Natural health products: What you need to know

With the recent scrutiny that has been placed on the pharmaceutical industry due to recalls and negative side effects from widely prescribed drugs such as Vioxx, Celebrex and Avandia, people are now turning to natural health products to treat chronic health conditions. The belief is that because they are natural they are also safe.

While going the natural route is undoubtedly a preferable first step to regaining and maintaining health than daily use of prescription medications, it is important to realize that an even higher level of scrutiny is required when selecting natural health products;

Not all natural products are effective and they don’t always contain the ingredients they claim to. This is because the Natural Health industry is not regulated by the government to the same extent as the pharmaceutical industry. Prescription drugs are required to undergo several phases of clinical trials to ensure their safety and efficacy, with results reviewed by Health Canada, before they are allowed to enter the marketplace. Product labelling and advertising are also closely monitored to ensure the use of standardized ingredients and accurate treatment claims.

Natural health products are not required to go through this process in order to be sold to the public, so not all of them do. For example; a product that claims to help cure circulatory problems will likely have no clinical evidence that it actually does! And because the ingredients in natural products are not standardized, a product label that reads eighty 300mg capsules of echinacea, doesn’t necessarily mean that each of the eighty capsules contains exactly 300mg of the active ingredient (echinacea). The result is a mish-mash of products with varying ingredients, formulations and prices, all claiming to treat the same health condition.

This can make scanning the shelves at your local pharmacy quite overwhelming. For example, if you are searching for a natural product to treat joint pain you will find some that contain glucosamine, others that contain chondroitin or MSM, and some that contain a combination of all three. There are cold remedies that contain Ginseng and others that contain echinacea. Probiotics are sold in liquid formula as well as in pill form and can contain a single bacterial ingredient or multiple.

So how does one know which products are the most effective and how much to take?

Although natural health products are self-selection products, it is in your best interest to consult your pharmacist or physician before buying or taking anything. As healthcare professionals they will be aware of any prescription medications that you are taking and can advise if a particular natural product will counteract with these medications. Even if an herbalist has recommended something, he or she does not have the experience in pharmaceutical drugs and may not be aware of your full medical history, so it is safest to consult your pharmacist or physician first. In addition, not all natural products are metabolized by your body the in the same way so some may be excreted more rapidly and others may remain in your system, where build-up could result in harmful side effects if too much is taken. Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to advise you on which ingredients are most beneficial and how much is appropriate to take.

Another tip when selecting a natural health product is to look for an NPN number on the package. The NPN number means that the ingredients and safety information of the product were reviewed by Health Canada and meet their standards of quality and safety.

With the rise in popularity of natural health products, more manufacturers are starting to adopt a more scientific approach to product development. Ingredients are being standardized and clinical trials are being conducted to test the efficacy of the ingredients.

If the natural route is of interest to you, it is worthwhile to invest in a little background research to ensure you are selecting safe products with quality ingredients. After all, it’s not only your money you’d like to get the most out of – ultimately it’s your health!

For more information about natural health product regulations in Canada, click here.

Photo © Bochkarev

As a professional working in the field of Healthcare Communications over the past 7 years, Andria McLachlan has developed marketing communications for many pharmaceutical and natural health companies. Her interest in natural health and nutritional healing has inspired her to share her insight and knowledge gained with others to help them benefit from a more natural lifestyle.