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Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe

by Archives April 8, 2008

Natural health products could pose serious health risks to students taking them in order to stay awake during exam period.
Natural health products are more accessible than ever – they can even be found in dépanneurs – but just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
“Herbal supplements, fall kind of into a grey area because they are not covered by health Canada as pharmaceutical medications are,” said Gaby Szabo, a health educator at Concordia health services.
While supplements must be registered with Health Canada, if all a product’s ingredients are considered safe the product may be sold before the specific product has been tested.
These products can be sold by anyone, and that has pharmacists worried. “The thing we’re uncomfortable with is the trivializations of drug use, or natural health product use. You have people who go to a convenience store, they pick up whatever, alcohol or something like that, and then next to the counter they see a de-stress pill or any sort of product that seems to be an instant fix,” said professional pharmacist Michel Caron, who is also assistant to the registry department at the Quebec Order of Pharmacists.
Caron thinks that people should seek professional advice before taking natural supplements. “When they work it’s because they have some sort of pharmacological entity inside, some sort of active compound. If they do, it means they have a positive effect, but they might also have adverse affects. They might have interactions [with other medication]. It’s not because it’s natural that it’s safe.”
“A lot of people in the general public don’t realize how very potent and sometimes very poisonous some natural products may be,” said Margaret Somerville, a professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill and the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. She pointed out that apricot seeds, which have been claimed to have health benefits, can be extremely poisonous in larger quantities.
Caron said that other products can also have serious interactions with other medications. “We’ve seen situations where young women are taking Saint John’s Wart and not knowing or not being told that these products might interact with oral contraceptives and then having less efficient oral contraceptives and pregnancy follows. That can be a serious and distressing situation for a young woman.”
Somerville said these risks are the reason that medication needs to be controlled. “The whole reason you restrict drugs to pharmacies is because pharmacists are very highly trained people,” she said.
With exams on the way, students may want to reach for products that are marketed as helping memory, but Szabo cautioned that none of these effects have been proven.
“To date there are no products that are supported by good quality science to help with the memory,” she said. “For example ginseng is often marketed as a memory aid, but there is no good quality science supporting that. What supports memory is revisiting the material regularly, getting a good night sleep, the night before the exam and throughout your study period.”
“No supplement will change how a person will perform in their exam that is really dependent on how much, how well and how effectively they studied in the days before and in the weeks before,” said Szabo.
She added that “the learning resources at counseling and development or the stress management resources here at health services that will be far more effective that any supplement in exam performance.”

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