Friday, June 30, 2017

Natural health products: What you don't know can hurt you

Dr. Lena Derie-Gillespie

Alberta Health Services South Zone Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lena Derie-Gillespie - Natural health products (NHP) are everywhere in the marketplace and their use is extremely common in Canada. A 2010 Health Canada study found that 73 per cent of the population had used a natural health product and Albertans actually had the highest rate of NPH use, at 82 per cent.

Of these people, 15 per cent had an unwanted or adverse side effect. Despite this fact, many people believe that NHPs are safer or better for them than prescription or other over-the-counter medications. Such a belief is not inherently true. For example, Vitamin A in high doses has been associated with liver damage and birth defects.

Last year, Health Canada proposed changes to how NHPs are regulated in Canada. However, it is important to understand the issue as it currently stands. For a NHP to be legally sold in Canada, it must have a license or NPN (natural product number). However, the general public may be misled regarding the level of oversight involved in obtaining a license. 

To get a NHP license in Canada, a manufacturer is supposed to provide a list of product ingredients as well as some type of “evidence” of the product’s usefulness. However, what constitutes evidence in licensing NHPs can be very vague. For a pharmaceutical drug to be approved, researchers must provide evidence from complex trials that study not only the positive effects of the drug but also look into rates and seriousness of any side effects. Natural Health Products are not subjected to nearly the same scrutiny.

In a CBC Marketplace investigation from 2015, investigators were able to submit an application to Health Canada for a NPN for a fake product they claimed as “effective relief from fever, pain and inflammation for children.” The only evidence they supplied for this claim was a photocopy from a 1902 homeopathic textbook; and guess what, they got the NPN from Health Canada. Now it is important to ask yourself, would you rather give your child a medication that has been studied for both actual benefit and side effects or one that was licensed with little oversight and no evidence to support its claims. 

Contamination is another important issue to consider with any drug or NHP. Several recent studies have shown that contamination of NHPs with heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium is not uncommon, with contamination rates ranging from 9-83 per cent depending on the product and the manufacturer. NHPs can also be contaminated with prescription pharmaceuticals which could increase the effectiveness of a NHP but are being taken by unsuspecting consumers in an unregulated and unmonitored way. 

Some natural health products have been well studied and have evidence to support their safety and usefulness, vitamin D is a good example. However, don’t be fooled; the Oxford definition of a “drug” is: a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when introduced into the body and thus, natural health products ARE and will always be drugs. If the science hasn’t convinced you that just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe, then just consider one of my dad’s favorite sayings; “dog poop is natural too, doesn’t mean I’d put it in my mouth.” 

Dr. Lena Derie-Gillespie is Medical Officer of Health in South Zone. She can be reached via e-mail:

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