Posted by: Viktor Mar | 2009 August 3

‘Natural’ Does Not Mean Drug-Free or Without Risk

For all those lunk heads out there.

Dr. David Lipschitz

Numerous surveys have shown that more and more Americans are turning to alternative remedies for virtually everything, from stopping aging to eliminating weight gain.
Thanks to slick marketing campaigns on TV, the Internet and in magazines, we tend to think "natural" means "safe," "healthy" and "drug-free." Unfortunately, this national obsession with natural may be a little misplaced. For the hundreds of thousands of Americans taking Hydroxycut to lose weight, the recent news that the "natural" supplement can have dangerous, even fatal, side effects has been quite the wake-up call.
Said to be the most frequently bought weight-loss "drug" in the United States, this herbal remedy is endorsed by physicians, individuals and numerous celebrities. They claim it is an unparalleled tool for losing weight, because it curbs appetite, increases metabolism, burns calories and regulates blood sugar.
Hydroxycut contains concentrated green tea (which contains caffeine), as well as Garcinia cambogia and Gymnema sylvestre, which are herbs from India that are said to regulate blood sugar. Unfortunately, this unique combination of natural herbs has potentially devastating side effects. On May 1, the Food and Drug Administration suggested that anyone taking this weight-loss remedy immediately discontinue use because of the risk of liver damage and death. The company Iovate Health Sciences subsequently recalled several of its weight-loss products.
It’s time to get to the root of this issue: Natural does not mean safe. Just think of poisonous plants, dangerous bacteria and all the other illness-causing things that live naturally in the world around us. What’s more, "natural" does not mean "drug-free." If an alternative remedy affects a biological function, it does so by the presence of a chemical compound (which we also could call a drug). Any compound that has a physiological benefit also comes with a price: the potential of a serious side effect.
Unfortunately, alternative therapies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so there is little scientific study of side effects or benefits. With pharmaceutical drugs, the FDA requires rigorous research and thorough reviews by panels of experts before the drugs are approved for use clinically.
It is amazing that people are often very reluctant to use prescription drugs, which have been studied exhaustively, but are perfectly willing to take alternative therapies, which have not been subjected to similar exhaustive reviews.
Our fascination with natural health also stems from a rising mistrust of the American health system, most notably of the pharmaceutical industry. In recent years, some pharmaceutical companies have been accused of hiding information about dangerous side effects that have become apparent after millions of prescriptions have been filled. A good example is the case of Vioxx, the blockbuster pain drug that eventually was shown to increase the risk of heart attacks. Because of this scandal, the FDA now devotes even more resources to monitor drugs after they are approved. This policing provides early detection of adverse effects and makes the information immediately available to the health care community.
When it comes to natural remedies, anyone can put a concoction of herbs together and claim a benefit. There has been some research to confirm benefits, but quite often the studies are not extensive and do not follow sound scientific principles. And rarely is a natural remedy examined in a double-blind fashion, in which the herbal capsule is compared with a similar capsule containing no active ingredients.
In a sound double-blind study, the researchers do not know who is taking the active product and who is not. Hence, any benefit or side effect can be analyzed without bias and with accuracy and believability.
There is much to be learned from this information. It is time to re-evaluate the role of the FDA in regulating "alternative" and "natural" therapies. Anything that seriously affects your health should be considered a drug.
Once launched on the market, herbal remedies are monitored by the FDA for potential side effects, but that is far too late to prevent serious health problems. And in the meantime, companies are making millions of dollars selling products with no proven benefits.
Until the government takes a stronger role in regulating herbal remedies, consumers should talk to their doctors and be wary of any potential side effects. Remember that if it is a pill that goes in your mouth, then it’s a drug.

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