Is ‘natural’ always best?

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“It’s Natural so it must be safe”

It is not uncommon to hear the above statement in the aisles of a health-food store, on a well-intentioned friend’s Facebook wall, or from the pushers of the latest cure-all health trend. Clever marketing consultants are quick to take advantage of our inherent trust in all that is natural.

Not surprisingly, natural does not automatically translate into safe and effective. Sure, often the “natural is better” assumption checks out – a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins is healthier than a processed food, fast-food dependent North American-type eating style. Body movement couldn’t be more natural, and exercise is one of the most potent, important interventions in medicine. As we all know, a few examples don’t prove the rule.

When seeking so-called natural treatments, often the term “natural” is really shorthand for integrative, or holistic – meaning a treatment strategy that views health in very broad terms and focuses on improving health outcomes by changing fundamental aspects of health behaviors. It is easy to argue that comprehensive approaches to health, and recognition of the individualized wellness experience, lead to better outcomes. But the definition of a single treatment as natural or not has no bearing on its efficacy.

It’s easy to cherry pick examples of natural compounds that are unsafe; cyanide, carbon monoxide, and hemlock are all natural (and you don’t’ need a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to tell you they aren’t safe). Even more interesting are the less facetious examples. Two of the most surprising examples, Vitamin A and beta carotene, should make us rethink how we view the safety of natural health products.

Decades old population data demonstrated that elevated vitamin A and beta carotene intake was associated with better health outcomes. Studies demonstrated the more vitamin A and beta carotene individuals consumed in foods, the healthier they were. The obvious next step was supplementing with both, but study results uncovered unexpected results. Supplementation with vitamin A and beta carotene actually demonstrated harm!

How could these natural compounds, which were already associated with better health outcomes when consumed as part of whole foods be unhealthy as isolated chemicals? As it turns out elevated beta carotene and vitamin A intake is actually just a biomarker, or measure of an individual’s fruit and vegetable intake. Eat more fruits and vegetables, and you’ll consume more vitamin A and beta carotene. (I’m sure we don’t need to review the health benefits of adequate fruit and vegetable intake).

It is an important lesson – assumptions about what is natural and what is safe should be challenged. Before taking a natural health product or self administering any natural health treatment, it is important to speak with an expert. Talk to a regulated health-care professional and check with reputable sources of information.

Remember if there is a “buy now” button on a webpage, they are more likely interested in your wallet than your wellness. Eating well, exercising, reducing stress, and getting good, quality sleep are all safe and effective, (and yes, natural) ways to improve your health.

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