is natural, then “X” is good or harmless. Yet this one really falls apart with a little bit of thought. If “natural” means “good,” then natural things aren’t bad. Yet we wouldn’t recommend you consume the leaves of the rhubarb plant, the seeds of the strychnine tree, or death cap mushrooms (the name’s a giveaway with that one). There are hundreds of poisonous plants and fungi that are all as natural as a stick of organic celery. Natural ingredients can be bad for you as often as not, and so being natural offers no distinction whatsoever.

But what about the natural remedies you can get from your local supplement store? They’ll usually stay away from poisonous plants that will kill you instantly (but not always, you could buy the potentially fatal aconite root online right now if you wanted to). But natural doesn’t mean benign. Sometimes it doesn’t even mean natural—the “herbal Viagra” Jia Ji Jian was found to contain four times as many pharmaceuticals as were found in prescription alternatives.

So what harm do they do? Well, interactions with prescribed drugs are common because people often feel they don’t need to tell their doctor about the natural supplements they’re taking. People are likely to be self-medicating with herbal drugs and avoid legitimate medical treatment, which can cause harm even if their remedy of choice does little direct damage. Studies have shown people are less likely to go to their doctor if they have a reaction to a herbal supplement compared to a conventional pharmaceutical.

Natural Ayurvedic remedies from India have been found to contain dangerous levels of toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury that can cause stomach and liver problems. Herbal remedies are also rarely tested, so there is absolutely no way of knowing if they work or what the side effects may be. The amount of active ingredients in natural remedies is often unmonitored, so one bottle may be twice as strong as the next one on the shelf.

The list of reactions herbal medicines have caused is terrifying. In pets, natural remedies can cause bleeding, hallucinations, and seizures, among other symptoms. In humans, the aphrodisiac yohimbine can cause lupus-like symptoms. Several popular tea herbs in the US have been linked to acute hepatitis. The herb pennyroyal has killed, as has the weight-loss supplement guar gum. Adverse reactions to natural medication has led to people needing lung and liver transplants.

The herbal supplement industry is expected to be worth almost $100 billion worldwide come 2015. Now that’s the sort of money that can make annoying questions like “Does this work?” or “Will this cause many painful deaths?” be put to one side.

Show Me The Proof

Just how safe are herbal medicines?
Harmless Herbs? A Review of the Recent Literature
Global Herbal Supplements and Remedies Market to Reach US$93.15 Billion
Herbal Remedies Can be Harmful to Pets

  • Exiled Phoenix

    Never have trusted those hippie stores. Plus it always smells like that weird stuff they put on!

    • ScepticSid

      Patchouli Oil – Enhancing the body odour of smelly hippies since 1969.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        Yes that stuff. I have no idea how people can stand that smell!

      • g.g.palin

        People have been useing patchouli since the Victorian era and I suspect it didn’t work that great back than either.

  • Scott

    It’s not like regular medicine is any safer. For example, anti-depressants are all pretty much bullshit pills that only work when people expect them to work, but they’ll still cause a myriad of health problems, many of which can be fatal. Look at Abilify. It’s a pill that literally does nothing, but can and has killed people in at least 4 or 5 different ways.

    • Joseph

      I completely believe anything in the comments section of any website. Thank you, Dr. Scott.

      • Scott

        The commercial for the pill tells you straight up that it kills people in a bunch of ways. Unlike most people, I listen to the list of side-effects.

        • Joseph

          Not everyone that takes those pills will get all of those side effects or even some of them. I’m sure you’re the best person to decide the benefit/risk ratio for everyone though.

          • http://www.facebook.com/JKarajan Piret Rhapsodos

            What about you, Joey? Are -you- the best about yelling all the “Natural” stuff is the solution to everything? Are you also the type to tell people what they want to hear?

          • Joseph

            I was never advocating for the use of “natural stuff”. The best person to decide the benefit/risk ratio of any treatment is a doctor. Also, I’m certain that I disagreed with Scott a year ago when we first posted comments so, I’m sure he didn’t want to hear that.

          • http://www.facebook.com/JKarajan Piret Rhapsodos

            And I’m supposed to care about the length of time comments are posted because?

          • Joseph

            I can’t exactly claim I posted it recently because it was a while ago. I don’t really see why you’d care, it was just superfluous information. My original comment was that “I disagreed with Scott recently” noticed the time frame and changed it before posting.

          • http://www.facebook.com/JKarajan Piret Rhapsodos

            Because I stumbled onto the site, and wanted to share -my- Kool-Aid. Answer anything? mean besides me being a batshit insane Armenian Suethor?

  • Caroline

    Though I basically agree with the main point(s) of this, I think one major distinction that should be made here is that there are differences between actual natural remedies and manufactured natural remedies. I would not trust most natural remedies sold in a pill bottle because, as you said, there is basically no regulation so you can’t be sure about what is actually in the pill/capsule nor can you trust the claims and advertisements to be legitimate. That being said, there are many natural remedies you can make at home that are harmless and quite effective for certain ailments. For example, there are a lot of teas that are very easily prepared with just a few ingredients. For upset stomachs, nothing beats a fresh ginger root tea which consists of nothing other than a small piece of ginger root and some hot water. Peppermint tea is also great for digestive problems and headaches, and all it contains is mint leaves and hot water. For sensitive, acne-prone skin, a mask made of 1-part plain yogurt and 1-part honey is both moisturizing and cleansing, and very non-allergenic. Witch hazel works as a great astringent for breakouts, and it is a natural bacteria killer so it also works as a hand sanitizer in a pinch. There are also all kinds of natural oils that be can be used very effectively for different purposes- for example, coconut oil as a moisturizer, jojoba oil for itchy/dry scalps, and tea tree oil for all kinds of things including athletes foot and other fungal infections. These are just a few examples of thousands of natural remedies that are completely harmless (unless you are allergic to the main ingredient, in which case I don’t know why you would use it). So although I agree that it is not the such a great idea to pluck some bottle of “all natural” capsules off the shelf at the drugstore, I would definitely not say that ALL natural remedies are harmful and to be avoided.

  • Glengarry Ricky Ross

    Only natural remedies I use have been passed down from my family for generations.

  • Christopher Stephens

    Well, many herbs are ok, its all about judgement – herbs can be a meditative experience, and very calming. Some are pretty risky though. I like berberine….that stuff can be made from the grape holly and its effects on energy are interesting. I love herb tea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JKarajan Piret Rhapsodos

    How many butthurt people will try to scream counters about all this, or post tl;dr replies? A LOT. xD!!!!