Natural health myths busted

Does this product live up to its claims? Is it safe? And is it worth a try?

It’s not surprising that people have questions about natural health products (or NHPs for short). There are many misconceptions out there, some which could put your safety at risk and some which may have you dismissing potentially-helpful remedies altogether. Information can be conflicting or hard to find, so we’ve explored some of the common misconceptions surrounding the products.

Myth #1: Most people don’t use them.

You might be surprised to learn that natural health products are actually quite common. According to a 2005 Health Canada survey, 71 per cent of Canadians over the age of 18 use natural health products. Sales of natural health products continue to climb, and are even expected to reach $2.75 billion by 2010.

Bear in mind that “natural health product” is a fairly broad term that encompasses vitamins and minerals, herbal products, homeopathic medicines, traditional medicines (like traditional Chinese medicines), probiotics, and other products like amino acids and essential fatty acids.

In short, if you take vitamin C for a cold you’re a consumer of natural health products. Not surprisingly, the stigma attached to taking a “natural remedy” is slowly disappearing as people seek gentler and safer alternatives to traditional medications.

Myth #2: It’s natural, therefore it’s safe.

More than half of Canadians make this assumption. However, just because an ingredient comes from a natural source, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone to consume. (Technically, poison ivy and snake venom are natural too). People are at risk for allergic reactions and other problems, just as they are for any medication.

NHPs are marketed as supplements or food products for legal reasons, but they often contain medicinal ingredients which can lead to side effects. For example, common products like Echinacea, ginkgo, and St. John’s wort don’t “agree” with everyone — they’ve been found to cause adverse reactions like dizziness, pain, vertigo and high blood pressure in some individuals. (For more information, see Healthy solution or gamble?)

Some NHPs can also contraindicate with medications you’re taking. For instance, drinking green tea or taking green tea extract can backfire on cancer patients because the beverage was recently found to block the effects of a common cancer drug. Other products can react with certain medications — but manufacturers aren’t required to put warning information on the labels.

Worse yet, some imported products are tainted with dangerous chemicals. It can be difficult for retailers and consumers to stay on top of the recalls.

The bottom line: You should to ask questions and do some research first. Look up the main ingredients online, and talk to your doctor and pharmacist. Pregnant women and others at risk need to be especially careful.


Myth #3: There’s no science behind it.

Can science prove the claims of NHPs products? Yes… and no. The benefits of some products like amino acids and certain vitamins have been proven to some extent — that is, they’ve been investigated in clinical trials and the findings have been peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. That’s why you’ll see doctors recommending supplements for therapeutic reasons.

In other cases, science is just now catching up to what alternative and traditional medicine providers have known for centuries. For example, people have traditionally thought that drinking tea has many health benefits, but it’s only been in the last couple of decades that science provided the data to back up the claims. Ditto with probiotics — years ago, taking supplements like acidophilus was considered “unusual” but now it’s the latest health trend.

The fact is that some NHPs simply haven’t undergone rigorous testing yet, so most of the evidence is anecdotal or based on other methods of evaluation — but that doesn’t mean they are or aren’t effective. The information simply isn’t there to prove whether or not a medication works, so it’s up to the buyer to decide.

Myth #4: The product claims must be true, right?

Unfortunately, you can’t believe everything you read. Despite that fact that companies legally can’t make claims that aren’t proven, many will try to take advantage of people willing to “try anything” to help with a serious condition or to lose weight. The result: People spend a lot of money on expensive treatments that don’t work, or they’re risking their health by bypassing a known course of treatment.

Sometimes the issue goes beyond misleading advertising. For example, according to an article in The Globe and Mail, officials recently cracked down on yet another Canadian company for making unsubstantiated claims about curing or treating cancer. In the past year, over 100 organizations in Canada have been told to stop making similar claims. The false promises can have a devastating effect on people.

So what you can do? It’s important to carefully evaluate any promises, and try to confirm or contradict the information by looking to independent sources. While you likely won’t lose much on a cold remedy that doesn’t work, expensive treatments and too-good-to-be-true promises should be treated with suspicion.

Myth #5: Natural versus traditional – It’s an either/or situation.

Still feel like you have to choose between “traditional” and “natural” or alternative medicine? You don’t — the two can be complementary. If you’ve never heard of integrative medicine (IM), it’s a growing body of medicine that aims to treat the whole person (body, mind and spirit) using the therapies that work the best — whether they are conventional or alternative.

In other words, IM provides the best of both worlds. Take specialist Dr. Woodson Merrell, for example. He has conventional medical training, but he’s also licensed in acupuncture, and trained in homeopathy, botanical medicine and nutrition. Merrell, and experts like him, are part of this emerging field that is taking hold in many prominent academic institutions like Johns Hopkins, Harvard, McMaster University and Laval.

While we shouldn’t expect sweeping changes to the way things are done to happen overnight, it’s important to know that there are experts out there exploring this approach, thinking about it and writing about it. There’s growing scientific precedence for incorporating alternative medicine into a holistic approach to health — and this will change medicine as we know it.

(For more information on Merrell, see our article Sick of feeling tired?)

Myth #6: It’s on the shelf, therefore I can help myself.

Walking up and down the drugstore aisles can be a confusing task — and one that could be harmful. People don’t always understand how to use the products they find or how much to take. There are risks inherent to self-diagnosing an ailment and self-selecting a treatment. You might not find the right product, or you might end up taking something your body doesn’t need at all.

Part of the problem is that products don’t always contain the ingredients they claim to, or in the amount indicated on the bottle. Ingredients aren’t standardized, and different companies offer different formulas and combinations of ingredients.

Many people also don’t know to look for the NPN or DIN-HM number — the eight digit product license number that means the product has been reviewed and approved by Health Canada.

So which vitamin D product do you choose, and how do you know if a digestive aid is right for you? You may need some expert help to decide — like consulting a pharmacist just as you would for an over-the-counter medication. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion, or third if you must.

(For more information and tips, see Natural health products: what you need to know).

Myth #7: All the information out there is biased.

Feel like everything you read is trying to sell you something, or push some hidden agenda? When it comes to medical treatment, there’s a fine line between helpful advice and marketing speak. It’s also tricky to find clinical evidence — and studies can be confusing and conflicting. While you shouldn’t discount the product information from a NHP company, you’ll likely want to look beyond it to make sure you’re getting a balanced view.

There are many sources online that summarize what is known about certain products and ingredients, and evaluates the evidence (if any). Try:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Part of the U.S. National Institute of Health).

MedlinePlus (from the U.S. National Library of Medicine).

Health Canada: Natural Health Products has information on current regulations, licensing and safety).

Health Canada: Natural Health Products Online Solution (this recently-launched system lets you look up ingredients and licensing information for products sold in Canada). (an evidence-based website on complementary and alternative medicine).


So should you consider taking a natural health product, or drop one you’re already using? In many cases, there aren’t any clear answers. Overall, it’s important to carefully consider any new product you’re thinking of trying, and keep your doctor and pharmacist in the loop about what you’re taking.

Read the Health Canada survey here.

Photo © Hande Guleryuz Yuce

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