Common Myths About Natural Medicine

By Dr. Catherine Ulbricht Chief Editor of Natural Standard and Journal of Dietary Supplements Senior Attending Pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital

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The term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to a broad group of medical practices that are used either alongside or instead of conventional therapies. Natural products –including botanicals, minerals, vitamins and other supplements from natural sources – form a major part of CAM. Despite the popularity of natural medicine, there is a lot of confusion regarding how safe, how effective, and even how common it is. Here, we address some common myths about natural medicine.

Myth: Few Americans use natural medicine or other forms of CAM.

A few years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics conducted a survey on CAM use in the United States. This survey showed that in 2007, over 40% of American adults used CAM –most commonly as nonvitamin, nonmineral natural products (such as herbal extracts and amino acids). That year, the out-of-pocket expenses for CAM products and services were nearly $34 billion in the United States. To put this number in perspective, the 2007 budget for NASA – just over $16 billion – didn’t even amount to half of what Americans spent on CAM. These numbers continue to rise.

Myth: If it’s natural, it must be safe.

There’s a common assumption that “natural” means “safe.” With so many poisonous (and often deadly) plants found in nature, this assumption is clearly incorrect. Even some natural products that are marketed to promote health may increase the risk of liver toxicity or kidney toxicity. Furthermore, there have been many recorded cases of bleeding and/or drug interactions with certain herbal products and dietary supplements (see next myth). Pregnant or breastfeeding women need to use extra caution. Extracts may contain high volumes of alcohol. Like pharmaceutical drugs, natural products can be helpful but need to be used safely and be monitored by health-care providers.

Article written by Dr. Catherine Ulbricht
Chief Editor of Natural Standard and Journal of Dietary SupplementsSenior Attending Pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital