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The right choice doesn't always come naturally

September 19, 2011

I have a friend who makes natural medicine at home. She buys various herbs, soaks them in vodka for several weeks, and dispenses them to friends and family to treat and prevent illnesses like common colds and the flu. When I asked my friend why she chose this particular therapy, she replied: "It's natural. It's good for you."

This sort of response has become commonplace and it represents why a lot of people are turning to alternative therapies. We want our families to be healthy, but when we look around at all of the things that can possibly go wrong in life, we feel helpless. If there is a possibility that we can do even small things to tip the scales in our favor, then we might be willing to try it. Natural medicine may seem like a relatively safe and easy way to do just that.

Countless influences promote the use of natural products to improve health and wellness. Many of us believe that natural alternatives notonly offer solutions that conventional medicine cannot, but that anything labeled as "natural" is safe. We have accepted this "natural is better" line of thinking as fact without asking the critical questions. Here are some of the important questions we must evaluate before deciding if “natural” really means “better”:

Is my belief based on an emotional feeling or proven facts?

If we were honest, most of us would probably admit to some feelings of fear when we think about our health. Will we, or someone we love, develop cancer, multiple sclerosis Alzheimer's or autism? These fears drive us to seek answers to avoid those fateful diagnoses. Although natural medicines and supplements seek to calm our fears of possible illness, we owe it to ourselves and our children to evaluate whether or not they can actually fulfill what they promise.

Simply labeling a product as "natural" does not mean that the item is safe or effective for its intended user. There are many things found in nature that are most certainly not safe: arsenic, cyanide and hemlock, to name a few. The safety and medical usefulness of a substance is not determined by where it comes from, but, in fact, what it is and how it affects our bodies.

Conventional medicines have been extensively tested to determine how they will affect our bodies, the diseases they target and how they can be used safely and effectively. Natural medicines often have not undergone this degree of testing, so it is not possible to accurately determine whether they are safe or effective. Furthermore, many natural products that have undergone testing have failed to show a benefit, or worse, have been proven unsafe.

As we make health decisions, we must consider why we believe what we believe and whether our beliefs have a solid foundation in fact. Otherwise, we may make decisions that could actually cause harm rather than good for ourselves and our families.

What are reliable sources for determining whether something is safe and effective?

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where answers to our questions are only a click away. However, we must utilize online health information wisely. Recognize that information found on the Internet can often be incomplete, inaccurate, misleading or misunderstood.

Utilize the expertise of trained healthcare professionals to guide your information search. Physicians and pharmacists are trained to interpret medical studies which determine how medicine affects our bodies. Ask them what information is available regarding therapies that interest you.

Become familiar with reputable medical associations who are responsible for making recommendations based on trustworthy medical evidence to healthcare providers as well as to the public. A few key resources are:

How do we differentiate help from hype?

As a good rule of thumb, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Consider the source of the claims that are being made. Is this source qualified to make recommendations regarding complex medical issues? Does this source have a financial incentive to convince us to use a product?
  • Consider what type of proof is offered that validates these claims. Does the evidence offered actually prove what they claim it does?
  • Consider whether or not the product has been accepted by medical experts. If not, determine why it has not been accepted.
The world of health information can be vast and overwhelming. As we look at various healthcare choices, though, we can start to look critically our options. Then, we can separate clever marketing and unfounded promises of health and well-being from available therapies that can truly impact our lives in a positive way. Whether the therapy is derived naturally or otherwise, we can search for those that have proven to be beneficial and use them wisely.

 

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