Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Natural" does not necessarily mean "good for you"

You can generally separate eczema bloggers and tweeters into three groups. In increasing size of their representation on the web:
  • Those (e.g., me) who believe that Western science and medicine have good solutions to offer
  • People who believe that Western medicine is a conspiracy designed solely to funnel money into the pockets of big pharma (generally, wackos, although they may have a point)
  • Those who won't go as far as the second group, but who favor "natural" products and therapies instead of refined, "artificial' pharmaceuticals
I had an experience on the weekend that gave me a new look at the "natural" versus "artificial" debate. The idea that because something is part of a fresh or recently harvested plant (think Chinese herbs here) it's somehow kinder, softer, less likely to mess you up.

This is utterly wrong.

So, I found this cluster of healthy, clean-looking weeds outside my back gate. It looked like Italian parsley. It smelled like parsley. Did it taste like parsley? Whoa--let's not taste it right now, I thought.

And I'm a fan of wild mushrooms. I pick them and taste them raw. There is no mushroom that will kill you if you spit it out. Something just told me not to taste this plant.

I called my father-in-law, a biologist and naturalist, and he brought over a pile of books to help identify my weed. We narrowed it down to a few candidates that grow in our region.
  • Actual feral parsley
  • Water hemlock
  • Poison hemlock
Poison hemlock, according to our books, is the same herb the ancient Greeks used to kill Socrates. Next to the entry for poison hemlock, one of the books noted: "FATAL TO TASTE."

It also said that since so many plants in the parsley family are extremely poisonous, you shouldn't eat them unless you have absolutely, positively, identified them.

I don't know what this stuff is, but even though it's all-natural, I won't be using it to garnish my pasta.

And, by contrast, the same night I quite happily popped a few pills of ibuprofen to reduce my back pain. They worked just fine, like they always do. I don't mind paying big pharma for ibuprofen.

I know the comparison between poison hemlock and ibuprofen is hardly a fair one, and that most practitioners of Chinese medicine know what they're handling, but it did starkly illustrate the point that "natural" plants can produce some of the most evil toxins we know.


  1. This is a great point. Thank you for writing this. I definitely favor the natural side, but have nothing against modern medicine when it's needed. You are absolutely right that herbs can be harmful or deadly.

    I would like to also add that non-toxic does not always mean natural as people would assume.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. My own first reaction is usually that "natural" is better than "manmade." Maybe that's a consequence of growing up in the '70s when everything seemed to be made of polyester. But you have to consider each clothing item, each therapeutic, each food choice, on its own. You shouldn't adopt an ideology that asks you to reject things based on their origin of manufacture (slave labor aside) rather than what they can do for you.

  3. Before I read your whole post I considered myself number 3. Now, I feel that I am probably more in between numbers 2 and 3.
    In my opinion just because there are some plants that are toxic does not place artificial pharmaceuticals on the same playing field AT ALL!
    I feel that natural remedies are far superior when you know what you are doing and educate yourself so as to not accidentally eat hemlock. I do think that there is a place for these interventions but I do not feel that they are safe option for extended treatment of my eczema. I do not reject them for how they are made, and I know that they will "help" for the short term but the side effects of extended and repeated use are not worth it. I would much rather spend the time to educate myself about herbs that are helpful and how to correctly use them, as well as make informed decisions about all other aspects of my lifestyle that may affect my eczema.
    It really interesting to me how many plants can so easily be mistaken for something dangerous but I do not think it makes the helpful plants any less helpful. I am glad that you looked it up before you ate it!

  4. The point I was hoping to make was not that one is likely to eat some random herb and kill oneself (OK, I did use that example), but that "natural" plants & their extracts exist in the same physical world and obey the same laws of chemistry as pharmaceuticals. The reason some herbs may have an effect is because they contain drug molecules--which inevitably come with side effects. And plants didn't evolve to be helpful to us, they evolved to survive, which in some cases means they produce toxins that, for example, might be screwing up your kidneys in the long run. Why not figure out which drugs in a plant are having a beneficial effect, and purify them, leaving out other compounds that could cause problems? That's what pharma does. I am not against herbal remedies if they work--I am just against knee-jerk rejection of pharma in favor of "natural" products marketed by vendors who have their own agenda.

    What herbs do you use to treat eczema? I am interested in Chinese herbal medicine but know very little about it.

  5. Thank you for your post... informative. Further along this topic, as people are looking to natural options as you pointed out, it is extremely important to do your research. There is a big difference between natural and organic. I am alway skeptical of products that claim to be "Natural". Organic is the way to go if you are looking for alternatives. I see myself in category 3 as you describe above. Our family believes western medicine is great for emergent situations; trauma, etc. or when you have exhausted Eastern medicine options. I am always cautious with herbs and natural designations, even though we tend to go the holistic route with treatment. Check out this video, touches on what natural could mean in some situations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7Wh3uq1yTc&feature=relmfu


  6. I love this blog, and your humour. I feel I am in between a number 1 and a 2. I have struggled with crazy bouts of eczema and horrible crusty, weeping wounds at times. I'm forever doing that nervous scratching too btw, so I'll have to look at using those techniques you wrote about. I have had nothing but trouble with "natural remedies" and fasting and all the hippie paranoid-ness (no offence to anyone here). Also, I do agree it is SOO difficult to know who to believe, and yes the auto-immune suppressants I gave in to were just out of sheer necessity and trusting that it was all I could do in the end. I am off them now, and when I drink or smoke or do am crazy stressed or nervous or in a scratching mood I make my skin a lot worse, but I find that just being healthy most of the time and stopping the paranoia and hyperchondria and all night internet searches helps. Glad I found this blog though! I now take probiotics and drink a lot of water with lemon in it and yadda yadda. Just be healthy and try not to booze.

  7. Yeah, nobody WANTS to use drugs to treat their eczema. I'm with you.

    I drink in moderation--there's another drug, which I find I use to cope with stress like my mother-in-law's recent 10-day visit. I'd probably be better off not drinking any alcohol, but on the other hand it reduces my stress level!

    Smoking, on the other hand: Boy, am I glad I never got hooked. I tried smoking as a teenager but never quite figured out how to inhale without coughing my lungs up.

    CK Bridgett's habit reversal technique worked for me--once at least--but I could probably do with a booster session. http://www.ckbridgett.com/Site/Welcome.html

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