Natural Medicine: What’s Natural and What Isn’t

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Not All 'Natural Medicine' Is Truly Natural

I see it all the time in my practice as a medical herbalist. People come in with a bag of supplements, often up to 20 different bottles, and I know right away that’s part of the problem.

I guess it’s better than 20 prescription drugs, but this cocktail can still be a major problem. Mixing multiple synthetic supplements can be no different as the interactions can be toxic. 

At least with herbs you have thousands of years of historical use and known beneficial synergistic effects. In-fact this synergy is part of the study of traditional herbal medicine. 

In the quest for health and wellness, the distinction between what’s considered “natural” and what isn’t can sometimes blur, especially when comparing the practices of naturopathy and medical herbalism.

Despite their shared commitment to harnessing the healing power of nature, there are nuanced differences in how each approaches the concept of natural medicine, particularly regarding the use of synthetic chemicals, compounds, and lab-made ingredients.

Sythetic Naturopathic supplements

The Practice Of 'Synthetic' Naturopathy

Naturopathy prides itself on a holistic approach, treating the whole person rather than isolated symptoms. Its broad scope encompasses various natural therapies:

  • Wide-Ranging Therapies: Including nutrition, homeopathy, herbalism and physical therapies, i.e. naturopathy integrates multiple healing modalities.
  • Holistic and Preventative: Focusing on identifying root causes and preventive health.
  • Self-Regulated Practice: With qualifying, registration, and continued professional development requirements varying by location, Naturopaths should operate to high standards of practice.

The word ‘Naturopathic’ implies the treatments should be natural, but this is not always the case.

Naturopaths might incorporate manufactured supplements, possibly containing synthetic nutrients, to address deficiencies or support bodily functions

This integrative approach sometimes includes pharmaceutical-grade supplements to attempt higher efficacy, but the flipside is these supplements may be artificial with potential toxicity and side effects, similar to some pharmaceutical drugs.

If you are seeing a Naturopath, you might like to ask them this question:

“Are all the supplements you are giving me 100% natural or are they ‘made in a chemical factory’ synthetic?”

Purely PLant-Based Herbal Medicine

The Purity of Medical Herbalism

Medical herbalism, with its deep roots in the tradition and science of plant medicine, offers a purer interpretation of natural healing.

Although similar to Naturopathy in many ways including, the holistic approach to diet and lifestyle, and the employment of other healing therapies, herbal medicine is much, much older and steeped in traditions around the world. 

What sets the practice of herbal medicine apart includes:

  • Plant-Based Specialization: Emphasizing the therapeutic use of whole plants and herbal preparations, including roots, bark, leaves, berries, and flowers of over 350,000 plants worldwide.
  • Evidence and Tradition: Guided by a combination of historical knowledge and modern research. Over 5,000 research papers are published annually validating the traditional claims made by herbalists throughout the millennia. 
  • Personalized Remedies: Crafting remedies tailored to individual needs, focusing exclusively on natural plant constituents. Medical herbalists mix and match herbs and prescribe them as formulations and tea blends specific to each case.
  • Self-Regulated Practice: With qualifying, registration, and continued professional development requirements varying by location, Naturopaths should operate to high standards of practice.

Herbalists’ dedication to whole plant medicine naturally limits the inclusion of synthetic ingredients, favoring remedies that harness the full spectrum of phytochemicals found in nature.

Read More About How Herbal Medicine Works Here

However, some Naturopaths also claim to be Herbalists, so in this instance, you can always ask them once again.

“Are all the remedies you are giving me 100% natural or are they ‘made in a chemical factory’ synthetic?”

Environmental Toxin sources

Production of Synthetic Nutraceutical Ingredients

The production of synthetic vitamins and nutraceuticals often involves source chemicals that are not naturally found in the human body, such as coal tar derivatives, petrochemicals, and other synthetic materials.

These substances are used due to their cost-effectiveness and stability in manufacturing processes. For instance, synthetic forms of vitamins such as vitamin E (dl-alpha tocopherol) and vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) can be derived from these industrial sources.

The synthetic form of Thiamine (Vitamin B1), for example, has been noted to come from coal tar derivatives, processed with harsh chemicals including ammonia and formaldehyde.

Additionally, Vitamin B12’s synthetic form has been linked to activated sewage sludge. These manufacturing processes raise concerns about the health implications of consuming synthetic vitamins derived from such sources.

Examples Of Common Synthetic Vitamins

These are just a few of the ingredients used in common nutritional supplements, highlighting the hidden synthetic nature of these so-called ‘natural’ products.  

