It’s good to note that people are becoming more health-conscious. Some are taking natural food or dietary supplements daily to ensure they remain healthy and well. Generally this is good, but we must always remember that taking something “natural” does not necessarily mean “safe.”
There are tried-and-tested natural supplements, the safe and recommended doses of which are also well studied like omega-3, 6, 9 fatty acids (for heart, brain and arteries); coenzyme Q 10 (for heart, muscles, skin and gums); chondroitin (for bones and joints); melatonin (for sleep enhancement and as an adjuvant supplement for cancer radio- or chemotherapy); and other vitamins and minerals like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), vitamin B complex, vitamin D3, zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, and many others.
Unfortunately, there are also natural dietary supplements in the market without adequate clinical research to ensure their safety.
Theoretically, natural food supplements including herbals are safe because they’re supposed to come from natural sources. Unfortunately, there are always exceptions. Herbals, for example, come from any form of a plant or plant product, including leaves, stems, flowers, roots and seeds.
Some of these supplements are sold raw or as extracts, derived from the maceration of the herbal source with water, alcohol or other solvents to extract some of its chemicals.
The products derived from these processes contain dozens of chemicals, including fatty acids, sterols, alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, saponins and others.
Some of these multi-ingredient supplements may be safe to take, but some may not be safe, especially if one is taking other medicinal products which may interact with any of the components of the herbal product.
For example, if one is taking an herbal containing gingko biloba, used to improve memory or brain health, it may interact with so-called blood thinners like aspirin, and other antiplatelet drugs or anticoagulants which patients with heart, brain and blood-vessel problems usually take. The consequence is bleeding or hemorrhage due to the interaction of the herbal ingredient and the medicines.
Because many of these active ingredients have not been evaluated by regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other expert bodies, we don’t know the safe dosages one can take. There are herbals and dietary supplements which, if taken in excess, can cause kidney and liver damage. It can even cause severe hypertension and stroke, as in the case of ma huang and ephedra, which some weight-reducing products being sold by multi-level networking companies used to contain.
The other concern is that because of the multiple ingredients of an herbal extract, some manufacturers might, in good faith, fail to declare the complete list of active ingredients which their herbal preparations contain. Although the US FDA regulates the distribution of natural supplements, it doesn’t evaluate the contents or active ingredients of these supplements as stringently as other medicinal products.
So, no one knows what else these supplements might contain which could be potentially harmful. That’s why these supplements from the US contain a disclaimer from the FDA that they did not evaluate these products for their safety and efficacy. Essentially, they’re telling the consumers, “Take it at your own risk!”
Our local FDA is sometimes even stricter in assaying the active components of food supplements, making sure that the ingredients in each tablet or capsule are present in the amount recommended by the manufacturer. But that would be considered a safeguard only if the active ingredients of any product are well-studied, such that the recommended dosages are really tried and tested. For new, “innovative” supplements with not enough scientific clinical trials done in humans, this does not guarantee the safety of the product or products.
For these natural supplements that are not well studied, we’re not sure how they will really affect the vital organs of the bodies. They may or may not be useful or safe. It’s just that there is no good data on them yet, and we don’t know.
Our local FDA should require these local manufacturers producing their “signature” natural dietary supplements to do even simple but well conducted clinical trials (with unbiased experts as researchers or clinical investigators) evaluating the safety of the products at their recommended dosages.
Proliferating also in the local retail and online markets are supplements that are supposed to detoxify or cleanse the liver, kidneys and colon. Again, in principle, that’s not bad at all, so long as the active ingredients of these products have been thoroughly studied and tested.
However, for healthy individuals, this may not be necessary. We must remember that the body has built-in or natural mechanisms for eliminating toxins and correcting whatever imbalance it may experience.
Scientists describe this as natural homeostasis or balance. In normal and healthy individuals, this works perfectly well, and the more we meddle with it, the worse the body gets. It should be helped only in diseased conditions, when these homeostatic mechanisms are no longer properly working.
Another thing to note is that a healthy diet by itself can excellently detoxify the body. If we eat the recommended minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, our diet should contain enough antioxidants that can cleanse all our organs.
Taking supplements that detoxify is not reason to indulge in unhealthy diet and vices like smoking and drinking alcohol, and not having enough sleep at night.
This is one of the pitfalls of modern society—we feel a false sense of assurance in taking or doing something to make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. Pretty much like filling up a pail of water that has many holes.
E-mail medicalfiles. [email protected]; post message on Dr. Rafael Castillo’s Facebook page.