Last week, a friend of mine was asking for some supplement recommendations for a minor issue she was having. After reminding her that I’m no doctor, just someone who likes to do health research, I told her that turmeric might be something she should try. Next step was finding which turmeric supplement to get.
We scoured Amazon. (Because what else do you?!) Tons of listings from lots of different health and wellness companies, with tons of great reviews on them.
But I’m picky.
I’ve been studying different modalities of health for years now. And one thing has become crystal clear to me in the last few months: the “natural” health industry has become pretty Westernized. And that’s not a good thing.
How the “Natural” Health Industry Got Westernized
The fundamental principle of Western medicine is that “real medicine” is a single substance that has specific effects, and is used in relatively large, standardized doses.
Scientists studied plants, mold, and other things in the natural world, and noticed that they appeared to have certain effects on people. They identified what they believed to be the “active ingredient” that was causing the effect, extracted it, purified it, standardized it, and sold it as drugs.
That’s what most over-the-counter and prescription drugs are.
Unfortunately, it’s largely what supplements are, too.
The natural health industry has bought the lie that this Western “ideal” is the right way to go about health. So, they extracted vitamins and minerals from natural sources, combined in them mega-doses to create ” vitamin pills” and sold them to the masses. The fun companies even added artificial flavors, colors, and additives to make them taste nice — how great was that?!
We see this in “herbal supplements” too. They’re not actually whole herbs. They’re the “active ingredient” (like curcumin), extracted, purified, standardized, and given in mega-doses.
Yep, it’s pretty much just Western medicine, with a “natural” label slapped on it.
Why Many Supplements Are Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing…
Let’s take turmeric as an example.
In whole, organic turmeric, there are compounds called curcuminoids. The most abundant of these is curcumin. It’s about 3% of the total weight of the whole herb.
In a standard 800 mg capsule of whole turmeric, there would be just 24 mg of curcumin, and it would be surrounded by other curcuminoids and a lot of other parts of the plant (starch, etc.).
Yet, some of the most popular turmeric supplements found on Amazon have been standardized to contain 95% curcumin!
That’s Western medicine.
Assuming that if “a little is good, more must be better” and taking large doses of any isolated compound is what Western medicine is built on. And it’s not herbal or natural at all.
Once you’ve extracted that compound and standardized it and put it in a pill with some additives, it’s a drug. End of story.
What Truly Natural Remedies Are
A truly natural remedy doesn’t seek to isolate “active components” of different plants and offer them in mega-doses. Again, that’s Western medicine.
A truly natural remedy respects the power of plants, and the fact that they each have many different compounds that can be beneficial. These plants have synergistic compounds, natural buffers, and a wide variety of chemical constituents (the good kind) that we haven’t even discovered yet. Nature is smarter than we are. Nature adjusts over time. That’s why Western drugs can lead to “resistance” but herbs can’t.
When we use whole herbs, with their wide variety of components, and relatively small quantities of “active” ingredients, they are much safer. And, they’re just as effective — and sometimes more effective!
The safest herbs help to naturally balance the body, instead of forcing a particular effect with the mega-doses.
Herbalists understand this, and have respect for whole plants. That’s why they continue to use whole plants, and prefer them, even though we have the ability to use Western medicine now.
Why does this even matter?
Mega-doses of specific compounds cause side effects. That’s why all medications are required to list their side effects! They cause imbalances in the body, which you then need additional medication to correct.
Just as an example, meadowsweet as a whole herb contains salicylates (a form of aspirin). As a whole herb, it’s in a low concentration and has several buffers, so it’s safe for children and is actually beneficial for upset stomachs.
But aspirin, in isolation, is not safe for children and can cause stomach bleeding! It’s not the same thing, is it?
Even if you’re dealing with vitamin supplements — that can’t be bad, right?
Every single vitamin and mineral has an “agonist” and an “antagonist.” An agonist is something that increases the absorption of something else (taking vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, for example). An antagonist is something that blocks the absorption of something else (calcium and magnesium block each other).
If you take high doses of one vitamin or mineral, you are inadvertently increasing your levels of whatever that single nutrient is, and all of its agonists. Simultaneously, you’re decreasing your levels of all that nutrient’s antagonists. This means that you could easily end up with another deficiency…or several.
Some of these compounds, in isolation, are not even properly recognized by the body. This can place a strain on your liver and kidneys, because it’s their job to filter this stuff out.
This is why ferrous sulfate (synthetic form of iron) is very hard to absorb and causes constipation, while naturally occurring iron in food doesn’t.
Some might make the argument that it’s better to “standardize” these things, so we can be sure people are getting the “right” dose of them. I totally disagree. Because guess what — people aren’t standardized!
Doses are given based on age or weight. But they don’t — can’t — take into account an individual’s metabolism, current nutritional status, etc. and these all impact how that medication behaves in the body. Two people of the same age and weight can react completely differently to the same dosage of the same medication.
There’s no need or benefit to standardizing medication. And when you use safe, whole plants, you don’t need to worry about side effects anyway.
Do you want all the side effects and imbalances? I don’t. That’s why I don’t use Western medicine to begin with. Why would I allow that to happen by using Westernized “natural” remedies?
So What Now?
Sure, plenty of them use “food based” or “naturally derived” ingredients; but heck, so do most of the mainstream companies! This doesn’t make them actually natural. This just means that individual components were extracted and recombined in a lab…which is not what we want at all.
Look for ingredients lists that have whole organic herbs — not extracts. If you see these words, it’s not natural:
- Active ingredient
- High % of a specific compound
- “Extract of” in the ingredients
- Multiple “versions” of the same ingredient (i.e. turmeric, curcumin, and turmeric extract)
- Any ‘extra’ ingredients that aren’t active
The only acceptable extra ingredients are vegetable capsule or gelatin capsule, and obviously only for pill form. For liquids, there should be no extra ingredients at all — just whole herbs, glycerin, water, and/or alcohol.
There are very few companies out there who meet these stringent standards. But, there are companies who do, and if you are truly interested in natural and safe, then you should seek out and do business only with these companies.
Let’s stop pretending that “Westernized” herbal supplements are a good thing. They’re not.
How do you feel about the “natural” health industry?
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