Are natural products harmless to health?

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Mai Chun Wai
BPharm (Hons), PhD, RPh

You have probably come across a lot of health products in the market being promoted as ‘100% natural’ to coax you into thinking that it is safe owing to its advertised natural content.

100 natural plant extract

Did you know that natural compounds or products derived from natural sources are not guaranteed to be harmless to humans?

A lot of medicines currently in use for the treatment of various diseases are actually derived from plants. As you would expect, these medicines can be harmful to human if they are not administered according to the recommended doses. In fact, some of them are classified as toxins at high doses which can damage major organs like kidneys and liver.

LiverA classic example would be paclitaxel, which was first isolated from the Pacific yew. Paclitaxel has been marketed as a medicine to treat cancer, or commonly known as chemotherapy agent. Paclitaxel may induce damage to the lungs, lower your immune system and cause numbness to your extremities. If plants being natural is taken to be equivalent to safe, paclitaxel should not have caused such effects in humans. Clinical studies have supported the use of paclitaxel for its benefits in cancer treatment although it requires close monitoring by healthcare professionals to minimize such adverse effects.

Scientifically, a substance, compound or product has to be put through extensive studies before it can be ascertained that it truly does not pose any health risks to humans. Moreover, the potential interactions between these products with food or medications taken concurrently cannot be discounted. For instance, the high phytic acid content in soy bean can actually inhibit the absorption of essential minerals (zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium and copper) from our gastrointestinal tract.

Therefore, please do not assume that a product advertised as ‘100% natural’ is by default harmless to health. If in doubt, it is advisable for consumers to seek advice from healthcare professionals before taking any of such products.

References

  • Bohn, L., Meyer, AS., Rasmussen, SK. (2008). “Phytate: impact on environment and human nutrition. A challenge for molecular breeding.” J Zhejiang Univ Sci B 9(3): 165–191.
  • Kamao, M. et al. (2000). “Absorption of Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Iron and Zinc in Growing Male Rats Fed Diets Containing either Phytate-free Soybean Protein or Soybean Protein Isolate or Casein.” Nutr Sci Vitarinol 46: 34-41.
  • http://www.mercola.com/article/soy/avoid_soy.htm

 

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