Natural Medicine Vs Pharmaceutical: Which One is Best For You?

Updated: Mar 15


When it comes to getting healthy, you have more choices than ever before. There's conventional medicine, chiropractic care, traditional medicine like Ayurvedic or Traditional Chinese medicine (just to name a few), functional and integrative medicine, mind body medicine, and, my personal favorite, naturopathic (sometimes called natural) medicine. 

With so many options to choose from, there's bound to be some confusion concerning which option is the best for you. But do you have to choose between the various forms of medicine?

Should you use only one form of medicine and avoid all of the others completely? Are some forms of medicine and their practitioners "quacks"? (Does anyone even use that term anymore?)

While it is certainly a personal decision you must make concerning your choice of health care, I'll try to help you understand which choice may be best for you depending upon your circumstances.

What is Natural Medicine?


I think it's safe to say that of all the different forms of medicine, natural medicine is gaining the most popularity. There's countless websites and bloggers dedicated to spreading the word about how natural medicine is the way to go (wink wink).

A simple Google search using the words 'natural medicine' fetches over a billion results whereas a search using the words 'conventional medicine' only nets around 256 million. A search for 'pharmaceutical' yields only about 443 million.

Clearly, natural medicine is making its mark on and even changing society.

But what is natural medicine exactly?

A simple definition from the Medical dictionary states that it is:

(1)Naturopathy or Naturopathic Medicine.

(2) A general term for any form of healthcare (diet, exercise, herbs, hydrotherapy, etc.) that depends on the body’s natural healing powers.

(3) Any substance (e.g., foxglove, menthol, peyote, etc.) which is used in an unadulterated state to manage a condition or evoke a desired change in a person’s physical or mental status.

For a more comprehensive definition, check out this post: What is Naturopathic Medicine and Why You Need It. 

While natural medicine is gaining a lot of popularity, there’s a lot of opposition to it as well. This usually comes from some of those trained in allopathic (conventional) medicine and the pharmaceutical industry. Why the opposition? Well I have my own opinions, namely, some allopathic doctors are extremely ignorant of the benefits of natural medicine and feel threatened by it due to their lack of understanding and training it in and their patients increasing use of it. There’s also a financial component associated with the acrimony some allopathic doctors have to natural medicines. The natural medicine industry is booming. It’s estimated that the industry will be worth almost 197 billion dollars by 2025. While that’s nothing compared to the estimated 1170 billion of the pharmaceutical industry, there is a rising sense of repulsion among people (in general) when it comes to drugs. Their adverse effects and the greed (whether perceived or real) of the drug giants are repelling people from looking to medications for their ills. There’s also the bleak outlook of having to take medication for the rest of your life that sets some people looking for a different ( or what they perceive as a better) path. I also believe that conventional doctors are perplexed by the variety of treatments available with natural medicine. After all, the MD’s most effective (and usually only) form of treatment is pharmaceuticals. I like to joke that some MDs should be doctors of medications not medicine. But this is just my opinion of why natural medicine is so maligned among some conventional MDs. If you ask one, he might say something along the lines of natural medicine is ineffective, not evidence based, and/or dangerous. Let’s examine these claims. Natural Medicine is Ineffective


Whenever I hear someone say this, I immediately think of a person who’s been spending their time reading a Forbes (who is staunchly against naturopathic medicine) article with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of blood pressure meds in another. If this is you, I make no judgment. Despite the fact that natural medicine has been in use for thousands of years, people claim that it’s ineffective. But is this true? Diet and exercise have been proven countless times to be effective in reducing or even curing lifestyle diseases like depression[1] and high blood pressure[2] . This is natural medicine (gasp). Herbal medicines have been studied and found to be effective for disorders from high LDL cholesterol[3] to insomnia[4].

Supplements like CoQ10 and vitamin D have been found to improve the health outcomes of people with heart failure[5]. An extract from green tea, EGCG has been found to inhibit DYRK1A protein production which helps with cognition enhancement in individuals with Down Syndrome[6].

Infra red sauna has been shown to increase the body's own production of antioxidants in the blood[7].

I could go on but I think you've got the point. There is a ton of evidence showing that natural medicine is effective at treating a wide range of conditions from those caused by lifestyle all the way to genetics. This leads me to the next point: no evidence.


