ARE NATURAL SUPPLEMENTS SAFE? REVIEW OF TURMERIC + 4 MORE FUNCTIONAL FOODS
Natural options are becoming increasingly more attractive to the everyday person as more information is publicized about plants and their medicinal components – but are these options truly as safe as they seem?
People are looking for less invasive, convenient and cost-effective health solutions that work synergistically with their biology. Furthermore, many are deciding to take healthcare into their own hands, which in essence, is a good thing that should be supported and facilitated by healthcare providers. Functional foods and natural supplements appear to be perfect answers – they are relatively cheap when compared to conventional therapies, available nearly everywhere and have gained a good reputation through the course of time and marketing.
While having the ability to explore multiple options through the internet, it’s important to note that functional foods are far less understood than their conventional counterparts and thus could (and do) have unprecedented effects, particularly when combined with pharmaceutical interventions. Most healthcare practitioners are understandably not competent with regard to dealing with any potential complications that may arise from taking natural supplements.
It should be well understood that multi-pharmacy is an extremely dangerous game to play, particularly when there is lacking evidence to understand (let alone support) the potential cross-talk between natural supplements and pharmaceutical therapies.
Preliminary research has done a great job at showing us that functional foods do appear to offer many benefits, but the extent of those benefits (as well as the risks) are not that well known.
As highlighted in this review, turmeric, moringa leaf, neem water, licorice root and Panax ginseng are five exceedingly popular botanicals that have a highly medicinal reputation – a reputation which often exaggerates the benefits (sometimes without evidence), while down-playing (or even ignoring) the associated risks. Further pre-supplemental concerns and considerations are also discussed below.
What It Means To Take a Natural Supplement, Daily
Before jumping into the world of natural supplements, have you considered why you would want to take one daily in the first place?
Have you asked if your symptoms are temporary or not, or if you are in a place where adding something extra for your body to process on a daily basis is indeed going to be a beneficial act? If you’re not in a position to answer these questions, then should you really be tampering with your internal chemistry? That’s ultimately what this amounts to being.
Realistically speaking, our dietary intake is not based upon a few isolated ingredients, but on hundreds to thousands of ingredients that also have additional effects when placed together. In spite of what common sense tells us, one plus one has the potential to equal three in this regard.
Every day, your body is accustomed to consuming whatever it is you tend to ingest, all of which are already chemically interacting with your baseline biology. Anything else you add in, particularly things you’ve never had before, could have the potential to topple your chemical balance and give rise to unwanted side effects.
How to Make Functional Foods and Natural Supplements Work for You
Ask yourself: is it a food, a medicine or a poison at this dose and point in time?
You have to be sure that your body and the natural supplement(s) you have in mind are compatible, which is often not achievable through the internet alone and requires the help of a skilled healthcare practitioner to assess your state of health.
Furthermore, it’s important to look at your underlying motivations for wanting a supplement. For example, if you need to boost your energy levels but live a totally sedentary lifestyle, then perhaps you ought to try some daily exercise instead of relying on a natural supplement to do the work for you.
Substance abuse is never the answer! It’s important to be discerning about when one is abusing nature’s bounty to sustain an unhealthy lifestyle. The result is likely to backfire in multiple unexpected ways and the ramifications can be just as destructive as abusing medical or other drugs.
Review of 5 Popular Natural Supplements: Benefits, Risks and Contraindications
Tempted to add the following foods to your natural medicine cabinet? Time to weigh the benefit against the risk!
Turmeric is a bright, yellow colored rhizome originating from India. Over the last 2-3 decades, multitudes of research have popularized this ancient spice as both a natural supplement and functional food. As a result, turmeric is now consumed worldwide on mass and can be found in virtually every health-conscious walk of life.
Turmeric and its main active ingredient curcumin have displayed an impressive array of benefits through the last few decades of scientific exploration. Benefits include:
- Lowering triglycerides and promoting a healthy cholesterol profile
- Thinning blood which may help lower blood pressure and enhance the effect of pain killers
- Encouraging the production of cellular antioxidants
- Reducing certain types of inflammation that have been linked to anxiety, PMS, gut perturbations, metabolic imbalances, post-exercise muscle soreness and joint stiffness
- Mild protection of the liver and brain
In spite of this body of research, most of the trials carried out on this spice were conducted on small sample sizes or in vitro. Furthermore, the effect of turmeric is limited by its exceedingly poor absorption.
