October 31, 2014
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Medications and your Health

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The safe use of natural health products

In recent years, it seems people have become increasingly interested in and open to natural health products (NHPs). In fact, a survey by Health Canada found that 71% of Canadians take NHPs on a regular basis.

One of the reasons for this is that people think NHPs are safer than conventional medication. After all, NHPs are made from natural ingredients so they must be safe, right? Not exactly. Although many NHPs do promote and enhance good health, they are only safe when used under the right conditions.

What is an NHP?

According to Health Canada, the following items fit under the NHP umbrella:

  • vitamins and minerals
  • herbal remedies
  • homeopathic medicines
  • traditional medicines (e.g., traditional Chinese medicines)
  • probiotics and other products (such as amino acids and essential fatty acids)

Why should I talk to my health care provider about NHPs?

Studies have shown that many people do not tell their doctors that they are taking NHPs, which can interact dangerously with other medications and products they are prescribed. And doctors are also found guilty of failing to ask their patients about NHP use. Many harmful (and potentially life-threatening) side effects and interactions could be avoided if people openly discussed NHP use with their health care providers.

Your health care provider (such as your doctor or pharmacist) can tell you if an NHP is right for you, what side effects to expect, and how you should deal with them. They can also tell you if there are any interactions between an NHP and your current medications.

An interaction between two products does not always mean you have to stop taking one of them. Your doctor or pharmacist can often advise you on how to manage interactions, for example, by recommending that you change the dose or frequency of one product.

What are some common examples?

Commonly used NHPs that can interact with medications include: St. John's wort, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, garlic, coenzyme Q10, and glucosamine.

St. John's wort can interact with certain medications, such as birth control pills and heart medications, causing them to not work as well. Ginkgo biloba can enhance the action of anticoagulant (stops blood clotting) medications, which could lead to excessive bleeding.

These are just a few examples. There are many more NHPs out there, each with potential interactions with other medications. This is why it is so important for you to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before you start taking a new NHP.

For more information, visit Health Canada's Natural Health Products website.

Lisa Tourountzas


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