No Evidence 

I wonder if people making this claim do so out of reflex rather than thoughtfulness. A quick internet search of medical and academic databases reveal literally thousands of peer reviewed published studies of the efficacy of a wide variety of natural medicines. See a small sample above. There’s also the less accepted (among certain doctors) but still valid anecdotal evidence that many patients of natural medicine report. After all, isn't it the job of the doctor to listen to her patient? If your patient is telling you that something they ate (or stopped eating), or something they've taken has greatly relieved their symptoms, isn't up to you to listen and get more information?

Unfortunately, those doctors opposed to natural medicine will just dismiss their patient's concerns as it being "all in your head" or my favorite, the placebo effect. Often times, patients won't even tell their conventional doctors when they are taking something natural just because they don't want to be berated about how "dangerous" and "unproven" natural medicines are. Oddly enough, it’s rare that you ever hear of someone dying from taking a natural medicine as recommended by their naturopathic doctor. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen but it’s not very often. Which disproves the next claim about natural medicines: that natural medicine is dangerous.

Dangerous


There has been 1 high profile death attributed to natural medicine in recent years. Unfortunately this was due to an anaphylactic reaction in the patient. Essentially the patient had an allergic reaction to a natural medicine that was fatal.

While any death is a tragedy, it has to be stated that this is one death among approximately 72 million people who see naturopathic doctors and/or use natural medicine for decades[8].

Are there dangers associated with using natural medicine? Of course, natural does not always equal safe. There are poisonous mushrooms. They're natural but they shouldn't be ingested. There are dangerous plants. They're natural but they should be avoided. There are vitamin overdoses and life-threatening allergic reactions that can occur. Vitamins are natural but they shouldn't be used in excess for months. And a person can have allergies to a wide range of things.

Overall natural medicines are mostly safe especially when used with prudence and guidance from your naturopathic doctor. 

So you've got an idea of what exactly natural medicine is and the arguments against it, but how about pharmaceuticals?

You think you know exactly what pharmaceutical medicine is but you shouldn't be so sure.


What is Pharmaceutical Medicine?

When you think of medicine, or more specifically, medications then you're probably thinking about pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceuticals are defined as (1) a compound manufactured for use as a medicinal drug or (2) companies manufacturing medicinal drugs. 

Pretty straightforward right? 

Well, in the minds of the majority of Western society (think United States of America), pharmaceuticals means well researched, evidence based, safe and efficacious treatment.

I'd like to challenge that thought though.

Well researched


According the the FDA “ It is the responsibility of the company seeking to market a drug to test it and submit evidence that it is safe and effective.” This essentially means that the drug company does its own testing and submits the “evidence” to the FDA for review. If you don’t see a problem with that, then I have bridge near ocean front property in Nebraska to sell you. All joking aside, having drug companies perform their own testing and producing their own evidence of efficacy on their products has serious consequences. According to the FDA, new drugs submitted for approval go through either a standard review for 10 months or a priority review for 6 months. It takes about 10-12 years for a drug to be developed starting from the laboratory to the market.

It's interesting that clinical trials usually don't last that long though. The longest clinical trials can be up to 4 years for medications that doctors expect you to take for a lifetime. Also phase IV, the longest of clinical trials, can go into effect AFTER the FDA approves the drug for the market.

What company can you think of that will willingly scrap 10-12 years of hard work if their product isn’t up to standards when billions of dollars are at stake? If you think I’m being biased against the pharmaceutical industry look at the long list of deaths and FDA recalls in recent years from Vioxx, an arthritis medication that increased risk of heat attack and stroke, to the most recent pharmaceutical recalls which are too many to name. If you don't believe me, check out the FDA's own data right here where all of the drug recalls, date of recall issue, and reason is listed.

Some are down right scary, like the infant's ibuprofen having higher concentrations than expected and sodium chloride injectable vials that incorrectly state they don't have latex which could be fatal for a person with latex allergies.

Most skeptics of natural medicine (or critics, I'd say) say that pharmaceuticals are well researched or at least more than natural medicines. When they say this, they aren't lying but they're not exactly telling the truth (whether intentional or not) either. 

