In the pharmacy, I’m often asked for “non-drug” solutions to various illnesses. In some cases, a desire to avoid medication can push people to make overdue and important diet or lifestyle changes. But in many cases, consumers simply want to avoid prescription drugs, asking if there’s something they can buy, preferably “natural”, that can help them.
This belief, that “natural” is preferable to anything “synthetic” is actively promoted by the natural health products industry, and it’s referred to by science-based health practitioners as the naturalistic fallacy: Anything that comes from natural sources is believed to be good, helpful, and non-toxic, and anything that is synthesized is therefore artificial, unnatural, and dangerous. It’s an incorrect assumption. Many natural products are toxic (e.g., botulism, strychnine, lead, and arsenic). And many of the drugs we use today are derived from, or based on, products found in nature. Nature represents a remarkable drug synthesis lab, and there are many commercially-manufactured drugs that are identical to, or based on, natural sources. But being “natural” has no relationship to whether a chemical is safe to humans or effective to treat a specific condition. Natural product advocates almost seem to think that the ideal treatment for any condition is just “out there” in its natural state, as if created specifically for our purposes, and just awaiting our discovery, ready to consume in its natural state. But that isn’t the case.
Consider paclitaxel, for example. It’s a cancer treatment (“chemo”) drug derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Once the active chemical in the bark was identified, it was purified, isolated, and subsequently manufactured in a lab. It’s given by an intravenous injection. Science has found an effective drug, avoided having cancer patients consume huge quantities of tree bark, and saved a plant species from possible extinction. (For more information on the naturalistic fallacy and the story of Taxol, check out, “Why we don’t prescribe bark for cancer” over at the Science-Based Medicine Blog.
Among natural products for the treatment of high cholesterol, red yeast rice (RYR) is among the most requested alternatives to prescription statins. And there’s a reason why: it actually works – it lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol! But before we start treating high cholesterol with yeast, let’s dig a bit deeper.