Are Natural Products Safe?

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Many Americans make resolutions to improve their health, and we hope they also resolve to do it safely. For example, do you take any vitamins or dietary supplements? If so, how do you know they are safe to ingest? All US prescription medicine undergoes rigorous scientific trials before earning FDA approval. But there is no such approval requirement for vitamins, herbs, and dietary supplements.

Let’s take a hypothetical example and say you experience insomnia, and you want to take a natural product. A quick Google search informs you the herb Kava has been used for years to relieve insomnia. A few clicks later on a major online retailer’s website, and you await the arrival of this natural product in your mailbox. What you may not know is that you have just ordered an ingredient linked to liver toxicity. You may not know that despite the wide range of Kava products available, from teas to pills to candy, your purchase may impair instead of improve your health.

However, if before clicking “Buy” you had researched a bit further online, you may have discovered that the National Institute of Health (NIH) stopped its funded studies on the use of kava kava once the FDA issued a liver toxicity warning. Perhaps you would have read on the National Library of Medicine’s website the documented cases of liver failure linked to Kava use.

A more complete New Year’s challenge could be to find out if the products in your medicine cabinet have been proven safe through randomized controlled trials funded through reputable agencies, such as the NIH. To find this information, begin with the Office of Dietary Supplements, a division of the NIH, at http://www.ods.od.nih.gov . The information for any herb or natural product may include any FDA warnings and links to available research. Another reliable source is the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s website at http://www.nccih.nih.gov . For each ingredient, there is a “What The Science Says” summary of conclusions from available reliable research.

Always talk to your doctor about any natural products you’re considering. Many natural products can interact with prescription medications. The word, “natural” does not equal “safe”, and much research needs to be done in the future to establish safety, dosage, and efficacy of these products. Please have a safe and healthy year in 2016!