Staying Safe With Natural Medicine

How many of you can open up some drawer or cabinet in your home and expose an entire collection of supplements and herbal formulas that you have collected over the years? Maybe this collection has been integrated into your regular over- the -counter medicines, in a catch all “medicine cabinet”. Or maybe its in a dark corner of a closet where you store all of the half empty bottles of natural remedies that are no longer needed. It’s possible you even forgot what you were taking any of this stuff for and the bottles get added to the ever growing collection, so that when you do pull one of them back out at some point, there is no memory of what you were taking it for.

This is an incredibly common situation and one that I would love to see change for all of us. It is no secret- the number of American adults who seek out natural remedies to treat health concerns is growing every year. The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) publishes survey results every year that shows these numbers are increasing in leaps and bounds. Preliminary data published by CRN shows that in 2018, 75% of adults report taking some form of dietary supplement on a regular basis. While the interest in more natural, less pharmaceutical approaches to wellness is encouraging, it seems that many people are using these supplements either inappropriately or in the same way a medication would be used- as a way to treat a symptom, while the root cause is ignored.

I am concerned when I hear how some of people are using natural remedies and plant medicines to treat symptoms or health conditions. There is so much power in using the therapeutic substances that nature has given us. But, “natural” doesn't always mean “safe”. Each person has a unique physiology and combination of health conditions that effect us on a daily basis. Sometimes, that requires taking medication. These natural substances can potentiate or decrease the effects of those medications or change our physiology in unexpected ways, possibly creating unwanted effects.

Another point of concern for me it to hear the common assumption that because a substance is natural it must always safe and it will never do harm. This is a dangerous fallacy to work from. Any substance-natural or otherwise- has the potential to have a positive therapeutic effect or cause a negative reaction. It is even possible to have both happen at the same time. A natural substance may also start off being helpful but become harmful over time. This is why it is so important to have your supplement needs reviewed on a regular basis and adjusted as needed.

This is just the beginning of what I believe are some very important topics to understand about using natural substances to treat a health condition or to enhance your wellness. I have listed here the 8 most common problems with using supplements and herbal formulas that I come across in my practice. I believe by correcting these problems, we can make holistic medicines more safe and effective for all of us.

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Problem #1: Many people get recommendations for herbs and supplements from someone who is not trained appropriately. This often leads to ineffective treatments, wasted money and occasionally, negative responses.

Solution: Talk to a professional who is trained in this area and can guide you. Naturopaths, acupuncturists and other holistic health providers are commonly educated in this area. Don't be afraid to ask what kind of training they have had to be ready to make herbal recommendations. Remember: Just because a friend or family member has success with a product, doesn't mean it is right or safe for you!

Problem #2: Medications and other lifestyle factors may negatively interact with some herbs and supplements.

Solution: Again, talk to a professional trained in herbs and supplements. Ask your pharmacist about any known interactions with medication you may be taking. Remember: We all have unique physiologies and need to take that into account.

Problem #3: Concentrated forms of vitamins, minerals and herbs can have harmful effects in some populations- i.e. turmeric and fish oil are both often recommended in high doses for inflammation yet they are both powerful blood thinners- very dangerous for some health conditions and medications!

Solution: Eat foods that are high in the nutrients you are looking for. Nature often packages these nutrients with synergistic elements that will help moderate and absorb the therapeutic elements more completely. Remember: There is no substitution for eating a health, well balanced diet. Food can be healing too!

Problem #4: While there is some regulation of these natural products, many are still low quality and have other ingredients that can be harmful to some people.

Solution : A trusted health care professional can guide you towards higher quality products that are held to safety standards (i.e. third party testing and GMP standards.)

Problem #5 : Many products come in high concentrations that are impossible for our bodies to absorb all at once. This can tax the liver and kidneys and we typically end up peeing out significant amounts of the supplement, wasting our money.

Solution: Again, think about increasing healthy, nutrient dense foods before adding supplements in. Be mindful that taking more is not always better for therapeutic value.

Problem #6: People often take a supplement or herbal preparation to control a symptom. With this approach, we are likely to miss or ignore the underlying problem which may require other interventions like lifestyle or dietary changes or even more appropriate western interventions. Remember: Taking a pill may feel easier at first but in the long run, it tends to turn into a game of whack-a-mole where we will see other symptoms and side effects pop up once one symptom is controlled. Before you know it, you are taking handfuls of supplements to control all the symptoms.

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Solution: Take the time to make necessary lifestyle adjustments and run further diagnostics to find the root cause. There are many providers who can help with investigative health testing (nurse practitioners, functional medicine provides, naturopaths). Of course, lifestyle changes may be hard at first but are much more sustainable in the long run- and ultimately cheaper.

Problem #7: Some people take the same supplement so long that it becomes ineffective or even toxic. This can easily happen with many fat soluble vitamins or herbs.

Solution: Take breaks from your supplements on a regular basis and have their need evaluated by your trusted professional on semi-annual basis, if not more often.

Problem #8: When we look at the supplement section of our local store, it is overwhelming to see all the prices, brands and forms that are available. Many times, this leads to buying low quality items or forms of a supplement that are not appropriate for us.

Solution: Trained professionals have education and experience that lends them to suggesting one brand or form of supplement over another. Ask for recommendations from a trained professional first. Online pharmacies like Fullscript are a wonderful way to do this without needing to sort through the local store shelves. Remember: Just because the latest health trend touts wonderful results with one herb or supplement, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for you.

It is my hope that awareness can help keep us all safely using what nature has provided for us as medicine. I encourage you to reach out to me if you have questions or concerns about your supplements or how to get more of the nutrients you are supplementing with through food sources. I am happy to help you understand more about how to naturally manage your health concerns or even find someone in your local area who can help you in person.

Have a wonderful week!


Jennifer Leonard