Like a person, the alternative or "natural" health industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past thirty years. But, as an industry, it is still in its adolescent stage. Big corporations have jumped on the bandwagon, eating up the small independent companies that had a conscience. Now it’s all about dollars and cents.

The image that the supplement industry projects is that "natural is better" or "natural equals safe." The reality is that some pretty crappy "natural" products are on the market. There are also some unsafe products being widely promoted as "safe and effective." "Natural" and "safe" are not synonyms. Think about it. Arsenic is "natural," but you don’t want to eat it! There are many herbs that are neither safe nor effective. Most people think that these products are safe because of their belief that the FDA sets some kind of standard for safety. The supplement industry must adhere to specific manufacturing standards, but quality and effectiveness are not regulated. The supplement industry has long said that it can monitor itself.

But the reality is that it doesn’t police itself very well. Poorly labeled products are sold without the botanical (Latin) names, which allow an informed consumer a way to be sure that he has the correct ingredient that he’s actually seeking. Herbal pills are sold without listing the parts of the plant that were used in their manufacture. And herbs with low therapeutic safety margins are promoted and hyped as "safe."

Therapeutic safety margin is a term used to define how much of a substance a person would have to take to cause harm (or a negative reaction). For example, Chamomile is an herb with a high therapeutic safety margin. Most people (assuming that they’re not allergic to the ragweed family of plants, of which chamomile is one) can drink very large amounts of it and not have a negative reaction. Ephedra (Ma Haung) is an herb that will cause an elevated blood pressure, even when taken in small amounts.

Where am I going with these two thought patterns? As an industry that has had to fight for respect, we’ve developed an attitude, much like a teenager! We haven’t had many rules so far, so why should we have rules now? The corporate giants of our industry want us to fight for a totally unregulated industry, one that allows maximum profits with low corporate responsibility, even when the products we make have low therapeutic safety margins. It looks as though it’s time to start acting like a responsible industry and account for the problems we have. Here are a few examples:

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that, from 14,684 call records provided by Metabolite International, users of the company’s ephedra-based Metabolife 356 reported 18 heart attacks, 26 strokes, 43 seizures, and five deaths. There were reports of 433 incidents of chest pain, 181 rashes, 110 systematic urinary tract infections, 93 incidents of high blood pressure, 47 episodes of loss of consciousness, and 31 abnormal heart rhythms.

According to the GAO, "Because of the inherent limitations of adverse event reports (AERs) and the incomplete nature of these call records, it cannot be established from the information available to [us] that the adverse events reported were caused by Metabolife 356." ( The Food and Drug Administration recently reprimanded Metabolife International because of protracted delays in turning over AER information. This information was requested in 1997.)

Of the 1,800 AERs reported to the FDA, as of September 2002, from users of ephedra products, 322 concerned Metabolife 356 (view this report at: www.gao.gov).

There are herbs that are not safe for many people. Ephedra is one of them, especially if you combine it with caffeine, as in many diet products, such as Metabolife, and energy products. We as an industry must recognize this fact and not allow the marketing of this type of product to the masses as a weight loss panacea. Overweight people are more susceptible to high blood pressure and cardiac irregularities, yet they are the target market for these products.

Yes, the herb industry is correct when it says this herb has been used safely for generations. The industry has have also stated that, when taken as directed, this herb is very safe. And there is a warning and disclaimer on the label of ephedra-based products. My complaints that the industry continues to promote these products heavily to the single group of people who are most at risk for the negative side effects. Plus we all know someone who takes more than the label recommends. In addition, ephedra is easily abused as an energy supplement!

Ephedra has a legitimate medicinal use. It is the single best herb for head and chest congestion (if you don’t have blood pressure or cardiac issues). Because it stimulates the heart, it can be used for an energetic lift. But, before you use ephedra for these purposes, you need to address the reason for your congestion and or lack of energy to eliminate the cause of the problem. If you’re congested because of a cold, make a mental note to wash your hands more often, to prevent the spread of viruses that cause colds and flu. Take a good multivitamin mineral supplement and anti-viral herbs to build the immune system. Get enough rest.

Most people are not well informed about the correct way to use herbs or the risks associated with using herbs for medicine. They assume a level of safety that is not there. They rely on the kid behind the counter to give them accurate information. Well that kid, who is working for minimum wage to pay for his schoolbooks for school, has little or no training in the proper use of herbs and herbal medicine. You need to do some serious research before choosing herbs for medicine, if you expect good results.

The supplement industry has been backed into a corner on the issue of supplements containing ephedra. Because of pending lawsuits, insurance companies are refusing to provide coverage for companies that manufacture products containing ephedra. It took that type of kick in the ass to get manufacturers to stop producing this type of supplement (I guess that the best way to get someone’s attention is to cost him or her money). New York State has been trying to ban the sale of products with caffeine and ephedra for years. Now it won’t have to.

Well, I guess that the folks in the supplement industry is growing up. They're resisting, like any adolescent would, but they’ll eventually become responsible adults and police themselves into producing the safest and most effective product that they can. It’s better than having the government force them or being litigated out of business. by Patra A. Mangus Bi-Nutrients Herbal Information Center

I think that the supplement industry is finally getting over its adolescent rage. You know the attitude that I’m talking about, don’t you? Remember when you were a teenager? You were right about everything. No adult could tell you anything. Don’t trust anyone over thirty? (A-h-h-h the good old days, when stupidity reigned supreme! I remember them well!)