The Neanderthals were well aware of the therapeutic properties of many berries, leaves, and herbs. Many medications used today are manufactured from plant extracts. However, can pharmaceuticals be entirely substituted with ‘natural’ products?
Before answering this question, the first thing to consider is why are many of us so against pills? If a leaf is picked off the ground and eaten, is it better for you, than if placed in a biodegradable capsule? Remember a capsule makes the product airtight and protects from decay, bacteria, oxidation, and conversion to harmful products.
It is also essential to consider that natural products can contain a combination of harmful and therapeutic elements; a famous example is a marijuana. The benefit of genetic engineering to a plant and putting it in a pill is that the excellent properties of the plant can be potentially utilized without the side effects.
Therapeutic properties of the plant which act on the cannabinoid receptors have robust anti-seizure activity. There are strains of artificially grown marijuana which have very low levels of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana which makes you high and causes rebound depression, anxiety, psychosis, and cognitive side effects with frequent use and is found in high levels in wild strains) and high in CBD (the components of marijuana which prevent seizures). These genetically engineered strains are being researched to help patients with intractable seizures. This is an example of an artificial being better and natural being harmful.
Opium, sugar, magic mushrooms, nicotine, are examples of natural compounds which are potentially harmful, while antibiotics and ACE inhibitors are examples of pharmacologically manufactured products which can prolong life.
So why would you want a natural treatment which is less effective, more likely to be contaminated, more likely to have side effects, and less likely to be tested and regulated than an FDA approved version of a compound which has similar results? I am not advocating for everyone to take psychiatric medications, but just about everyone has had some psychiatric symptoms at some point in their life, and when seeking resolution it is essential to consider the fact that natural is not always better and may cause more side effects. For example, red wine may be regarded as natural by many but is not the best solution for insomnia.
Another example is SSRIs for depression, such as Prozac and Zoloft. No other subclass of medication is prescribed so frequently or has tried, tested, tried and tested again. They are safe, not addictive, and reduced sex drive is usually reported as the worst side effect after initial titration. However, they are still viewed with high suspicion, and many people feel more comfortable taking herbs such as St John’s Wort, for depression although there is little evidence that this is safer or better for you in the long term.
It is also important to consider that natural remedies are a lot of work. Effective ‘natural,’ or non-pharmacological treatments for many psychiatric symptoms can include:
- A balanced diet, low in sugar and carbohydrates
- Exposure to sunlight
- Sleep Hygiene
- Weekly or biweekly psychotherapy
- Altruism, volunteering,
- Filling your day with a pleasurable activity
All of these natural treatments require a lot of work, motivation, time, organization, negotiation and sometimes money. Natural treatments are not a walk in the park and require more effort than taking a pill. Depression by definition can mean ‘learned helplessness,’ and while depressed, it may be necessary to take medication, in order just to become well enough to participate in natural treatment regimes. So far no effective natural treatment has been found as a complete cure for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but natural treatments work well as an adjunct to pharmacological treatments.
A common discussion I have with patients is that although I am willing to work with them to pursue non-pharmacological approaches, ‘going natural,’ does not mean doing anything. It requires effort and persistence and can be much harder than pharmacological approaches to treatment.