The Poor Bioavailabilty of Turmeric
Another point to consider here is that curcumin has extremely poor bioavailability and so many of turmeric’s health benefits are often exaggerated. Turmeric only consists of between 2-9% curcumin compounds, further reducing its effectiveness. Contrary to what one might think, taking a very large dose to get more of the benefit is ineffective as the body can only absorb it in little amounts at a time and rapidly excretes it.
Peperine, a compound found in most peppers (especially black pepper) enhances the bioavailability of curcumin by as much as 2000%. When both compounds are used together in moderate doses, turmeric can provide a slight protective advantage against the health challenges of modern everyday living. More research is still required to confirm whether curcumin is able to prevent or treat disease onset.
Turmeric and curcumin are generally regarded as safe and have been consumed by humanity for thousands of years. As seen with the benefits, the poor bioavailability of turmeric tends to minimize the risks associated with moderate consumption in healthy individuals.
Several trials have however surfaced over the years that reveal that very high doses (up to 12g!) may stimulate the pancreas and gallbladder in such a way that can give rise to abdominal complaints such as pain, bloating, and diarrhea. These trials are also mainly focused on cancer patients and do not represent the majority of the population.
In susceptible individuals, a moderately high dose of curcumin (2g) can increase the risk of post-operative kidney damage. It’s important to note that these individuals were going in for surgery to correct aortic aneurisms and that turmeric is generally contraindicated for those who have weak blood vessels, as it thins blood.
Long-term use of curcumin in conjunction with other blood thinning medications can cause internal bleeding and should be avoided.
Curcumin was found to:
- Thin the blood and inhibit blood platelet aggregation, making it contraindicated for those taking blood thinning medications, anticoagulants and antiplatelet medications. NSAIDS, antidepressants and warfarin are the most commonly prescribed drugs in this category.
- Prevent apoptosis (a beneficial form of cell death) in breast cancer cells, which may lessen the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.
- Interfere with liver and ATP-dependent cellular pathways which may affect the metabolism of multiple classes of drug.
- Initiate a drop in blood sugar levels, which over time and through multiple applications can cause induced hypoglycemia in those already on medications that control blood sugar levels, such as gliclazide.
- Affect specific liver pathways in a way that slows down elimination and thus may potentiate the effects (and side effects) of the vast majority of pharmaceutical drugs available. Piperine (often added to curcumin supplements to enhance bioavailability) has similar effects in this regard.
2) Moringa leaf extract
The leaves of the Moringa tree have made their way onto the health scene in the last decade or so, thanks to their highly nutritious character. Considered a superfood in the Western world, the East has long since adopted the consumption of moringa leaves as an everyday green vegetable.
The main health benefits pertaining to moringa are related to the fact that it is such a nutrient dense vegetable. It is not so much a supplement as it is a functional food. Moringa can help improve the nutritional profile of those who are deficient in basic nutrients (particularly amino acids, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and Vitamin E).
It’s important to note that so far there have been very few scientific studies conducted on humans that can verify the benefits associated with moringa. There are, however, plenty of anecdotal reports attesting to its greatness. 
Preliminary human, animal and in vitro studies have this to say about the potential benefits of moringa leaf extract:
- Moringa may lower blood sugar levels and improve aspects of insulin sensitivity
- Breast-feeding mothers who struggle to lactate may benefit from moringa supplementation as it has been shown to increase prolactin (the breast milk hormone)
- Cardio studies on rats have shown that moringa may promote healthy cholesterol levels, regulate blood pressure and keep the heart calm.
- It can act as an antioxidant and may help to lower inflammation, particularly associated with allergies, intoxication and gut disturbances
- The protein content of moringa leaves supposedly rivals eggs and contains 19 amino acids. This has sparked its use in sports nutrition and vegan workout supplements, for which there is limited evidence for its effectiveness.
- Its potential as a disinfectant has also been explored. The dried leaves may be as effective as soap at sterilizing ones hands and the compounds present appear to inhibit the growth of pathogens such as staphylococcus aureus.
Research regarding moringa is still in its infancy and there have been no studies conducted on humans as yet that indicate it as being harmful, even in doses of up to 20g.
In fact, scientists had to work fairly hard to try to induce toxicity with moringa in rats by exposing them to unrealistic amounts or by infusing it in dangerous substances, such as pure methanol. In animals, toxic doses are only apparent from 3g per kg of body weight.
