Natural isn’t always better – especially when it comes to your health.

But aren’t you a NATURopath? Doesn’t that mean you only use NATURAL medicine?

Good question! As a naturopathic doctor I have many tools that fall into the bucket of “natural” medicine but this is somewhat inaccurate – and in my opinion, irrelevant. Many herbal medicines and nutraceuticals are made in a lab from natural substances and this isn’t that much different than aspirin and other drugs. Vitamin and mineral supplements aren’t all that natural compared to their food sources, for example. And how is this relevant to your health?

Spoiler alert: It’s not. I argue that it doesn’t matter. Decisions about treatment should be based upon what makes the most sense for the individual and the health condition in question. Medicine is medicine.

Naturopathic doctors are trained to recognize when patients require treatments outside our scope, including drugs we cannot prescribe in Ontario. I advocate for the most appropriate treatment options for each individual and that often includes pharmaceuticals, just like it often includes eating more vegetables, taking botanical medicines, getting some sunshine and engaging in self care 🙂

Naturopathic doctors are guided by these five principles:

1. First, do no harm.

2. Cooperate with the healing power of nature.

3. Treat the whole person through individualized medicine.

4. Address the fundamental cause of disease.

5. Teach the principles of healthy living and preventive medicine.

While some health concerns in some patients respond to exclusively “natural” treatment, like diet changes, I often rely on a number of tools – including drugs – to help people manage chronic health conditions. Nutrition, lifestyle medicine, nutraceuticals, botanical medicine and probiotics are my tools but that doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to pharmaceuticals. I know when they are needed and advise my patients accordingly.

Various self proclaimed “natural health” gurus, influencers and entrepreneurs in the wellness space will tell you all kinds of quackery – like “drugs are bad” and that you shouldn’t put synthetic chemicals and “toxins” in your body – but I’m calling BS on that! Vitamin, mineral, natural, pharmaceutical, botanical, broccoli – everything is a chemical! And every chemical is toxic above a certain dose, even water. And probably broccoli, too. The dose makes the poison.

Natural substances are not universally better or safer. Some of the most toxic substances are totally natural, like botulinum toxin and cyanide. Guess what else is natural? Viruses that kill millions of people. Nature can be pretty gnarly.

The idea that natural medicines are always better or safer is rooted in the appeal to nature fallacy, the basis for the bias many folks share. But natural treatments are not without risk. Herbal medicines, vitamins and minerals can cause adverse effects. Some herbal medicines are extremely toxic if not prepared and administered properly. Too much iron or vitamin D is definitely toxic! Other wellness trends like excessive dietary restriction and cutting out entire food groups is harmful to your physical and mental health – not to mention your social life..

The next time your doctor prescribes a drug, you feel ashamed for taking medication or judge someone else for their use of Pharma, I encourage you to consider that drug in the context of the five naturopathic principles:

1. Does taking the drug reduce harm? Do the benefits of taking it outweigh the risks? What are the risks of not taking the drug? Your doctor or pharmacist can answer these questions so you feel informed. If considering an alternative treatment, what is its actual safety and efficacy *based on science* and not the belief or bias of the person selling it?

2. Will the drug help your body regulate and move your physiology towards homeostasis and healing? For example, a vaccine helps your immune system handle an infection in a safer and more reliable manner, greatly reducing your risk of suffering or dying from that infection or its sequelae. SSRIs stabilize mood so you can function more optimally and make healthier lifestyle choices that improve mental and physical health in the long run. PPIs are important while healing a peptic ulcer. And sometimes you really, really need a freakin’ antibiotic (be sure to take a good probiotic with it).

3. Is the drug used in the context of treating the whole person and is treatment individualized to their needs? Were you told diet and lifestyle don’t matter in a situation where the science says otherwise, like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease? Has the role of your stress and mental health been addressed in your care? Drugs can be an integral part of a holistic approach to treatment.

4. Does the drug or other part of your treatment address the underlying cause(s) of the disease, when this is possible? A drug that manages a symptom is important and it can be used along with treatments addressing the cause of that symptom. A laxative for chronic constipation will get things moving but it could be harmful for long term use and needs to be paired with treatment addressing the cause of constipation, like the right kind of fibre to keep your colon clear and happy.

5. Do you have the resources, tools and knowledge to make healthy choices in an effort to prevent the progression of your condition? Do you feel empowered to improve your health in a meaningful way? You can take medication AND make lifestyle choices AND access safe integrative care to help future you live your best life.

Opting out of a drug (or vaccine for that matter) because it’s not “natural” – and taking a bunch of natural remedies instead – could be an epically bad decision for your health. Trust me, I’m a naturopath. But DON’T trust me or my colleagues blindly! Ask good questions of anyone giving you health advice, especially if that advice seems biased, overly confident, belief-based or suggests that you opt out of what your physician recommends with inadequate scientific basis. And please, be critical when the wellness industry tries to sell you stuff, from detox kits to crazy diets to miracle cures. After all, the wellness industry is now even bigger than the pharmaceutical industry.

Let’s talk about Big Wellness another day, shall we?