Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It’s Natural! Does natural make it good for you?

Many people feel that if something is “natural” it’s got to be somehow safe or just better for you. Another way of putting this: if it’s in nature, it’s just wholesome and better for you.

Better than what you ask?

Well, I guess better than a “man or woman made” chemical. Better than a synthetic.
So if it’s found in nature it’s probably okay?  Do you believe this?

Here are a few things that can make you sick or kill you:

All are natural by which I mean they are found in nature, not caused or made by man or woman.
·      Parts of hundreds of plants including the mayapple, deadly nightshade, foxglove,   Dutchman’s pipes , oleander, yew, laurel, mistletoe
·      Amanita mushrooms
·      Many types of viruses and bacteria
·      Parasitic infections (including malaria) caused by protozoans or helminths.

My point is that natural tells you nothing about safety.

Some herbal supplements from plants have been outlawed by the FDA because they have been shown to cause kidney failure or serious liver damage or miscarriages.

But you cannot rely upon the FDA for any assurance of safety of supplements.
The FDA does not regulate supplements like they do prescription drugs.

Sometimes I hear from patients that the drug companies just want to sell drugs to make a lot of money.

Well, I have news for all those pill poppers: all companies including those selling vitamins and “natural” supplements want to sell their product and make a lot of money too.

The supplement industry is huge. Americans spend at least $4 billion yearly on just vitamins and perhaps another $30 billion on other supplements. This is big business! These companies try to promote their products by claiming that they are natural. And lots of people fall for this.

Most people have never taken a course in chemistry. They don't understand that these supplements are chemicals just like prescription drugs are chemicals.

Chemicals might be good or bad for your body. It depends.

After all, your body is composed of complicated chemicals in careful balance, always changing. Chemicals are the building blocks that make up not only our bodies but also the world around us.

I’m a board certified endocrinologist. I specialize in the chemicals in our body called hormones. 
I am also a board certified Physician Nutrition Specialist.
(I also majored in chemistry in college).

Often uninformed people are fine with taking handfuls of supplements, but they are not willing to consider taking a prescription drug.

But some prescription drugs actually are the same as a chemical first found in nature.

Like lovastatin (Mevacor) as discussed in my post on red yeast rice.

Many drugs to treat cancer called alkaloids are taken from plants.

Exenatide (Byetta) to treat diabetes was first found in gila monster saliva.
Now it’s made in the laboratory. The gila monsters appreciate that!

Prescription drugs are carefully tested, well studied and proven to provide benefit. 
And prescription drugs are regulated by the FDA.

The FDA is sure strict these days.

The FDA does not approve many new chemical entities these days. So that means not too many new drugs are available for use.

Every possible new drug has to be rigorously tested before the FDA approves it. There has to be proof of benefit and studies on safety.

I know this directly and personally. As a Certified Physician Investigator, I have supervised many clinical trials since the 1990’s.

And remember you just can’t be sure of what you are getting in those supplements. They don't go through any testing like prescription drugs.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not opposed to all herb, vitamin, mineral and nutritional supplements. I take a few myself.

I just believe we should be informed.

We need to carefully evaluate the scientific evidence for possible harm versus benefit for each supplement.

And cost has to be factored in. All those supplements can cost alot!

I ask: Is it worth it? Does it cause more harm than good?
I often save patients a lot of money when they bring in their pills for my review.

Do you know why you take the pills you do? 

Are there any supplements in particular you are curious about?

Let me know. Be well.

Here are a couple of useful websites on dietary supplements:

This one requires a fee and is intended more for health professionals:


  1. Dianna: Unfortunately,looking at other websites selling supplements tells you nothing of the content of each particular supplement. Multiple studies with sophisticated analysis of supplements show that some may be under, over or very close to the content stated on the label. And what you pay will, of course, vary significantly.
    Thanks for the comment.

  2. Natural doesn't necessarily mean better. Thankfully the major medical insurance plans our family has covers most of our pharmaceutical needs. Thanks for this informative post.

  3. Natural supplements can sometimes be harmful because most of these aren't approved by the FDA and may cause side effects with drugs. I suggest you take these with caution or at least consult your doctor.