Are Natural Remedies Safe?

While natural health remedies may seem like a win/win proposition, be aware of the risks involved

Most natural remedies don’t have a lot of scientific research to back them up

Natural health remedies may sound safer than pharmaceuticals, but they’re not risk-free

I am regularly reminded by readers that most people believe that “natural” remedies are always worth trying because at the very least, “natural” products are “safe.”

Green tea and banana peel extract for cholesterol levels have to be safer than Lipitor, right?

To be fair, I too am often tempted to try a “natural” product for one of my ailments, especially after one of my regular visits to our local health food store. There I nearly always overhear an eager shelf stacker recommend a weird unpronounceable (but “risk-free”) berry or tea to some other customer suffering from the same thing I have.

But I always stop myself from purchasing those “totally safe” natural products because I invariably remind myself of two important considerations.

Unproven Natural Remedies

First, there is just far too little good science (usually none, in fact) to back the health claims for nearly all “natural” products. That doesn’t mean they don’t work. It just means that we can’t show that they do work.

More important to me, though, is that we also have very little safety data on these products because they have rarely been subjected to those kinds of studies.

Take glucosamine sulfate, for example, a popular natural product that Europeans often use for osteoarthritis (OA) and a few other complaints.

I get a lot of questions about glucosamine. Although several rigorous studies have found no benefit in using it, on the other hand, I have never seen any “negative” reports either. So, hey, if you believe it might help, why not try it? No risk, right?

Well, that’s just changed.

A Recent Finding

In a recent letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Maine researchers described a study in which they subjected 17 patients with glaucoma (a condition in which pressure in the eyes is raised, which can lead to blindness) to treatment with glucosamine for their OA. The researchers concluded that the glucosamine raised eye pressure in these people. Happily, the pressure went down when the glucosamine was discontinued.

This is a tiny study over a short period and it wasn’t “blinded,” so there is really no way of knowing how consistent these findings will prove to be.

Still. The bottom line is that these guys found a potential downside to a natural product that has been around for decades and used by millions of people, reminding us once again that “natural” does not mean “automatically safe.”

Dr. Art Hister is a medical writer and health analyst for Global TV.

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