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By the doctor who is not afraid to tell you what you don't want to hear

"Natural" Medicine
and the Wild, Wild West

by Dr. C. K. Wong, M.D.

November 2002

People frequently want to use "natural" or "herbal" medicines. Many believe that any "natural" or "herbal" medicine must be better or safer than other medicines. This belief needs closer examination.

First of all, I think that most people would agree that the most important and pertinent questions to ask are:

1) Has this "natural", "herbal", or whatever form of medicine, been tested adequately in clinical trials?

2) What are the proven benefits related to my medical conditions?

3) What are the known potential side effects? And how likely is it that such side effects might occur? (Bear in mind that one can say that a medicine has no known side effects just because no adequate studies have been done or the medicine has not been closely scrutinized.)

4) Considering the benefits and risks (and the chances that such benefits or risks could occur), do I, the patient, want to take this medicine?

Secondly, we need to remember that nature is neutral, neither good nor bad, neither benevolent nor malevolent towards us humans. Just think of some of the "natural" things that we'd rather not be exposed to: leprosy, poison ivy, arsenic, jimson weed The most toxic substances come from nature. All infectious diseases, and in fact, all diseases are "natural." Indeed, it is "unnatural" to have no diseases or illnesses at all. Nature does not exist to serve us - it just exists. (Actually, we are destroying nature every day, and, come to think of it, if "Mother Nature" has a conscious mind, she has many reasons to be quite malevolent towards us humans, considering what we are doing to her.) We need to treat nature with a lot more respect. We need to "use" nature wisely.

Any medicine, "natural", "herbal", or otherwise, needs to be studied adequately before we can tell if it is actually effective or safe, or what side effects it might have. Again, remember that one can claim that a medicine has no known side effects just because one has not done studies to evaluate the medicine closely and systematically.

Thirdly, just what is "natural" anyway? Take ginkgo biloba for example. Is it natural when it is harvested from the wild? Is it "natural" when it is cultivated? Is it "natural" after it has been extracted through solvents, filtered, dried, preserved, mixed with binders, or encapsulated?

Does ginkgo biloba have known adverse effects in some people? The answer is yes. Have people died from taking gingko biloba? The answer is also yes. Does that mean that no one should take ginkgo biloba or eat gingko nuts? The answer is no. Hey, ginkgo nut and rice soup is delicious. Don't take that away from me.

Take another example - ginseng. Ginseng from the snow mountains of Korea, ginseng from China, ginseng from Japan, and ginseng from the milder climate of the Appalachians. Which one is the "real" ginseng? Which one is the "natural" ginseng? If one could benefit from eating Korean ginseng (and let us assume that the benefit has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt), would one benefit from taking ginseng pills after the ginseng has been extracted, filtered, dried, preserved, mixed with binders, and encapsulated? And would one benefit if the pills were made from Appalachian ginseng?

Have people suffered adverse effects after eating ginseng or taking ginseng pills? Sure, you bet. Should ginseng be banned? Heck, no. I love ginseng and chicken soup. Don't take that away from me. However, for soup, the ginseng should be a special type since ginseng taste varies greatly (Did you know that?). The chicken should be young, small, and preferably "free-range" with a more "natural" mild and gamy taste, and not one of the thousands-in-a-coop-raised-to-optimum-size chickens. Hmmm, let me see, which one is the "natural" chicken? Maybe I should go into the woods to hunt some wild chicken.

The bottom line is to know and weigh the benefits and risks (frequently the benefits and risks are simply not known) and not to assume that just because something is labeled "natural," it is effective, safe, or beneficial.

Don't be blindsided by the prevalent mass media advertisements produced by the major pharmaceutical companies hawking their patent drugs. By the same token, in fact, by more tokens (how I love to twist the English language, just like advertisements do), don't be blindsided by those equally glitzy "herbal" and "natural" drug advertisements and those testimonials, articles, books, and journals which are simply advertisements-in-disguise. These ads that constantly bombard our eyes and ears from every known media source are produced by the multi-billion dollar "herbal" and "natural" medicine industry.

At least the major pharmaceutical companies are much more tightly regulated by the FDA. The "herbal" and "natural" medicine industry is the wild, wild, west.

Dr. C.K. Wong, M.D.
November 2002

Easy to swallow and time-released so you'll think about it later.
From the doctor who is not afraid to tell you what you don't want to hear

More by Dr. C. K. Wong, M.D.

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