During the past 30 years of caring for thousands of patients I have encountered a lot of wonderful people and heard an amazing variety of stories related to health, symptoms and cures that people have tried.
Many patients have told me about home remedies and cures that have been traditionally used for centuries. As you might expect, some of these remedies have merit, while others are simply home-grown efforts to solve a problem that are not very effective. Worse yet, some home remedies and so-called natural cures are not safe.
There is a romantic notion among many that there is a natural treatment for practically everything. I spent my early years in eastern Tennessee and have encountered many traditional remedies for a wide variety of illnesses and conditions. As a doctor I have encountered many more over the years.
It seems that many people would like to believe that because a cure was supposedly used by our ancestors, Native Americans, Eastern cultures or possibly described within Biblical stories, it is valid and can be trusted.
In reality, many old-fashioned remedies are very valuable. For example, gargling with warm salt water really does ease a sore throat. The warm salt water helps ease swelling and relieves pain as well as clear mucus that can be irritating.
What about using garlic to prevent colds and flu? Is that effective or just an old rumor? Some studies have shown some benefit in reducing the incidents of colds and flu as a result of taking garlic. However, it is not clear how much garlic should be taken or in what form, so that approach is hit or miss.
(By the way, the very best way to prevent colds and flu is actually quite simple: wash your hands with soap frequently, especially after coming into physical contact with people and especially develop the habit of keeping your hands away from your face.)
But what about all of the other so-called natural products and substances that are peddled? The reality is that much of what is sold or marketed as natural cures has not been tested in any way to establish its safety or effectiveness.
That doesn’t mean it’s all garbage. I often recommend certain natural products or supplements for patients that have been shown satisfactorily to be safe and effective for their condition. But I have found that there are literally thousands of products being marketed based on nothing more than unproven claims.
I have also found that many people are so hopeful for a natural cure or so wrapped up in the romanticized notion that natural remedies are somehow superior or safer that manufactured drugs that they tend to believe marketing claims or the tales of their neighbors or friends without any effort to confirm the validity of the claims.
Just as last week’s column revealed that most consumers do not even bother to read the label of over-the-counter or prescription drugs, most people are not inclined to do any sort of research before taking a natural product with various health claims. If a trusted neighbor “swears by it,” that’s good enough.
I was discussing a specific product with a patient recently and she made the statement, “Well it is all natural, so I figured it couldn’t hurt me.”
This is a widely held perspective. The problem with that thinking is that there are indeed many substances that are “all natural” that can be harmful.
Arsenic, pennyroyal, botulism toxin and urushiol (the rash-inducing substance in poison ivy) are all natural. They are all also quite poisonous.
Of course, people are not likely to be actually taking any of these natural poisons intentionally. But the point is that natural substances are not necessarily safe.
Many herbal substances can have less dangerous side effects that are commonly ignored. In addition, many herbal products that may be safe enough when taken alone can have unexpected interactions with other herbs of drugs when taken within the same time period.
For example, St. John’s Wort, used by many for conditions such as depression, can cause headache, dizziness or nausea and can interfere with heart medications, depression medications or even birth control pills.
Kava, an herb used to help fight insomnia, can potentially damage your kidney or liver and can be dangerous if you consume alcohol at the same time.
Gingko is often recommended to help with memory and clear thinking, but it can also act as a blood thinner. This can be a problem especially if a person is already taking blood thinner medication.
Ginger may be taken for nausea, but it can cause problems with blood clotting and blood sugar levels.
This doesn’t mean that these herbal products or others should never be considered. In many cases there are advantages to using herbal supplements. The point of this article is that all products, whether natural or manufactured, have the potential for side effects that could be harmful.
It is always a good idea to become informed about the safety and effectiveness of any product you may want to try for health benefits, whether it is a manufactured drug or a natural substance, even if a trusted friend swears by it.
Dr. Mark Kestner is a chiropractor in Murfreesboro. His office is at 1435 NW Broad St.