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  • Anna Wolff, DO

Using Natural Remedies Safely

Updated: Jan 12



I wanted to take a moment today to spread some information about safe and careful use of supplements, herbs, natural remedies since that is a very large part of what a lot of what many of us try to utilize for maximizing our health on an individual level and may find some magic in creating our own remedies.

Disclaimer: This is not intended to replace individual medical advice - follow the recommendations of your licensed healthcare provider. I am in the United States, which is where most of my resources are from.


FDA & Supplements/Botanicals/Natural Remedies

Federal regulation (in the US) by food and medicines is through the Food & Drug Administration. I know it’s a pretty loaded term. But personally and professionally I am glad that there is some regulation on what someone can legally advertise or claim a drug or supplement is capable of doing. If something has been “FDA Approved” it means that the item’s benefits for its intended use outweigh the possible side effects has been tested and proven. Most herbs and supplements do not carry this distinction. If something lacks FDA approval it doesn't mean it doesn't work or that it is unsafe necessarily, but that there is less oversight in its use and you do not have the guarantees on how functional, effective or safe whatever it is your using is.


Most supplements do not have FDA approval but some do. For those that do not, claims about how a supplement affects the structure or function of the body must be followed by the words “This statement has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”


The FDA also does monitor for safety after a supplement is out on the market and can and will remove it from the market if it is found to be unsafe. If a product is not unsafe but just doesnt work.. nothing happens.


Medication Interactions

We’ve all heard it repeated ad naseum that just because something is “natural” it doesn’t mean it is “safe”. But I will provide here some important concrete examples of this. This is also why it’s recommended you speak to your healthcare provider before starting on a new supplement/herbal treatment


Asthma, insomnia, depression, chronic gastrointestinal disorders, pain, memory problems, and menopausal symptoms are the medical conditions for which supplements are most commonly used. Patients at high risk for interactions, such as those with seizure disorders, cardiac arrhythmia, or congestive heart failure, often report dietary supplement use. These patients tend to take more prescription medications, especially medications with a narrow therapeutic index.


Essentially there is increased risk for people who take medications for their illnesses that commonly have what we call a “narrow therapeutic index” - this means that the drug level in the body has a very small window in which it is both effective and not causing significant or dangerous side effects. A small change in how your body is able to remove the drug can be caused by an herbal supplement and that is why it’s considered so dangerous.

  • St. John’s Wort - affects MANY drugs because it changes how your liver metabolizes (cleans up the blood), which is how many drugs are eliminated from the body. It can affect antidepressants, blood thinners, birth-control medicine and many more to either make for dangerous situation or render the medicine ineffective

  • Ginko balboa, Ginseng, Garlic (supplement, not just normal consumption) and Echinacea can all increase bleeding risk if you are on blood thinners or about to have a major surgery

Growing your own/Whole Plants

A lot of us enjoy gardening and preparing our own herbs or getting them from a fellow witch, neighbor, grocery store. A few safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Flowers: DO NOT use petals or plant parts from decorative flowers for ingestion. Roses especially are risky due to the pesticides typically used to produce them - these are called organophosphates and can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations and sometimes death. ONLY use flowers that have been denoted as “safe to consume” or were grown from seeds by you without pesticides. Even if you grew it in your yard it could have had these dangerous pesticides used on them in a green house.

  • Herbs: Plenty of herbs are safe for human consumption but may be dangerous for your fine furred/feathered friends who cohabit with you. I am less knowledgeable about this aspect, but it is important to ensure that you are not treating your pet with an herbal supplement that may be dangerous to their health! Talk to your veterinarian before doing this.


OTHER NOTES

Essential Oils: Do keep in mind that certain plants are tolerable at certain concentrations - highly concentrated oils can be caustic and damaging. Using essential oils undiluted on the skin can cause severe rash/burns so always consult the manufacturing information and do a small test area before using large quantities of it


Pregnancy: be exceedingly cautious about what drugs/supplements/herbal remedies are being used while pregnant or breastfeeding. Recommend chatting with your OBGYN and consider reducing ingestion of anything you haven’t been able to get conclusive information about


Useful Links:

National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) - run by the National Institute of Health in the United States; you can search for specific herbs and supplements and get summaries that are easy to read to see what, if any, research has found significant benefits. Example: Peppermint Oil

Office of Dietary Supplements - also through NIH

Herbal and Dietary Supplement Drug Interactions with Patients with Chronic Illness - this is put together by the American Academy of Family Physicians - it’s very wordy/scientific as it’s meant for doctors to use as reference to guide their patients, but the charts may be helpful

Herbal Supplements & Bleeding Risks - review for plastic surgeons about the types of supplements to inquire patients about before surgery due to bleeding risk

WebMD Page on Essential Oils - CW for images of facial burns/rash

American Pregnancy Association - Info on Herbal Supplements to avoid


References:

  • Asher GN, Corbett AH, Hawke RL. Common Herbal Dietary Supplement-Drug Interactions. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Jul 15;96(2):101-107. PMID: 28762712.

  • Drug Interaction Facts (Annual). St. Louis, Mo.: Facts and Comparisons Division, Lippincott, 2004.

  • Kelly JP, Kaufman DW, Kelley K, Rosenberg L, Anderson TE, Mitchell AA. Recent trends in use of herbal and other natural products. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:281–6.

  • Gardiner P, Graham R, Legedza AT, Ahn AC, Eisenberg DM, Phillips RS. Factors associated with herbal therapy use by adults in the United States. Altern Ther Health Med. 2007;13:22–9.


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