Your doctor and academia may not even know how the drug you've just been prescribed works. Take metformin, a drug used in type II diabetes, for example. In the past, metformin was thought to have a simple mechanism of action (MOA) that involved the liver. Now researchers are realizing that its true MOA is much more complex. More research is needed to "truly understand how this drug works on its target population"[9] 

Metformin isn't the only drug that needs more research, there are other drugs like lithium salts that still elude academia as to how they really work.

In fact up to 18% of approved drugs have no "well defined" mechanism of action[10]. This means that the research showing how these drugs work doesn't explain much or just doesn't exist. If pharmaceuticals can be prescribed without knowledge of how they work, why are natural medicines held to a higher standard?


Evidence based Did you know that doctors can prescribe you medications for a use that the FDA hasn’t approved of? This is called off label use. Off label use which is quite common and perfectly legal, is when your doctor prescribes you a medication that hasn't been studied for your specific condition or age group. Or the prescription could be in a different dose than what was studied and approved by the FDA [9].

Off label drug use is especially high in pediatric populations since they are "excluded from clinical studies"[9]. This means that many doctors are prescribing medication to children that has never been studied for their physiology. But what has that got to do with evidence? The drug works right?

Take ondansetron, the generic name of an antiemetic studied on cancer patients, as an example of doctors prescribing medicine without evidence . This medication is routinely prescribed to pregnant women suffering from nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. I even took it when I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum with both of my pregnancies. Unbeknownst to me and millions of women who took this pharmaceutical, ondansetron was shown to be the cause of heart and facial defects in infants whose mothers had taken the antiemetic in the first trimester[10]. Why is this relevant? Because there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever for any doctor prescribing that medicine to a pregnant woman, other than the fact that she had nausea. It’s unethical to conduct research on fetuses and pregnant woman. This is just one example of doctors giving medications to patients without any evidence to back up their prescriptions. Safe


Pharmaceuticals are often touted by those who prescribe them as safe. It’s sad that the doctors giving these drugs to patients have no idea of their danger.

Approximately 128,000 deaths a year occur due to pharmaceuticals. What’s worse is that these deaths result from the patients taking the medication as prescribed[11]!

Donald Light, a medical and economic sociologist who authored a 2013 paper titled "Institutional corruption of pharmaceuticals and the myth of safe and effective drugs" states "By far the greatest number of [prescription drug-related] hospitalizations and deaths occur from drugs that are prescribed properly by physicians and taken as directed." Ask your MD about that the next time he chides you for taking natural medicine. One of the reasons pharmaceuticals aren’t as safe as suggested is because they are potent. The purpose of pharmaceuticals are to get the body to do something and quick. Many medications act as antagonists in the body stopping the production of certain enzymes, hormones, or proteins. Others act as agonists, forcing the body to create more of what it needs without necessarily giving the body the building blocks to keep up with these demands.


Natural medicine doesn’t work that way. Natural medicine works with the body to help the body heal itself. You’ll rarely see a naturopathic doctor recommending a course of supplements without also offering advice on diet, stress management, sleep hygiene, exercise, and building a better support network. Often the supplements that naturopathic doctors do recommend are things the body needs anyway like vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Pharmaceuticals are the exact opposite. One of my wise naturopathic teachers used to say “No one has a headache because of Tylenol deficiency. Drink some water!”   

Now that you’ve got a sense of what natural medicine and pharmaceuticals really are, how they operate, and the concerns surrounding them, which should you choose? While that decision is ultimately up to you consider this: Naturopathic medicine isn’t for people who want to take a pill for the rest of their lives. It is for people who recognize that the body is not a machine but a living organism that needs the proper nutrients, care, love and support to thrive. Natural medicine is for those who want to be an active empowered player in the choices they make for their health. It is for people who want something better, something positive, something permanent. Pharmaceuticals are more for people who’d rather have less control over their long term health,


those suffering from acute or severe situations that need immediate stabilization, and/or those who are too critical of natural medicine to give it a try. That’s all fine and good, you say, but how about specific conditions? Which ones respond to natural medicine better than pharmaceutical and vice versa? That’s a great question and one I hesitate to answer just because everyone is different and responds to medicine differently. A cop out you say?

