In medical school, I was part of a group of students that performed experiments on a traditional herbal remedy for cough and asthma. We took an herb that was used by traditional Philippine healers in the treatment of chronic cough conditions, worked with our Department of Pharmacology and used a standardized liquid preparation of the herb to treat a specific type of asthma in children. The study showed that the herb worked as well as standard drugs. The experience taught me a lot. I learned that because the therapeutic potential of nature is great, there is a need to study these remedies scientifically – to prove what works and what doesn’t; to unearth any potential harm (there are naturally-occuring toxins/poisons just as there are naturally-occuring cures); and that in order to provide a consistent effect, one must create a preparation that is consistent (is it 1 or 5 or 100 leaves of a plant that will make you better?). I also learned that some ‘natural’ remedies can have very potent effects and many of them should really be considered as drugs. To say they aren’t so is simply deceiving.
The study of drugs and chemicals in Medicine has given me a deep respect for all things pharmacological, whether they are totally synthetic or “completely derived from nature”. As such, I have always approached supplements with the same caution that I approach medicines. And whenever patients and friends ask whether they should start a supplement or medicine, I always ask 1) What effect are you hoping to achieve? 2) Is it something you need? 3) Is there evidence that it actually works? 4) Can it cause any harm? (If the side effects are worse than the condition you are trying to treat, what’s the point?)
Why take something you don’t need? And just because a little of something is good for you does not mean a lot of the same thing is even better. Why take a pill when you can go straight to the source? (eat a fruit or a vegetable vs ingesting the equivalent of 100 lbs of that 1 food concentrated into a tiny pill 3 times a day). Sure I would love to be stronger, healthier, more beautiful. I would love to have better eyesight, more brain power, stronger bones. Yes I would love to shed 10 lbs or 20, the faster the better, but even the most convincing ads for fat burners, no matter how “natural”, make me hesitate. I will always be wary of things that claim to be harmless simply because they are 100% derived from nature, and preparations that claim to be effective with no real evidence that proves they are so.
Here is a really good discussion between Medscape’s Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Eric Topol, and Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Paul Offit on Dr. Offit’s new book, “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine”. He tackles food supplements – megavitamins, fish oils and the like – and discusses the industry that produces and promotes them. I am especially interested in the discussion on studying the positive effects of age-old healing practices so we can “evoke these behaviors at lowest risk, lowest burden, and lowest cost.” There is a lot of food for thought here!
Click on the link to watch the full interview. Do You Believe In Magic?