Health & health care, Mental health, Science, pseudoscience, & media literacy

Is “Natural” Better for Your Health?

Is natural always better?  Stylized image of bodies and plant stalk

Recently, I watched an episode of the Netflix docuseries A User’s Guide to Cheating Death that challenged the idea that “natural” is always good for you.  I also saw a post by Trish on The Introspective Salon on the same topic, so I decided to throw in my own two cents about the issue of whether “natural” is actually a good thing.

What does “natural” mean?

The term “natural” isn’t regulated in any way, so labels claiming a product is “natural” that should be taken with a grain of salt, since it’s essentially meaningless.  If we take natural to mean things that are normally found in nature, we’re talking about an extremely broad range of substances.  There seems to be this idea floating around that natural is always better, except it ignores a whole lot of not so nice things that are found in nature.

“Natural” can harm

One need look no farther than the basic elements like arsenic, lead, and radon, or a simple compound like hydrogen cyanide.  There are many plant and fungal species that are toxic to humans, along with venom and other toxic compounds from critters like snakes and pufferfish.  Plus there’s all the non-toxic but just a bit yucky things that nature comes up with.  Then again, maybe I should be marketing ground-up guinea pig poop as some sort of healing product.

Some people take it to extremes.  In Canada a few years ago, two parents were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life after their infant son died of meningitis; they were acquitted on retrial.  Rather than seeking medical attention for him, they were trying to cure him with herbal and dietary supplements.  Other harmful “natural” techniques that some parents inflict on their kids include administering substances like bleach with the belief that it will supposedly treat autism.

The natural products industry

Like Trish mentioned, it’s easy to find people attacking the big pharma machine, but the same critical eye isn’t directed toward the natural products industry.  These supplements may be “natural”, but they’re also big business.  According to GrandView Research, global sales of dietary supplements in 2016 were valued at $133.1 billion USD.  Not only is there big money involved, but they also don’t have to go through the same stringent regulatory process that prescription drugs do.

In Canada, natural supplements fall under Health Canada’s Natural Health Products Regulations.  Health Canada assesses “whether there is reasonable assurance that benefits of the product outweigh any risk” and whether there is evidence to “support the reasonable association of the medicinal ingredient(s) with the health claim(s) and demonstrate that therapeutic efficacy of the product will be supported by at least one medicinal ingredient or the combination of more than one.”  The requirements are even looser for products used as “traditional medicines”.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses the term “dietary supplements“.  It seems to take a fairly hands off approach:

“Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.”

“For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.”

Essentially, something that may or may not contain the amount of a substance that it says it has, and it may or may not do what it claims to do.  The consumer isn’t given any idea of other substances that it may interact with.

What role should supplements play?

That’s not to say that we should dismiss these natural supplements entirely.  Some vitamins, minerals, and other supplements are useful for certain populations.  There is scientific evidence to support certain claims, like omega-3 fatty acids being helpful for mood disorders.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to separate out the fact from the fiction without doing some in-depth research, and even if there is some scientific fact underlying a claim it doesn’t mean that the interpretation hasn’t blown things out of proportion.

I liked A User’s Guide To Cheating Death, but at times it seemed to go a little too far in the anti-natural direction.  I don’t think that extreme views in either the anti-natural or anti-drug direction are particularly useful.  It’s possible to be a discerning consumer and at least try to separate the solid evidence from the hype and marketing; it’s just a matter of keeping that radar active just as much for natural products as for drugs.

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14 thoughts on “Is “Natural” Better for Your Health?”

  1. Hey! Thank you for mentioning me. I started watching “A User’s Guide” as well, but I was mostly only interested in the episodes about detoxing, natural/organic, and dieting. I thought that the episodes were too short! I would have loved a more deep examination into some of these natural practices, and a more critical look at some of the naturopath proponents he interviewed. I personally thought the show wasn’t critical enough. But, I’ve only watched season one so far. I do agree that there is some value in certain alternative products and practices. I agree with you that thinking in extremes on either traditional medicine or the natural approach is not beneficial. I was talking with my sister about this recently because she has been doing accupuncture since her gynecologist pretty much dismissed her concerns about having a heavy period by only providing her with one option: and IUD. But, my sister doesn’t want an IUD, so she took her health into her own hands by seeking a different treatment, and I can commend that. However, I think that part of the problem with people choosing alternative treatments is that we aren’t taught to advocate for ourselves at the doctors. We have this culture that doctors either know best, or that what they say is final, when really, we should be encouraged to speak up when the treatments they propose or offer aren’t working, or don’t feel right for us.

    1. I agree, we should always be active partners in our treatment. It would be nice if there were a few reliable, authoritative sources that people could go to to seek out information. So much of the info out there on natural products is complete BS, and most people don’t have the background knowledge to be able to go directly to high quality primary research literature. It could make a big difference if regulators made it illegal to make BS health claims.

      1. I AGREE! It’s so crazy to me that these natural products and practitioners who make completely false claims just . . . exist. As if there’s nothing wrong. And the ability to scan a text for legitimacy, even when it’s full of jargon, is something that many people don’t have. I mean, I didn’t learn critical reading skills until college!

  2. As someone who lives in fear of meningitis, I have to say that the story you told made me realize I’m not very much into the “natural” side of things. One other thing it brought to mind was M. Night Shyamalans’s movie, The Village (no spoilers). Yeah, I can guarantee you that if I had meningitis (or if my baby did–not that I have a baby), I’d be all over some medical care.

    I love supplements, but they only help with a condition–it’s awful people would use them as a cure for a major illness like meningitis. And bleach for autism? Terrifying.

    I do use supplements–whenever my bladder goes on the fritz, I down loads of cranberry supplements. (But if there’s a UTI, you’d need antibiotics.)

    Your blog reminded me of when I was in college, and our psych professor taught us that “all natural” can refer to anything! He also taught us that “supplies are limited” is always true and can therefore always be said. (It’s like we went to the same college and had the same teacher!) 😀

    1. Supplements definitely have their place, but it’s bizarre the extremes some people go to. By the time those parents took the kid to the hospital he was so stiff that they couldn’t get him in his carseat – very creepy movie-ish.

  3. The thing I hate about “natural” remedies is the frequent claim for lack of or minimal side effects. That’s rubbish. Anything which has a measurable effect logically carries a risk that some of that effect will be undesirable – a side effect or adverse effect in other words. This applies not just to substances eg supplements, but to psychological/behavioural interventions as well. Don’t get me started on my experiences with meditation as a therapeutic intervention and the lack of warning about the potential adverse effects of that.

    There are lots of other issues as well that you’ve covered – imprecise dosing, contamination, diverting time and money away from more effective treatments sometimes with life-threatening consequences. But also many of these so-called natural remedies have been so highly processed that they may as well be completely artificial anyway. And regardless of whether the source of the ingredients is natural or completely artificial, you can’t always distill a benefit down to a neat little pill. Sometimes the benefits are dependent on (maybe less easily measured) factors as well, and you’ll only really get the full benefit in the original context.

  4. I bet that was interesting, and you make a valid point about having to vet both sides when it comes to what is going into certain products. It seems beneficial for people to really educate themselves on particular ingredients and what they mean, which can be intimidating since ingredients lists can run a mile long!

  5. I really agree on you. Natural products are good but not in excessive way. My father takes medication and insulin for his diabetes. If he doesn’t take it he would die. I take antidepressants and anti anxiety medication. I tried herbal natural medicine such as St Jans Wort and Valerian but nothing worked. Medication is so important and I’m glad that it exists.

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