Synthetic vitamin production chemicals

Synergy and Bioavailability

Further, the structural and functional differences between synthetic and naturally sourced vitamins suggest that the body may recognize and utilize them differently.

Scientific evidence suggests that natural vitamins, which come from food sources and include additional food factors, might be superior in terms of bioavailability and efficacy compared to their synthetic counterparts.

This is due to natural vitamins being in forms that the body recognizes and can utilize more effectively, as well as containing beneficial co-factors that synthetic vitamins lack.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of these distinctions when choosing vitamin supplements, as labels might not always make the source of the vitamin clear. Looking for terms like “100 percent natural” or specific food sources listed for vitamins can help identify products that do not contain synthetic ingredients.

However, the presence of words like “dl” in the chemical name (indicating a synthetic form) or vitamins listed without a food source may suggest synthetic origins. (3)


Nutraceutical Toxicity

Synthetic Ingredients: The Toxicity/Side Effect Risk

The key divergence between naturopathy and medical herbalism lies in their openness to synthetic or lab-made products. While naturopaths may utilize these to complement their natural remedies, medical herbalists steadfastly focus on the inherent healing properties of plants, eschewing synthetic alternatives for the most natural ingredients available.

Because the FDA is restricted to adverse report monitoring post-marketing, and a small number of these products have the potential to produce significant toxicity little is known about side effects or toxicity. (1)

While some nutraceuticals are safe, others have a toxic potential. For a large number of nutraceuticals, no toxicity/safety data are available due to a lack of pharmacological/toxicological studies. The safety of some nutraceuticals can be compromised via contamination with toxic plants, metals, mycotoxins, pesticides, fertilizers, drugs of abuse, etc. Knowledge of pharmacokinetic/toxicokinetic studies appears to play a pivotal role in safety and toxicity assessment of nutraceuticals. Interaction studies are essential to determine efficacy, safety, and toxicity when nutraceuticals and therapeutic drugs are used concomitantly. (2)

While some herbal medicines may also be toxic in overdose, they have a long history of traditional use and well-documented dosages and side effects that can be easily avoided. Poisonous mushrooms are a good example.

Why Are Herbal/Plant-Based Nutrients Superior

Plant-based superfood nutrition offers a holistic approach to nourishment, leveraging the entourage effect and the synergy of micronutrients naturally found in plants. This concept is underscored by research comparing the bioavailability and metabolic impact of natural versus synthetic B vitamins. 

A study demonstrated that both natural and synthetic B vitamins from quinoa had comparable bioavailability, but the natural forms tended to have a slightly stronger effect on metabolic parameters. This suggests that the complex interactions and balance of nutrients found in whole foods can offer superior therapeutic value compared to isolated, synthetic nutrients, highlighting the benefits of consuming nutrients in their natural form for optimal health and nourishment. (5)


Plant-Based Nutrient Examples

Spirulina and chlorella, both hailed as superfood nutrient supplements, offer a rich array of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds that are believed to be superior in form to synthetic supplements. Their natural composition includes a diverse range of bioavailable nutrients that work synergistically within the body, enhancing their overall nutritional and therapeutic value. 

Chlorella and spirulina are rich in essential nutrients that promote various health benefits, including hair growth, iron deficiency correction, increased energy, anti-cancer properties, weight loss support, immune system enhancement, and improved brain function. 

These algae provide a natural and potent source of B vitamins, iron, zinc, and bioavailable iron without the side effects often associated with synthetic iron supplements. Studies have shown that spirulina can increase hemoglobin content in red blood cells, improving immune function, while chlorella has been found to offer substantial amounts of iron, helping to prevent anemia and hypertension. (5)

Moreover, these superfoods have been associated with increased energy and endurance levels, attributed to their content of branched-chain amino acids and other energy-releasing constituents. (5)

Conclusion: Navigating Natural Health

Deciding between naturopathy and medical herbalism hinges on personal health philosophies and treatment preferences.

Both paths offer valuable approaches to wellness, yet they differ in their definitions of what truly constitutes “natural” medicine.

For those seeking the most traditional and unadulterated form of natural healing, medical herbalism may resonate more deeply, embodying a purist approach to utilizing nature’s bounty.

As we navigate the vast landscape of natural health, it’s crucial to remain informed about the philosophies and practices that guide our choices.

Whether through the broad integrative lens of naturopathy or the focused botanical expertise of medical herbalism, the journey toward wellness is inherently personal, reflecting our individual connections to the natural world.

All the very best on your personal health journey 😀

© Brett Elliott

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