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What Is “Natural,” Anyway?

Medical science has never been more sophisticated, precise, or effective.


This is hard to believe, as so many people continue to exhibit a seemingly-random assortment of symptoms, yet can’t get a firm diagnosis, much less effective treatment.


When a treatment is finally prescribed, the cure is often worse than the disease. Medication packages are packed to bursting with warnings, drug interactions, and possible side effects that range from mildly unfortunate to life-threatening.


And the worst part is, you won’t know where you will fall on the spectrum of possible outcomes until you start taking the medication.


Even the best, most well-received drugs work for only a fraction of the people whose conditions make them candidates for the prescription. This kind of trial and error, aside from being uncomfortable and invasive, can often become extremely expensive.


Then, of course, there is the reality that much of what passes for “food” these days is anything but—and the preservatives, dyes, and other artificial ingredients that hold all this immortal detritus together are commonly the cause of the very symptoms you are trying to treat.


Convenience foods of the fast and frozen varieties seem to require as much chemical engineering as prescription medications—though they do have more predictable effects for long-term users.


So it is no wonder everyone from chronic pain sufferers to cancer patients are looking for ‘natural’ ways to treat, manage, or simply cope with their symptoms.


If some over-the-counter supplements—or, better yet, organic foods and other grocery items—can provide relief, why keep going to the doctor and having more drugs pumped into your system?


So how do you navigate a world full of poisonous food, hit-or-miss drugs, and miracle organics to find a combination that actually makes you feel better?



The honest answer is that there is no simple solution.


If you are part of the lucky crowd of “typical” patients for whom a pharmaceutical treatment works, let it work for you. If you have managed to navigate the maze of dietary restrictions, allergies, and organics to arrive at a custom menu that is both practical and effective, then bon appétit.


If you are like most people, though, the first solution you try probably won’t be the best. People are complex, unique, and come in all sorts of different combinations—trying to fit yourself into one treatment plan or diet is just not always going to work.


A realistic approach incorporates elements of all three options: diet, drugs, and supplements.


For many, going to the pharmacy to fill a prescription feels a bit too much like giving up on natural alternatives—but what exactly makes an herbal supplement more ‘natural’ than a prescription drug?


At their core, both are made up primarily of inactive ingredients that make them palatable, digestible, or otherwise capable of going where they are needed.


The few, proud ‘active’ ingredients are just concentrated forms of a naturally-occurring ingredient, or else have been synthesized into a concentrated formula. Many drugs exist simply because, in nature, a food doesn’t exist to get the desired effect without having to eat way too much of something.


Herbal supplements are often doing the same thing, but for chemicals that naturally occur in foods. Eating yogurt may be a great way to keep some natural, healthy probiotics in your diet, but it may not be as fast or effective as taking a probiotic supplement. Just like reducing a sauce to get a fuller flavor, the best natural supplements pack in the nutrients found in herbs, so a little packs more of a healthful punch.



There are pill forms for most popular herbal supplements, and they are little more than an attempt to strip away the excess bulk, water, and inactive elements from the food (usually plants) from which they are derived. While this concentration maximizes the effect of certain ingredients, taking a supplement instead of eating the original food also means missing out the natural diversity of vitamins, minerals, and other benefits that a supplement doesn’t provide.


Relying on supplements to avoid drugs carries its own risk.



The FDA rules that regulate the drug market—though imperfect—don’t apply to supplements. Plenty of products marketed as ‘dietary supplements’ are actually just another synthetic pill, carrying all the risks and sketchy ingredients you were trying to weed out.


Each type of medication carries its own risks, benefits, and ambiguities. As with pharmaceuticals, any given supplement will not be as effective (if at all) for everyone. They also may carry certain side effects—it is possible to overdose on vitamins, though the effects may not be as dramatic as with, say, prescription painkillers.


Striking a balance to get the maximum benefit doesn’t have to be a solitary exercise. Pharmacists, contrary to popular belief, are not simply there to dispense drugs and fill prescriptions. There is, after all, a reason that so many stores stock their herbal supplements next to their in-store pharmacies.


A qualified pharmacist should be able to help you navigate through the racks of OTC drugs, supplements, and herbal remedies to strike an effective balance.



In fact, federal policy is counting on pharmacists to do just that—when Medicare was reformed in 2003, pharmacist consulting services were made mandatory for anyone managing a chronic condition or multiple medications.


Whether you are on a Medicare plan or not, there is no reason you shouldn’t get some help figuring out what regimen suits you personally—just ask.


Obviously, there is not always a continuous chain linking foods, supplements, and medications together (where each is just a more concentrated version of the other), but there is still a relationship, however indirect. 


Knowing this is useful when trying to understand how each form of treatment has value, and possibly even a role in managing your own condition.



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