When Natural Equals Danger

Just because a remedy is sold in a drug store, doesn't mean it is safe.
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Untested, Untried, Sometimes Untrue

Forty-two percent of Americans have tried a natural remedy. And consumers spend billions each year on these alternative therapies. Many are making common -- and potentially deadly -- mistakes. Here's what you must know before you try that next remedy.

Mistake #1: Assuming the FDA Regulates Natural Remedies

They don't. In 1994, in response to a tremendous lobbying effort on the part of supplement manufacturers and consumers, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which changed the way the industry was regulated. That means vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids (often used for bodybuilding) and other "natural" substances you see on the shelves are not tested, reviewed or approved by the FDA. The FDA steps in only if a product is reported to have caused injury or illness.

However, the FDA does have rules regarding labeling. Labels must include a complete list of ingredients and net contents of the product (such as the number of pills in the bottle). In general, the label cannot contain health claims regarding prevention or cure of a disease or illness. Even so, products can be mislabeled. For instance, in 1997, the FDA discovered that certain supplements labeled as containing plantain, an herb used as a laxative, actually contained digitalis, the botanical origin of many heart drugs. Digitalis can cause low blood pressure and abnormal heart rates, posing a potential risk to unsuspecting heart patients taking the product.

Safety strategy: Buyer beware -- always remember that natural remedies have not been government tested and approved.

Mistake #2: Believing "Natural" Means Safe

The truth is, there are plenty of botanicals that are indeed harmful, especially in high doses. Since 1994, the FDA has received more than 3,200 reports of supplement-related adverse events, including liver damage or failure, kidney failure, seizures, stroke and death. The supplements in question include herbs such as chaparral (promoted as an antioxidant remedy for acne, cancer and more), comfrey (used to heal wounds), germander (for weight loss), willow bark (a fever reducer), and even vitamins A and B6 and minerals niacin and selenium.

Currently being examined by the FDA are products containing ma huang (ephedra), which is in many herbal weight-loss preparations. It has been associated with hundreds of serious incidents, including hypertension, rapid heart rate, nerve damage, psychosis, stroke, memory loss, and in at least four cases, death. Herbal weight-loss preparations also often contain the plant-derived laxatives senna, aloe, cascara, rhubarb root, buckthorn and castor oil. Overuse of these has led to severe diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and impairment of colon function.

Safety strategy: Think of supplements as drugs and treat them with the same caution you reserve for prescriptions. "In fact, about one third of our prescription drugs come from botanical origins," says Rebecca Costello, Ph.D., deputy director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health. Don't take more than the recommended dosage, and report any side effects immediately to your doctor and the FDA's MedWatch program (800-332-1088). In addition, the American Council on Science and Health advises consumers to avoid supplements that contain chaparral, comfrey, ephedra, gamma butyrolactone, germander, lobelia, wormwood or yohimbe.

Continued on page 2:  Do Your Own Research and Don't Overdose


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