Safety of natural therapies

Natural therapies are often considered safe and harmless because they are 'natural'. However, this is simply not the case. Just as there are risks and unwanted side effects to conventional medical treatment such as painkillers and prescription drugs, there can be risks and unwanted side effects to natural therapies. Generally, the risks are smaller when it comes to natural therapies, but they are real and need to be respected.

Safety of natural therapies

World Health Organization guidelines

The World Health Organization (WHO) has guidelines on the safety of some natural therapies known as 'traditional medicines'. WHO acknowledge that if a therapy has been traditionally used in a culture over many generations (such as in traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine or Australian Indigenous medicine) and it has not been reported as dangerous, then its use should not be restricted in the present day.

In the case that new evidence comes to light that suggests the therapy might be harmful, a review of the risks and benefits of the therapy would be conducted.

Assessing the risk

The risks in taking any kind of medication, be it a natural therapy or otherwise, depend on many factors: your health, your age, whether you are male or female, and how the therapy is being used. There is also the risk that you may be allergic to the medication, or have an individual response to the medication than is otherwise expected.

It's important to remember that individuals can respond differently to the same therapy, so what worked well and was safe for your friend or family member may not work well or be safe for you.

St Johns Wort in mortar and pestle

Careful consideration

When it comes to unwanted side effects of natural therapies, some reactions can be predicted and are based on how the therapy is known to act in the body. An example of a predictable reaction is the herbal medicine St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) which is widely used for the treatment of depression.

St John's wort is known to interact with certain prescription drugs such as antidepressants, HIV medication, some heart medications and the oral contraceptive pill (the Pill), reducing the effects of these medications.

Taking both St John's wort alongside these medications can endanger your health, as suddenly you are not receiving the required dose of that medication. For this reason, careful consideration of all current medications and other factors is needed before taking this natural therapy, as well as all natural therapies in general.

Working hand-in-hand

If you are taking any natural therapies or seeing a natural therapist, it is important to tell your GP and give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. It's important that natural therapists and medical practitioners work together for your benefit and your safety. Where possible, your health professionals should be in communication with one another when it comes to your health. 

All natural therapies, from pills and powders to prescribed supplements, should be regarded as 'medicines'. Although they are generally considered safer than pharmaceutical medicines, and have been widely used with fewer side effects, natural therapies should still be treated like any therapy, and taken with full and accurate knowledge of their risks and benefits. Ideally, your natural therapy products should be prescribed and managed by a qualified health practitioner who is trained in their use.

Last updated 27 February 2017 — Last reviewed 10 June 2016

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at June 2016.

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