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Natural Health Products (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)

Treatment Overview

In Canada, natural health products are substances you eat or drink. They can be vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants, amino acids (the individual building blocks of protein), or parts of these substances. They can be in pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form. They supplement (add to) the diet and should not be considered a substitute for food.

Natural health products are widely available in Canada in health food stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, on the Internet, and by mail. People commonly take them for health-related reasons. Common natural health products include vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C or a multivitamin), botanicals (herbs and plant products, such as St. John's wort), and substances that come from a natural source (such as omega-3 fatty acids).

Makers of natural health products cannot legally say that natural health products can diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease. But they can say that they contribute to health maintenance and well-being.

People have used the active ingredients in natural health products for thousands of years to help health and to treat illness. Sometimes those natural products are the basis for some of today's common medicines. For example, people have used willow bark tea for centuries to relieve fever. Pharmaceutical companies eventually identified the chemical in willow bark that relieved fever and used that knowledge to produce aspirin.

The Natural and Non-Prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD), within the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, regulates natural health products in Canada. Natural health products must be reviewed and approved by the NNHPD before they can be sold in Canada.

Why It Is Used

People use natural health products for many health conditions.

Historically, people have used natural health products to prevent illness, cure infection, relieve fever, and heal wounds. Natural health products have also been used for constipation, to ease pain, and to act as relaxants or stimulants. Research on some herbs and plant products has shown that they may have some of the same effects that conventional medicines do, while others may have no effect or may be harmful.

Researchers have found that some natural health products do not help prevent certain health problems. For example, beta-carotene and vitamin E do not lower risk of heart disease or heart attack.

Risks

Not all natural health products are safe. If you are unsure about the safety of a natural health product, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian.

Always tell your doctor if you are using a natural health product or if you're thinking about combining a natural health product with your standard medical treatment. It may not be safe to stop your medical treatment and rely only on a natural health product. This is even more important if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

When using natural health products, keep in mind the following.

  • They may cause side effects or trigger allergic reactions. They can also interact with prescription and non-prescription medicines or other natural health products you might be taking. A side effect or interaction may make other health conditions worse.
  • Natural health products may not be standardized in their manufacturing. This means that how well they work or any side effects they cause may differ among brands or even within different lots of the same brand. The form you buy in health food or grocery stores may not be the same as the form used in research.
  • Other than for vitamins and minerals, the long-term effects of most natural health products aren't known.

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