If the same can be said for humans, then moringa would begin to pose a serious health risk after ingestion of roughly 240g in a person weighing 70kg. This dose is nearly impossible to ingest thanks to the bitter nature of the food. The average consumption tends to span between 1 and 3 tsps daily for the powder and even less for a tea infusion.
In spite of the safety of the food, moringa could be contraindicated in some cases. Just like a person with a certain condition may want to avoid eating certain foods, you should avoid consuming moringa if you are:
- Taking anti-diabetic medications or drugs that rapidly lower blood sugar levels.
- Statins, anti-epileptics and certain antibiotics that are processed in the liver viz CYP450 enzymes.
3) Neem water
Another popular Ayurvedic medicinal plant, neem is recommended by a large number of Indian doctors both as a functional food and as a natural health supplement.
While it’s been in use for hundreds of years and is recommended in the East as a treatment for nearly 300 conditions, one should proceed with caution when considering supplementing with neem. Unlike other functional foods, the limited evidence on neem suggests that it should not be consumed daily for long periods of time.
Human studies involving neem have revealed that it may be useful as a mouthwash. The constituents of neem have antimicrobial properties and they seem to be effective at inhibiting plaque formation.
Neem is also an effective natural insecticide. Gentle applications of neem-infused shampoo have been proven effective for dealing with head lice in children.
Preliminary trials and animal studies have shown that neem water may have the following benefits:
- Neem may help to regulate inflammation
- Certain components of neem may protect the liver against toxins
- May be able to help improve gastric ulcers and prevent lesions from forming in the stomach
- In wounded animals, neem promoted speedy wound healing
- May substantially lower blood sugar levels
- Neem might be able to protect the kidneys and brain from toxin-induced damage
- Could boost the immune system profile and increase levels of antibodies
More research is still required to verify these effects in humans.
Neem may disrupt functions of the reproductive system and contribute to fertility issues if taken in larger doses on a daily basis. One such effect of neem documented in rats was a sharp decline in testosterone levels.
The bark and a smaller fraction of the components in the leaf might inhibit stomach acid secretion by as much as 77%! While brilliant perhaps for those with a stomach ulcer, this effect of neem can interfere with digestion and give rise to gut issues (e.g. constipation, leaky gut, abdominal pain, etc).
Components of neem seed are used as an insecticide by severely affecting the digestive capacity of insects, which may be indicative of digestive toxicity at very high doses in humans.
Kids are especially sensitive to neem products and tend to have adverse reactions. Children, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers should avoid ingesting neem water or supplements.
Neem is contraindicated for those who:
- Are taking anti-diuretics or lithium due to its potential as a diuretic.
- Have an overactive immune system, auto-immune disease or who are taking immune-suppressing medications such as steroids.
- Require anti-diabetic drugs or who have dangerously low blood sugar levels.
- Have undergone or are about to undergo surgery.
Most people know of licorice as a flavor enhancing agent in drinks and sweets, but few realize just how potent it can be as a supplement. After scientists began to puzzle together its mode of action, licorice was largely barred from use to flavor food items and has since been replaced by a similar tasting compound from star anise, another sweetly flavored spice.
Licorice root used to be a popular natural remedy that dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt. It is still applied as a medicine by traditional practitioners today and its potency is often underrated by the average health enthusiast, leaving it open for abuse.
Licorice root has been extensively studied and due to its potency, has been strictly regulated in many countries when added to natural supplement formulations.
Benefits of licorice include :
- Lowering stress levels by inhibiting the conversion of cortisol to the more potent stress hormone, cortisone
- Can act as a stimulant due to the hormonal effects it exerts on the adrenal glands (similarly to coffee but through differing mechanisms)
- Boosting parameters of immunity such as white blood cell count and may help lessen a sore throat
- Improving circulation by elevating heart rate
- Modulating kidney function by enhancing potassium excretion and sodium re-absorption
- Alkalizing effect in the gut which may help stomach ulcers and other acidity-related gut issues
- Pro-estrogenic and progesterone enhancing effects
- Promotes cellular antioxidant activity
- Has some antimicrobial effects and may help promote wound healing when applied topically to skin
While generally regarded as safe, just about all the benefits associated with licorice root can also be considered detrimental to health, depending on the state the body is in when consuming it.
This applies even to consuming amounts as small as 800mg daily. Due to the sensitive nature of the adrenal axis in the body, the way each person responds to licorice will be different and therefore even more caution is advised. The elderly population and females tend to be more sensitive to the effects of licorice for different reasons.
