When I introduce myself as a naturopathic doctor to people, many get a look of confusion on their faces. I'm used to it. So then I say, "Well I'm a doctor, and I use natural medicines with my patients." Then they often ask, "So does that stuff actually work?" This question is full of nuance, but the simple answer is "Yes, if you know what you're doing."
Admittedly, the quality of many natural products that are widely available is questionable, due to poor industry oversight. A recent article, in the New York Times, cited a study that highlights this problem. In the study they found only two of 12 companies tested contained 100 percent of the plant they claimed to have on the label. This goes to show, good products are out there, but you have to know what you're looking for. In my discussions with other medical providers (doctors, physician's assistants, nurses, even pharmacists), I've found many of them are confused on the issue as well. When patients bring in supplements or ask about them, they either shrug their shoulders, or offer a general discouragement based on their confusion. So how can we tell which natural medicines to use? Ask a licensed health professional who does know (we exist).
During my naturopathic medical training, we were required to learn about quality assurance practices in the natural medicine industry. I learned there were numerous points during production of natural medicines that could go awry and lead to subpar products, from sourcing the plants to testing for contaminants to processing temperatures to storage. A good natural products company does a lot of testing to make sure what's in the bottle is what the label says. There are companies that voluntarily check for environmental contaminants, verify their plants are what they ordered, and test post production products to see if the medicinal aspects are still intact after processing.
That extra work can increase the price, but it's worth it to know what we're getting. Many of those high quality companies only distribute to health care professionals, which means most consumers are unlikely to see them at the grocery or natural foods store. Many major pharmacies don't carry these high-quality products either (which is where you'd expect to find quality assured medicines, right?!). There are good reasons for this kind of selective distribution. By making sure their products are going through the hands of professionals, these companies help ensure their medicines are used properly. This helps to avoid the common misconception that people have, "if it's natural, it's safe (at any dose)."
The take home point is: invest in yourself and your health. If you want to use natural medicines, see a licensed health care provider who has done his or her homework. It's worth your time and money to make sure your health is cared for by a professional who is familiar with natural medicines and their effects.
Dr. Michael Stanclift
Naturopathic Doctor in Carlsbad, California
*Disclosure statement: At the time of publication, Dr. Stanclift does not work directly for any natural products companies. He does recommend professional products in his practice, where quality assured natural medicines are sold.
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