When "Natural" Isn't Safe

12/20/2016 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2016
Image credit iStockPhoto/areeya_ann

Natural is in—because “natural” means safe, right?

Not necessarily. Arsenic is natural; so is hemlock (ask Socrates how that turned out), as is lead. “Natural” traditionally means free of man-made substances, and created by Mother Nature.

Key lesson #1: As an ER doctor, I’ve learned that Mother Nature is not a woman to mess with.

I’ll never forget my first two patients on my toxicology rotation: a mother who had foraged mushrooms, per generations of family tradition, and made them into soup that she ate and fed her son. But, she accidentally picked the identical looking, yet deadly Amanita mushroom. They both developed liver failure and required liver transplants.

Key lesson #2: Many products marketed as “natural” can be harmful and even contaminated. Complicating the matter, “natural” is now nothing more than a ubiquitous marketing term for everything from cookies (really?), to toothpaste. Supplements can be especially dangerous since they’re more concentrated, and have been associated with everything from liver, to kidney failure, to seizures and even death.  Also, the FDA isn’t authorized to test them for safety and effectiveness - meaning that we’re entirely trusting the seller to make sure that they help, not hurt us. I don’t always trust Mother Nature. But I really don’t trust something health-related that isn’t verified.

The reality is that we should all try to minimize unnatural and harmful chemicals in our lives. I absolutely do. ”Natural” is a good goal - it’s just that it’s not a carte blanche for safety. What can you do? Follow these simple guidelines when shopping for natural products:

(1) Avoid the following supplements often associated with injuries:

  • Ginkgo biloba: Ginkgo is marketed to enhance cognitive function, but it also interferes with our body’s ability to form clots. That’s why it’s associated with an increased risk of spontaneous hemorrhage and bleeding.  
  • St. John’s wort: One of the most popular complementary and alternative treatments for depression in the US, side effects range from dizziness, to confusion and sedation. Most dangerously, St Johns wort prevents the function of other medications that you may need, such as HIV/AIDS medications, heart medications, transplant drugs and oral contraceptives.  When combined with other anti-depressants, it can cause a life-threatening condition known as Serotonin Syndrome.
  • Laetrile and amygdalin: These supplements are marketed as having beneficial effects for cancer, but there’s no clinical data to support it. They’re also associated with cyanide poisoning, which is fatal.
  • Kava: I remember being offered Kava, a beverage that looked like milk mixed with mud, in Fiji. The roots are typically used to create euphoric and anesthetic properties, but unfortunately, can cause liver failure. 

(2) If you’re taking prescription medications, steer clear of supplements altogether. Some of the most dangerous outcomes from supplements occur when they’re combined with prescription medications. Supplements can either interfere with the prescription medication or enhance the effect of the prescription medication, leading to higher (and often toxic) drug levels. 

(3) Watch out for supplements often associated with contaminants. Since the products aren’t tested by the FDA, supplements are rampant with contaminants.  One study showed that over 59 percent of dietary supplements tested contained plant species not listed on the label.

  • Kelp: Scientists in one study found Arsenic at “higher than acceptable…levels” in eight of nine over-the-counter herbal kelp products.
  • Licorice, Indian rennet and opium poppy: These carry a high risk for contamination with toxic mold.
  • Black cohosh: This plant is typically marketed for premenstrual symptoms and menopause, but 25 percent of samples in one study didn't include black cohosh at all. Oh, FYI, black cohosh has also been associated with liver necrosis and failure.
  • Tea: Tests of various tea leaves showed high levels of both lead and aluminum. How can you still have your cup safely? Organic white tea had lower levels of both aluminum and lead than organic green tea. Look for tea leaves that were brewed in Japan, as opposed to China, and steep for no more than three minutes.

(4) When you buy, try to buy USP Verified Supplements: When shopping for supplements, I like to search the United States Pharmacopeial Convention database, which test supplements and give those that pass their “verified” seal. 

(5) Get your “supplements” in the form of food—not a pill.  Studies consistently show our health is predicted by the food we eat—not the supplements we take. Plus, it’s likely safer since you’re unlikely to go overboard on any nutrients. And it tastes delicious. Which is exactly what Mother Nature intended.

Apply the same scrutiny to “natural” products that we do to the “unnatural” ones and we’ll all be safer.

What natural products do you use in your life – and which ones do you wonder about? Let me know! Tweet me @DrDarria or follow me on Facebook @DrDarriaLong Gillespie

Contributing author: Dr. Darin Williams, Emergency Medicine resident at Emory University School of Medicine.

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