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.