If something is natural, then it's safe for everyone, right?!
Not so fast...
While I would say that it is generally true that natural health products (such as herbs, vitamins, etc...) tend to be gentle and more nourishing to our bodies than pharmaceutical medications, we should still approach their use with care and research. This is particularly true if we are also using pharmaceuticals.
I see people come to my office who are taking natural health products together with pharmaceutical medications and haven't given much thought as to how these things may impact each other. I find this concerning as I always take care to assess for potential interactions or other problems before offering any suggestions to my patients.
My intention is not to dissuade you from using natural health products! We have a wealth of gentle natural medicine that can be incredibly useful and may help us to avoid the use of medications that may have side effects or other negative impacts on our health. Still, care should be taken when deciding on a plan.
In terms of what we know about interactions between natural medicine and drugs, much of the information that we have is theoretical while some has been demonstrated clinically. Professionals will also be better able to tell the difference between likely and not likely a problem and will be able to communicate potential risks and the best course of action.
Naturopathic Doctors are trained to understand potential interactions, so I advise you to seek out the opinion of an ND for advice regarding natural health products (from here on I'll say herb for simplicity).
Here are two important examples of things that I consider when assessing if two agents are safe to take together.
1. Synergistic or additive effects.
If the pharmaceutical and herb have the same effect, then using them together may cause the effect to be more than you bargained for. Some examples of this would include agents that cause you to feel sleepy or less alert, agents that bring down blood pressure or blood sugar, or agents that act as blood thinners.
Since herbs are complex organisms with multiple chemical components, they may have more effects than you realize. For example, you might be taking that garlic supplement for your cold and not realize that it has blood thinning properties that may add to the blood thinning medication that you are taking.
2. Effects on the drug’s metabolism, speeding up or slowing down the rate at which it leaves your body.
By knowing how drugs and herbs are metabolized in the body, we can assess if there is concern that a given combination will cause an increase or a decrease of a drug in your body. This information may be more difficult for you to assess on your own but could be important, particularly in two situations. If the dose of pharmaceutical that you are taking is at the high end of the range, an increase could produce adverse effects or unwanted side effects. A decrease of a drug might cause a loss of efficacy for that medicine. An example of this might the birth control pill. A decrease in the hormones leading to a failure in the contraceptive and subsequent pregnancy could be a major impact on a woman not wishing to become pregnant.
Dr. Alexis Blanks is a naturopathic doctor who is clinically trained and naturally focused. She is co-owner of Flourish Naturopathic at Moss Healthcare. She would be happy to see you in her office to help you better understand your health and take it to the next level. Learn more at FlourishND.com.