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Are "natural" and homeopathic products safe?

It is tempting to assume homeopathic, natural products are safe to consume because they "come from nature."  However, products derived from a natural plant or animal sources are not necessarily free of side effects - or totally safe.

Marketed as Health foods, Natural products, Homeopathic product(s), Organic Food Additives, or Herbal additives, they contain organic materials derived from plants (herbs for example) or animals (hormones for example), and are sold for their asserted health benefits. However, all organic materials contain multiple chemicals - some of which may be very powerful.

5 things to evaluate with homeopathic and natural products

1. Differences in regulation

Homeopathic products, such as Green Coffee Bean Extract, are not regulated by the FDA in the same manner as drugs or medications. 

  • Pharmaceutical drugs must prove their effectiveness in the treatment of the condition for which it is prescribed. They also must determine side effects the drug may cause.
  • Homeopathic, natural drugs gain approval for acceptable environmental conditions of manufacture. Approvals focus on showing no contamination or foreign material in the plant and similar environmental conditions of manufacture.

2. Availability of chemical makeup & data

Before a pharmaceutical product (over-the-counter or prescription drug) is approved for use by the FDA, the company marketing the drug will perform multiple studies and collect data to document the drug’s effectiveness and safety.  The FDA goes through an exhaustive review of the data before approving the sale of the drug.  

  • The results of the studies are published and readily available to physicians treating patients. 
  • Pharmaceutical products are required by the FDA to list all chemical components and their dosage(s) on the label.

3. Not all ingredients are listed

The foods we eat are organic material.  Because humans have ingested food substances for years, food is rightfully assumed to be safe.

  • Homeopathic products may be derived from food people eat (vegetables, fruits, herbs, or animal organs), or from plant or animal products humans rarely or never eat.  
  • Homeopathic product(s)  only need to note the active ingredients (for which the product is sold) on their label. Often all the chemicals in the product (especially in plants) have not been identified.  When someone takes a Homeopathic product(s) they may be ingesting unknown chemicals (sometimes several chemicals) that could affect their body.
  • Homeopathic products are not required to list dosages, and therefore often don't.  Rarely do they list every chemical the product contains.

4. Safety and health claims are not proven

Homeopathic products  are not required to prove safety or present data to support their health claims. 

  • If the company presents study results; the data is often anecdotal and based on studies performed by the manufacture who has a vested interest in the success of the product. 
  • If quality studies have not been done to define a product’s effectiveness and safety, according to Dr. Severson, "it is difficult for me to recommend the use of the product."  

5. Quality and effectiveness may vary by manufacturer

Multiple companies produce the same or similar herbal products.  Even though a product is marketed for the same indication, and has the same chemical(s) listed on the label, it may be quite different from a product sold by another company.  

  • There is no standardization for the organic material that goes into a Homeopathic products.  The chemical content of organic products, will vary from plant (caffeine for instance in a green coffee bean) to plant or animal to animal; and country of origin.  Two plants growing in an adjacent space can vary in the chemical content and the amount of chemicals present.  A plant grown (a green coffee bean for instance) in Africa may differ considerably from a plant grown in Mexico or the United States.
  • Some manufactures outsource their product’s production to other countries where the regulations and safety requirements are not as strict as those in the United States.  Before purchasing a product the consumer should read the label to determine where the product was made.  I would recommend purchasing only products produced in the United States.
  • To expand their product’s appeal and therapeutic indication, a manufacturer may add chemicals in their product which will be listed on the label.  A consumer should research all the ingredients in a Homeopathic products to determine safety before taking it.

How do side effects occur?

After a person ingests any chemical, such as a drug or natural homeopathic product, the chemical will be absorbed from the gut into the blood stream, carried by the blood throughout the body, where it potentially comes in contact with every organ in the body. 

Benefits occur when the chemical is delivered to the part of the body it is intended to treat (either preventively or therapeutically).  When the chemical reaches unintended organs, undesired effects (which are referred to as side effects) may occur. 

A consumer should research all the ingredients in a natural or homeopathic product to determine safety before taking it.

Greg Severson, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic Hawthorne Court (178 & Q)

Dr. Severson answers your questions about child development and parenting. One of the most gratifying aspects of pediatrics, for Dr. Severson, is watching an infant grow and change into a young adult. He is a natural teacher and he enjoys teaching parents how to provide the best care for their children. Dr. Severson loves kids and he is enriched by his interactions with them every day. He recognizes that children are unique and special. He hopes that his recommendations will help parents m ...

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