Too much licorice root can increase the heart rate excessively, drop potassium levels to a dangerous low, induce muscle weakness and wasting, as well as disrupt the hormones that work in the adrenal glands.
Licorice root should not be consumed daily for longer than 3 months at a time and should always be used with the supervision of a healthcare professional with the right expertise.
Often people want to supplement with licorice to lower their stress levels and to “correct” fatigue, however licorice could be just as easily contraindicated in a person with these symptoms and is not a cure for any chronic disease. Proceed with the utmost caution when considering using licorice intensively!
Licorice may also induce premature birth and should be avoided during pregnancy for optimal results.
Licorice root is contraindicated for:
- Patients suffering from hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease*, anorexia (typically related to a non-nutritive diet low in potassium), edema or other muscle-wasting conditions
- Those taking steroids, immune suppressing medications, antidiabetic medications (especially insulin shots), blood thinners (NSAIDS and warfarin) or diuretics
- Multiple classes of drug metabolized in the liver due to its potential to inhibit certain liver enzymes
- People with a potassium deficiency or who consume excessive amounts of sodium
- Those who have diarrhea or who are severely dehydrated
*In certain instances, licorice may help those who are undergoing kidney dialysis by helping the body process potassium overload. Consult with your doctor before opting for any complementary therapy or making any radical changes to your health regime, especially with regard to licorice.
5) Panax Ginseng
Not to be confused with Siberian Ginseng or other kinds of ginseng, Panax Ginseng is a root spice originating from China and Korea. Famous in the natural health world for enhancing blood flow, promoting better erections and acting as an invigorating herbal pick-me-up, Panax Ginseng forms part of many Chinese health supplements for everyday well-being.
As with most natural products, adequate research is lacking to confirm that this root will indeed confer any of the benefits outlined below. Furthermore, the stimulating properties of ginseng may cause more trouble than it’s worth, in susceptible individuals.
Panax ginseng may confer the following benefits :
- Enhanced cognitive function, particularly through promoting nerve cell signaling and acetylcholine release
- Acts as a stimulant and may help to counter fatigue
- Promotes better erections and sustained libido
- Lowered blood sugar levels
- May lower blood pressure and exert cardio-protective effects
- Regulating apoptosis (healthy cell death), especially in fat cells
- May help ex-smokers deal with withdrawal symptoms
- Could boost parameters of immunity (restoring white blood cell function, promoting bone marrow health) and protect the immune system against radiation
There are few side effects associated with taking ginseng alone and it is considered safe in general.
When added to multi-herbal preparations, ginseng seems to be implicated in causing severe adverse outcomes, including fatality. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint what interaction(s) between ginseng and other compounds are responsible. The main takeaway here is to guard against taking it in combination with multiple other therapeutic substances.
Side effects of a Panax overdose include headaches, nausea, sleep disturbance (or inability to sleep), spurts of mania or manic behavior, very low blood sugar levels, skin irritations, vaginal bleeding and gut perturbations. If taking ginseng, it’s best to stick to the recommended dose of between 200-400mg daily.
Ginseng should be avoided prior to surgery as it may dangerously drop fasting blood sugar levels and thin the blood excessively, resulting in possible post-surgical complications. The anti-coagulant effect of ginseng may be irreversible, according to some scientific observations, yet more research is required to confirm this as fact.
Ginseng is contraindicated in the following cases:
- Patients taking anti-coagulants like warfarin and NSAIDS.
- Individuals who are using drugs metabolized in the liver.
- Those scheduled for surgery.
- Alcohol consumption
When looking up foods for their health benefits, make sure to take it with a grain of salt and to be very sure that the risk(s) are worth it. If you can’t find information about whether something is safe or not, then it is best to avoid taking it, no matter how promising the benefits may seem. Even the above review is lacking much information about whether these natural supplements would work for you or not.
Not everyone is a skilled researcher, but if you are looking at the internet for natural solutions and are keen to take health into your own hands, then you need to learn to look beyond the surface and weigh the risks with as much information as you can gather. At the very least, consult with a healthcare expert that can do this for you. Their expertise is an often underrated gold mine of information; which need not leave you powerless to make your own healthcare decisions, but could rather be a source of true health empowerment.
Last but not least, consult with your healthcare provider before opting to take something on a daily basis, particularly if you are already subscribed to a healthcare regime. The chances are that you have no idea what you might be signing up for and it’s always better to be safe than sorry!
To search for the best healthcare providers worldwide, please use the Mya Care search engine.
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