Nothing is more important than your health.
Which is why the choice between natural supplements and pharmaceutical drugs is such a significant one.
The debate between the natural supplements camp and the pharmaceuticals camp is contentious and murky, which doesn't make the decision any easier.
Too often it seems both sides are trying to “win” rather than give you the information you need to make your own, educated decision.
In this article, we’re going to take a step back, look at some hard numbers, and give you the tools to help you make up your own mind.
Where Does the FDA Stand?
It is sometimes said that natural supplements can’t be as safe as pharmaceutical drugs because they aren't regulated.
That’s not entirely true.
They just aren't regulated the same way, or as rigorously, as pharmaceuticals. Both natural supplements and pharmaceutical drugs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Natural supplements are regulated as foods, and pharmaceuticals are regulated as drugs. So what does this mean?
Since 1994, the manufacturers of natural supplements cannot knowingly market or sell products that are adulterated or misbranded. And while the FDA is responsible for taking action against any company that does market or sell adulterated or misbranded supplements, the supplement company is ultimately responsible for ensuring its products’ safety and efficacy.
In other words, while the FDA can punish a company once their products have been shown to not work, there’s not a lot of regulation keeping them from selling the faulty products in the first place.
Pharmaceutical drugs must be proven through clinical and laboratory trials to be effective and safe. However, the FDA itself does not perform these studies – the drug manufacturer does. It’s their responsibility to present the FDA with the research proving their products’ safety. Once the FDA has read and evaluated this information, it makes a ruling on if the drug will be allowed to be sold to the public.
Are Natural Supplements Safe? What about Pharmaceuticals?
Given the stricter regulations, it would seem that pharmaceutical drugs would be safer than natural supplements. But that’s not necessarily true, either.
In looking at 39 of the strongest studies focusing on hospital admissions in the years 1964-1995, nearly 5 out of every 100 patients were admitted because of pharmaceutical drugs that were prescribed and used appropriately – but the side effects were severe enough to require hospitalization.
During those years, approximately 128,000 people died from drug complications, tying “strokes” for 4th most common cause of death in the United States.
And again, these are not overdoses, off-label uses, or even self-medicating situations. These are situations where a doctor prescribed a medication for the use it was intended and the patient took it appropriately. By 2011, these numbers hadn’t changed at all.
In fact, looking closer, by 2011, 1 in 5 new pharmaceutical drugs had to be removed from the market after they were approved, because their side effects were so serious.
Taking into account “minor” side effects, 81 million people are impacted by negative side effects of properly prescribed and used pharmaceutical drugs every year.
So how safe are natural supplements in comparison? Unfortunately, that’s hard to track.
No one reporting agency has been set up to track all of the safety issues around natural supplements. (supplement companies are only required to report serious adverse events to the FDA.) Often, people taking supplements do so on their own, and if they start having complications, just stop taking the supplement without ever talking to a medical professional.
Another safety consideration when discussing natural supplements is that some of them can be harmful when combined with pharmaceutical drugs.
For example, St. John’s Wort is often taken for mild to moderate depression. However, it can cause severe interactions with heart medications or cancer drugs, rendering them less effective. Natural supplements can also be potentially dangerous when combined with certain seemingly unrelated conditions.
Another example: taking a multivitamin is normally considered to be great for your health. Unless you have a sensitivity to iron. In this case, the prevalence of iron in multivitamins can then increase your risk of liver damage.
You need to be careful when choosing any supplement – pharmaceutical or natural – to make sure your body won’t react in unexpected ways
Fortunately, there are several websites that address safety issues of both pharmaceutical drugs, and natural supplements. And, of course, always talk to your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any pharmaceutical drug or natural supplement to ensure your health and safety.
So, Which Works Better?
Some people will tell you that no supplement can work as well as a pharmaceutical drug.
Yet others will tell you that every pharmaceutical drug can be replaced with natural supplements.
So which is it? The truth is: it depends.
By the time a pharmaceutical drug gets to market, you can pretty much trust that it will indeed do what it says it will do. The concern isn’t the efficacy of the pharmaceutical.
The concern is the safety.
That’s when you have to weigh the risks with the benefits.
For example – if a drug helps your prostate condition, but can give you bladder cancer in the future, is it worth it to you?
It might be. But that’s something you have to decide when choosing which solution to use.
Only you – not your doctor, not your loved ones – can make that decision. Still, the pharmaceutical drug can, for the most part, be trusted to do what it is marketed to do.
Natural supplements are a little more complicated than that.
First, many of them have never been tested in a clinically controlled study. They’ve been used for generations, sometimes centuries, to great effect, but never studied. So you can’t refer to a journal and get a guarantee.
Second, because there is less regulation and oversight of natural supplements, you have to be careful to buy from reputable sources.
Many natural supplements are produced and marketed by companies that take advantage of this lack of oversight and skimp on the very ingredient they claim to be selling you.
Do your research and make sure the company you’re buying from has the integrity to monitor quality control.
No product – natural supplement or pharmaceutical drug – can work if the ingredient isn’t there.
Bottom line is do your research. Make educated decisions. Talk with your health care providers. Take responsibility for your own health. And if something works for you, then it works.
Cost and Availability
Obviously, prescription pharmaceutical drugs require a prescription. This can limit availability due to your ability to see a doctor, or cost of filling the prescription.
As many as 1 in 10 seniors in the United States do not take their medications as prescribed – either skipping doses to make the prescription last longer, or not refilling standing prescriptions – because they are too expensive.
Over the counter (OTC) pharmaceutical drugs, and natural supplements tend to be far more easily available.
A simple trip to the drugstore, grocery store, or search in Google and you can find what you’re looking for.
Also, even the most expensive supplements are often on par with, or sometimes less than, their pharmaceutical counterparts.
So what’s the truth? The truth is there are pros and cons to both pharmaceutical drugs and natural supplements.
It’s your decision. It’s your health.