Well consider this: a naturopathic doctor creates unique recommendations for you not just your specific condition. How well you incorporate those recommendations into your lifestyle plays a huge role as well. While you might have a chronic headache due to dehydration and low blood sugar, another patient might have one due to an improper sleeping position and stress. Would I give you the same recommendations that I’d give the second individual? Of course not! This is the beauty of naturopathic medicine: individualized recommendations that address the root cause of symptoms and bring the whole person into balance.

How well you incorporate those recommendations into your lifestyle plays a huge role as well.

Pharmaceuticals usually don’t work that way. The most a conventional doctor usually does is adjust dosage or replace one medication for another and if you take the medicine, you get your desired results, at least for a time. While both systems of medicine offer a very different approach, I wouldn’t suggest that you use one form to the exclusion of all others unless you work with a trained licensed healthcare professional.

Conditions responding well to pharmaceuticals include clotting disorders, bacterial infections, acute pain, certain types of epilepsy, Addison's Disease, Cushing syndrome, acute phases of stroke, and heart attack.


Conditions that respond well to natural medicine includes chronic lifestyle diseases like Type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol. Endocrine disorders like low thyroid function improve with natural medicine. Infertility and mood disorders like anxiety and depression as well as most gut health concerns also respond well. Autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, and fatigue tend to respond well too.

Even genetic conditions like Down Syndrome can respond well provided you give the body the building blocks it needs for health, which is exactly what naturopathic medicine does.

So which form of medicine you choose has more to do with your goals, personality, and belief system rather than evidence and research. In fact, an integrated approach using both natural and pharmaceutical medicine is ideal for many patients. No matter what you choose make sure that it is what's best for you.

Your turn!

Do you have a form of medicine that you prefer over the others? Are there any forms that you absolutely would not try? 

Let me know in the comments.

References

1. Uemura M, Hayashi F, Ishioka K et al. Obesity and mental health improvement following nutritional education focusing on gut microbiota composition in Japanese women: a randomised controlled trial. Eur J Nutr. 2018. doi:10.1007/s00394-018-1873-0

2. Casas R, et a. Nutrition and Cardiovascular Health. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(12). https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/19/12/3988.

3. Kinoshita H, Ogata Y. Effect of Bitter Melon Extracts on Lipid Levels in Japanese Subjects: A Randomized Controlled Study. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018;2018:4915784. Published 2018 Nov 8. doi:10.1155/2018/4915784

4. Guerrero FA, Medina GM. Effect of a medicinal plant (Passiflora incarnata L) on sleep. Sleep Sci. 2017;10(3):96-100.

5. Dragan S, Buleu F, Christodorescu R et al. Benefits of multiple micronutrient supplementation in heart failure: A comprehensive review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018:1-17. doi:10.1080/10408398.2018.1540398

6. Wyganowska-Świątkowska M, Matthews-Kozanecka M, Matthews-Brzozowska T, Skrzypczak-Jankun E, Jankun J. Can EGCG Alleviate Symptoms of Down Syndrome by Altering Proteolytic Activity?. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(1):248. Published 2018 Jan 15. doi:10.3390/ijms19010248

7. 4. Khodarev V. [The influence of general infrared sauna on the antioxidant systems in the blood of volunteers]. - PubMed - NCBI. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24437201. Published 2018. 

8. https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2013-02/economic-evaluation-complementary-and-alternative-medicine

9.Rena G, Hardie DG, Pearson ER. The mechanisms of action of metformin. Diabetologia. 2017;60(9):1577-1585.

10. Gregori-Puigjané E, Setola V, Hert J, et al. Identifying mechanism-of-action targets for drugs and probes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012;109(28):11178-83.

11..Wittich CM, Burkle CM, Lanier WL. Ten common questions (and their answers) about off-label drug use. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012;87(10):982-90.

12.Zambelli-Weiner A, Via C, Yuen M, Weiner D, Kirby R. First trimester ondansetron exposure and risk of structural birth defects. Reproductive Toxicology. 2018;83:14-20. doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2018.10.010

13.https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2016-09-27/the-danger-in-taking-prescribed-medications


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