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Natural Doesn’t Mean Safe

Emilya has just returned home from the faculty. She is worried. During the class, several of her friends pointed out that she had a pimple on her chin. Even her best friend mocked her oily and dark skin. She begins searching on the internet for products that can eliminate her pimple and improve her skin condition. An advertisement caught her eye.

“Made from 100% natural products, no side effects”

Situation like this happens in our daily life. In the fast moving modern world, information regarding health can be easily obtained. Sellers are now more creative in using the technological advances in selling their products.

The term natural medicine or natural product is frequently used by sellers to promote their products. From public perception, any product derived from natural sources could not harm them. Therefore, those who seek for alternatives in treating their diseases or conditions will be influenced by such products.

Definition of Medicine

Medicine is any substance that is used to treat, prevent and diagnose a disease, regardless whether it is derived from natural or synthetic sources. When a medicine is consumed, it will cause physiological changes in the body system. Therefore, if a person drinks a long jack herbal extract in order to increase his energy, the extract is also considered as medicine.

Not all medicines are produced in the laboratory. Since thousands of years, natural sources especially plants have been used as medicine to treat diseases. With the advancement of medicinal technology, more detailed researches have been carried out on plants that are used as medicine. Technological Advancement in Medicine Development

With proper facilities and apparatus, active ingredients in plants that would cause physiological changes in the body can be identified. The active ingredients would then be extracted and further studied. If it can be used safely as medicine, it will then be synthesized in the lab. The chemical structure of the active ingredients can be modified in order to increase their potency or minimize the undesired side effects.

It might be hard to imagine the process as it is done in the lab at molecular level. To make it easy, we can compare the process with eating a fruit like durian. To eat a durian, firstly we have to open it and get rid of its skin. The skin might be useful to protect the content but it is not useful to us. The seeds, even small ones, would also need to be thrown as it can be a chocking hazard to human. What we really eat is only the content. The same process is applied when developing medicine.

Since the year 1980 until 2000, 28% from the newly registered medicines in the world were derived from natural sources. Besides that, among those newly registered medicines, 24% were synthetically made based on the chemical structure of the natural sources. Therefore, it is undeniable that lots of modern medicines in the market are developed based on plants and other natural sources.

Examples of Modern Medicines Derived from Natural Sources

There are not much differences between medicines that are sold in pharmacies and used in hospitals with naturally derived products. This is because all those medicines were originally derived from natural sources.

As an example, aspirin which is used in treatment of stroke is derived from a plant called willow. Willow extract was previously used as painkiller and anti inflammatory agent. However, it can also cause bleeding. With the advancement of medicinal technology, the extract had been studied extensively until the researchers could identify how to safely use it and how to minimize its side effects.

Garlic that is often used traditionally to improve well being is also known to cause gastrointestinal problems and increase bleeding tendency. Chamomile flowers are used as sedatives or put into drinks may cause severe allergic reaction. Ginkgo biloba which is often used to facilitate blood flow and enhance memory can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness and bleeding to its user. Based on the examples given, we cannot deny that use of natural products may also cause unwanted side effects similar to modern medicine. Sellers’ Tricks

From the examples, we can see that there are no products that are totally safe from side effects. No matter whether natural products or modern medicine, user’s safety will only be guaranteed if important information regarding the product is known. The problem with expiry date of products, proper storage condition, drug-drug interaction, drug-food interaction, and many more important issues should be addressed and cannot be taken lightly.

The risk of developing side effects from such products can be higher if the products are processed into tablets or capsules without complying with the standard set by Ministry of Health Malaysia. Contamination of other chemicals that are more harmful can easily happen if the process is carried out by unqualified personnel. Besides that, there are also instances where sellers deliberately contaminate their products with prohibited substances in order to increase the efficacy of their products.

Misunderstand regarding the safety of medicinal products from natural sources could cause severe harm to pregnant ladies or to the babies they breastfeed. Majority of such products do not have any research done on its effect towards the unborn child or babies. It would be very unwise for a mother to risk the safety of her children just to test such products with no established safety profile.

Advice for The Public

When we come across an advertisement, especially that promotes medicines with no side effects, we have to be critical towards it. The first step that we need to do is to check whether the products had been approved or not by Ministry of Health, Malaysia.

We should also ask some questions to the sellers. Ask about the safe dose, safety of the medicine for people of different ages, how to store the medicine, the expiry date, side effects, interactions with other drugs and any related questions.

Then refer to your pharmacists to ask regarding the products. Pharmacists whether in public or private sector are always more than willing to give the right and professional information on medicines and health products. Do not be shy as pharmacists are your partner in medicine.

Besides that, questions regarding medicines can also be asked through National Pharmacy Call Center at 1 800 88 67 22. The pharmacist on duty will always be ready to answer any call from public who needs information regarding medicines. Finally remember, naturally does not mean safe.

Last Reviewed : 28 February 2017
Writer/Translator : Fahmi bin Hassan
Accreditor : Nor Aida bt. Sanusi