What is “natural” anyway?

I was listening to a talk on tropical medicine the other day, and I got to thinking of how we got some of the anti-malarial medications, among others. (Podcasts are great to listen to on the way in to work, by the way.) Artemisinin, a drug widely used against the deadliest form of malaria (P. falciparum), is derived from an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine. Aspirin, which we use against headaches, blood clots, and even to reduce the risk of heart attacks, is the result of the chemical analysis and isolation of the active ingredient from willow tree bark, which was used to treat headaches. Papain, an enzyme used to clean wounds and dental caries, and to treat intestinal worms, was isolated from papaya fruit after scientists got curious when seeing that papaya was used to tenderize meat. These are just a few of the examples of taking a natural or “traditional” treatment and applying it in medicine.

This is why I am highly skeptical when someone says that their treatment for something is “thousands of years old” and that “drug companies don’t want you to know this.” If it is thousands of years old, and it works, why haven’t pharmaceutical companies studied it, isolated the working ingredient, and packaged it for mass distribution? Hint: I bolded “and it works” for a reason.

But let’s not just question the “thousand-year old” therapies. This clinic has been saying for years that they have the one true therapy for cancer, and the parade patients who paid thousands and thousands of dollars to get into a clinical trial at the clinic as evidence. No, they haven’t published any findings of the clinical trials for peer review. No, they have not put out any of the data on their trials. They just expect us to look at the people who were treated there (some of whom received plain-old chemotherapy along with what the clinic is selling), and they expect us to take it at their word. Cancer is “too serious a business” to take it at anyone’s word.

Further, if we are to take their word for it, then what about the word of the many patients who were not helped? We need objective data to say that this clinic has found the cure for cancer. So far, no one has seen it, if it even exists.

The FDA has a saying that “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.” I like that idea.

This past weekend, I noticed that anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) rallies were taking place around the world. People are truly concerned that gene-splicing to make better crops is bad for us. Without any context, or data, or objectivism, the Prince of Wales warned of an environmental disaster due to GMO crops. He said that big companies are taking over arable land and destroying it. But, again, where’s the beef? (So to speak.)

Of course, this blog post will be interpreted by some as my defense of multinational corporations and the bad things that they do. It isn’t. Are big companies responsible for some very serious things like oil spills, water contamination, and letting people die? Yes. Could we do without the big companies? No. As much as we would like to think that we could get by on organic farming and “natural” living, we can’t. More and more of us are living in big cities, and it is inconceivable to think that we can have sustainable living in the big cities. We need those big companies to bring us food, water, clothing, and medicine.

What we can do is put pressure on companies that are not living up to their civic responsibilities and take our business to companies that do. Don’t buy gasoline from the company that caused the oil spill. Buy it from the company that gives back to the communities where they get the oil. Or buy a less gas-dependent car. Or ride public transportation as much as you can. Personally, I don’t buy from the companies that had workers die in the Savar building collapse in Bangladesh until they agree to international accords on worker safety.

After all, we are the consumers. We are the ones with the real power, our dollars and cents. Public Relations is a powerful tool to hold corporations responsible, especially in the age of social media and telecommunications. Because natural is good, but only when you can prove it to be good. Until then, it’s just herbs and potions and placebo effect.

So, please, all-natural this and that proponents, bring data.

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One thought on “What is “natural” anyway?

  1. As you mentioned, many of our current medications are derived from various plants, bacteria and fungi. Their chemicals that perform the medicinal task are isolated, purified and placed into consistent dosage form for more fine control of the therapeutic effects of the condition being treated.
    Indeed, Artemisinin is a fine example of that very practice. One that I paid close attention to as there has been an increase in not only Chloroquine resistance, but multi-drug resistant strains of P. falciparum and P. vivax have been emerging. So, naturally other solutions were actively being sought.
    In the case of Artemisinin, a remedy was “in use for thousands of years” and more germane, there were numbers and peer reviewed studies of that fact. So, studies moved on to isolate the therapeutic chemicals involved and create a superior form to simple plant extracts.
    In the case of Artemisinin, I quite literally applauded openly when I heard the news of its approval. As one who served in malaria ridden areas, that is also a special topic to me.

    As for “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.”, he’d better bring data as well. Too many conflicting stories from that “source”. 😉

    As for GMO crops, there are risks of a sort. Nothing horrific, save for one thought. The loss of heritage crops due to unintended wind pollination of those crops by GM corn, something currently being observed in Mexico. One has to plan out such crops to avoid that, so it’s not an unworkable problem. Only one that requires forethought. I’ve eaten GMO produce, have no heartburn over them in that aspect. I only have heartburn when people don’t plan out programs they wish to implement and create new problems for themselves and their neighbors.

    As for patronizing a different fuel company, that is all well and good, but I’d far prefer that regulatory bodies would make environmental damages so expensive to the offending company that they’d go to extraordinary lengths to avoid penalties for damaging our precious environment.
    I do, however, have mixed feelings on pointing fingers over events such as that horrific building collapse in Bangladesh. Largely because, it happened here in the US within living memory of our oldest elders. We learned as a culture to find such risks unacceptable and forced our government to create laws to protect workers.
    Not have another nation force our governments hands or other nations force our corporations hands.
    Considering the world view of the US, especially in “third world” nations, I don’t find it very wise to be pushing those nations around so much these days. We’ve had a long history of doing so, largely for our own corporation’s good.
    Would I like to see all such tragedies stop? I’d love to see them stop decades ago, Doctor Who style. However, each culture has to grow to the point that they consider such tragedies unacceptable in their society and take the appropriate steps to see to it that they do.
    Something even we still fail at, as the recent chemical plant disaster clearly shows. As our history of major chemical plant disasters has shown and how we, the vast majority of the population of the US, still have DDT in our blood samples.
    Of course, the DDT thing was a large misstep in regulatory agencies not applying good science before approving an insecticide, but then, mosquito born infections were a major problem when it was approved.
    Were it today, I suspect such a chemical would not have been approved, but another and far safer and less persistent agent would have been selected.
    Yet another example of a society growing and learning to abide by the scientific method and examining for potential problems before trying something new.

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