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When “Natural” Isn’t Safe

When “Natural” Isn’t Safe

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

That’s not always the case. Arsenic is natural; so is hemlock (ask Socrates how that turned out), and lead. “Natural” traditionally means free of man-made substances, and created by Mother Nature.

As I’ve learned over the years as an emergency room doctor, Mother Nature can be dangerous.

I’ll never forget my first two patients on my toxicology rotation: A mother and her son, who had prepared a traditional Eastern European meal using mushrooms they had foraged, per generations of family tradition. They accidentally picked the identical looking, yet deadly Amanita mushroom. Both patients developed liver failure and required liver transplants.

Complicating the matter, “natural” is now also a marketing term, for everything from cookies, to toothpaste. Supplements can be especially dangerous; “natural” products, some of which may be downright harmful, are often contaminated with a slew of quite “unnatural” ones. Naturally-derived dietary supplements have been associated with everything from liver, to kidney failure, to seizures and even death. The “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed” meaning that it’s entirely up to the manufacturer to ensure that supplements do what they claim, that they’re safe and to monitor for people made sick by their products.

Follow these simple guidelines when shopping for “natural” products:

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. 

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. 

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.

Look for USP Verified Supplements: When shopping for supplements, I like to check the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, which test supplements and give those that pass their “verified” seal. 

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.

The reality is that we should all try to minimize chemicals and substances in our lives. But, “natural” is not a carte blanche for safety. Mother Nature doesn’t intend it that way and we definitely cannot blindly assume that a supplement marketed as “natural” hasn’t been contaminated, oor tested for safety. 

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

Contributing author: Dr. Darin Williams

Medically reviewed in February 2018.

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