Proceed with caution when looking into natural health products.
Have you ever walked through one of the natural health aisles at your local grocery store, with products claiming to do everything from cleanse your liver to reduce depression? With such convincing claims, it feels as though you may have just stumbled upon the fountain of eternal youth and well-being.
The natural health obsession has certainly been a hard thing to overlook. With greater popularity in mind-body practices and eastern-based therapeutic treatments, anything and everything can fall under the broad umbrella of “natural health”.
Being a part of the wellness culture has become the newest fashion trend, and people want to try it on.
Current research has presented a multitude of benefits surrounding natural health approaches that can complement and even replace conventional medicine. Not to mention, it can provide the general population with a sense of control over their own health choices, without a physician-mandated prescription.
But here’s the catch: understanding the accurate information about the efficacy and risks of any new product or practice is critical when exploring your health options. Unfortunately, this is far easier said than done.
A couple of years ago, I experienced some unpleasant abdominal bloating, cramping, and all around crappy digestive issues (pun-intended). With some hasty research, I Google-diagnosed my issues as a symptom of a supposed lack of nutritional probiotics (fully discounting the impact that college lifestyle might be to blame). Soon, I had spent $75 on a product that seemed promising.
After two weeks of taking the capsules, nothing seemed to have gotten better. In fact, I felt like symptoms had gotten worse. Later when I went to the doctor, I was surprised to find out that the research on the quality, efficacy, and safety behind shelf-sold probiotics is quite scarce compared to their intense marketing.
As stated by the NCCIH, “Strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for most health conditions is lacking. The FDA has not approved any probiotics for preventing or treating any health problem. Some experts have cautioned that the rapid growth in marketing and use of probiotics may have outpaced scientific research for many of their proposed uses and benefits”.
I was shocked that something so heavily marketed and glorified in every local health-foods store did not have an extensive work of research behind it regarding the general consumer population.
Even though my experience was only a mild case, with a little more investigative work I found some hidden secrets behind the natural health industry that we NEED to be aware of before purchasing.
Minimal regulation. Unlike prescription drugs and conventional health treatments, natural health manufacturers are not required to provide extensive clinical research to support their claims or quality control. This is legally permissible because such products are classified as foods rather than drugs by the 1994 Dietary Supplement Act, and are therefore exempt from further FDA standards and regulations. This leads to a dangerous assumption that “natural” is equivalent to “safe”, and this expectation is a large yet misinterpreted part of natural health’s appeal.
False advertising. Manufacturers can legally put any claim on a natural health product if it is proceeded with a disclaimer. The FDA states that “for most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product”. Unregulated products will often make structure function descriptions (using words like: supports, maintains, reduces, increases), which can be difficult for the public to differentiate from confirmed medical statements.
A 2012 study by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that Americans were spending an average of $30.2 billion on natural health approaches each year, and supplements take up the largest majority of natural health’s total spending. Although some confirmed natural products may be worth the big bucks for certain conditions, without proper research, you could put both you and your wallet at risk.
Carmelita Cornaglia is a medical practitioner and has worked in the field of clinical research throughout her career, specializing in infectious disease. Carmelita states that many natural health products are starting to become widely accepted, researched, and used within mainstream medicine. She explains how this newfound wellness culture perpetuates significant problems, especially when it comes to unregulated natural supplements; “we are listening to the advertising, and not the medical research. Society has a strong desire to feel good and look good. Modern marketing makes it easy to buy into the possibility that a simple supplement will do that for us without valid confirmation”.
Carmelita emphasizes the importance of always talking to your physician before starting a new health product, “Just because you may not need a prescription does not mean that supplements are 100% safe. It is critical to understand the function of the supplement itself, the correct dosage, and potential interactions of that supplement with current conditions and medications”.
I can understand desire to be freed from the grasp of mainstream medicine. But, this does not mean we shouldn’t be equally as critical on the other side of the spectrum. Additionally, conventional and natural medicine do not need to be mutually exclusive paths; communicate with your trusted physicians about interests in natural health. They can often offer information that you can’t find from a simple internet search.
If you are lucky enough to explore a variety of both conventional and alternative health options, (and let’s not ignore that this opportunity is a privilege that many do not have), take charge of your own education and well-being. To avoid risks in such an unregulated industry, we need to be willing to put in the time and effort to properly research and become informed about our options before jumping to conclusions.
What are your experiences with natural health? Is there a certain mind-body practice you love? Have you had any particularly good or bad experiences with a product? Let’s start a conversation!