Tip/Thought of the Day

“Natural”? What Does That Mean?

We all want to be healthy. That’s always the priority. Maintaining a lifestyle that promotes wellness and lowers risk should be everybody’s goal. It begins with what we put into our mouths. As I discussed in last week’s post, one downfall to maintaining a healthy diet is eating processed foods. Growing your own vegetables and fruits to ensure that what you’re digesting is truly from the vine or ground is a wonderful concept, but difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on a large scale. So, if you’re not actually growing your own food how do you know it’s truly “natural”? How do you know that it’s not processed in some way or that the stated claims are trustworthy? Especially when there’s a significant amount of products all labeled safe for consumption. It’s as though putting a sticker that says “natural” on a bottle suddenly makes it so.

As a physician I want to inform and guide patients to help them achieve the best results. I’m constantly asked why I don’t prefer “alternative” options to ‘pills’. It’s not that I don’t encourage all reasonable options, I just can’t, in good conscience, recommend something based solely on anecdotal information.  I have to feel confident it will do no harm.

Countless patients come to their appointments with dozens of bottles filled with all sorts of purported “healthy” products touted to “naturally” cure high blood pressure, depression, diabetes, obesity, elevated cholesterol, and erectile dysfunction, to name a few concerns. And most are spending hundreds of dollars a month to boot. All for unsubstantiated claims made by unknown companies or “professionals.” One patient assured me it was a doctor online she bought from, so it had to be appropriate. A doctor she knew nothing about, promoting something she couldn’t possibly be confident was safe. Or another who had friends “who swore by the supplements they took”.

What is it about the word medications that has everyone running for the hills, clamoring for untested, unknown products? As though they are the enemy to be avoided at all costs and makes physicians that “push” them suspect? Prescription medications get such a horrible rap. It’s not uncommon to have patients come in with bags of supplements that they’ve picked up online or in a health food store, proud and adamant that these were healthy and allowed them to resolve all sorts of issues. In many cases the volume taken daily costs hundreds of dollars a month, yet these very same people were recalcitrant to even the idea of taking medications because a “pharmaceutical company made it.” I find it strange since they have absolutely no idea where these supplements came from and what specific impact they having on their bodies. So often patients ask why I don’t encourage “natural remedies first”.

Here’s my answer: It has taken decades to begin researching a minuscule amount of these products. The most famous – St Johns Wart was touted for decades as having incredible antidepressant properties on the same level Prozac, which was well researched. Even a noted local psychologist was adamant that due to its safe, effective, and all natural properties, he preferred it to alternative researched medicines. Once St. John’s warts was finally researched with double blind studies, it proved no better than a placebo or “sugar pill.” By then, the supposed value of the supplement had been advertised world wide, making billions of dollars for companies, before the truth became known. To this day, I have patients unknowingly believing false ads and nit the follow-up truth.

Fish oil has recently been shown to have no value, a real hit to manufacturers, but after spending a fortune monthly for no apparent reason, I’ll gladly add that savings back to my wallet. As we shared in the post on how over-the-counter weight loss products are tainted, even when manufacturers were told to clean up their act by the FDA, they continue without consequences.

Ginkgo Biloba was touted as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, later to be proven not only false, but potentially damaging, as it seemed to increase bleeding during surgery. In fact so many “natural products” can cause all sorts of problems such as thinning blood, leading to possible bleeds, to unsafe interactions, to being taken over proven necessary treatments required to improve health. Even baby aspirin has been down graded from a universal recommendation to reduce cardiovascular risk to a case by case situation due to side effects.

You can find literature to support anything. But is there real data behind it? Why do I encourage medications? Because they’ve gone through a rigorous scientific double blind study that has worked to show the value versus risks of the pill in question. Because we know someone is monitoring and rigorously following the product to ensure what is labeled as the contents, is truly what you are consuming. Healthy lifestyle changes of eating well, exercising, and weight loss are imperative and never to be diminished. But I hate to say that in many cases, the best of intentions don’t come to fruition. Or, when changes are started, won’t impact concerns overnight. It’s a process. A long and tedious one that requires commitment. In the meantime, ignoring year after year after year of incredibly worthwhile, amazing medications to decrease mortality from diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, depression, pain, obesity, etc., would be unconscionable.

There’s no question medications have side effects. But anything you put in your body has a potential impact way beyond the intended benefit of the medication. This is equally true for supplements and vitamins. Medications are not immune to side effects, we just don’t know what they are. Some side effects come about as a bonus. Other medicinal uses have been found for medicines by virtue of side effects seen during research that came out as a secondary finding.

Medications are studied in thousand of patients. Initially, the majority are deemed safe, but in some cases they may produce dangerous consequences when millions of people take them. As in the case of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory- Vioxx. But then these risks are looked at, analyzed, reported and the profile is updated so that consequences are known and risks versus benefits are discussed. Or in the case of Viioxx,  it’s even pulled off the market. Where is that process when you open a bottle of “vitamins” or “supplements” from a health food store or online? Unless you grow it yourself, in your own backyard, there’s no guarantee. 

Years ago I thought of growing rutabagas and claim they were a cure all for whatever ails you. Why? Because few know what they are, look like, or taste like, but I’d still able to be advertise them as healthy and natural. It’s a root vegetable I’d pluck out of the dirt. Then I’d crush it, grind it, boil it, chop it up… and swear it cured all ills. From my chronic pain and insomnia to my daughters youthful acne, to my ex’s hair loss, to my friends weight gain. Well, you get the picture. It would be safe and harmless. But with my medical degree I could make claims, with no proof, and encourage patients to pay good money for results that were no more real than St. John’s wart. I’d get rich and famous at the cost of my integrity. Companies need to be held to the highest standards and accuracy when it can put our health at risk.

We hear every day about issues in our medications, foods, sunscreens, fruit juices, meats, water bottles, bug spray, some which we’ve shared in earlier posts. The concerns about what’s available for human use and consumption never seem to end. But allopathic medicine is not the enemy. We are conscientiously, with great thought and investigation into research and available data, encouraging and discussing all options available. Including alternatives known to be safe. Not to promote a quick fix, but to prevent a possible upcoming catastrophe that lifestyle changes alone won’t prevent. Genetics, family, history, work, and environment have impacts as well. In many cases, prescription medications are a significant way to stop a runaway train from careening off the cliff. And yes, they may not work or there may be side effects. When that occurs you have someone in your corner willing to stand by you, work with your individual needs, look at all your medical issues and help you to choose the best path possible to good health. In the end the decision is always yours.

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