“Natural health products” are found everywhere from pharmacies to grocery shops and every other store in between. But what exactly are they?

According to Health Canada, natural health products (NHPs) are "naturally occurring substances that are used to restore or maintain good health”. They can be made from various sources, including plants, animals and microorganisms — and come in many different forms. Some common NHPs include vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, traditional medicines, probiotics and amino acids and essential fatty acids, like Omega-3.Fast Fact: Some toothpastes, antiperspirants, shampoos, facial products and mouthwashes are classified as natural health products.

You might have been told to take NHPs over synthetic drugs because they are made from natural substances — but does that mean they are really safe to use? Both synthetic (over the counter and prescription) drugs and natural health products can have side effects, pose health risks, or interact with other drugs a person might be taking. For example, St. John’s Wort, an NHP used in cases of depression, contains enzymes that interact with a number of prescription drugs, reducing their overall effectiveness. Some of these drugs include hormonal contraceptives (the pill) and cyclosporine, a drug used in transplant patients to stop the body from rejecting the transplanted tissue.Fast Fact: The bark of the yew tree produces taxol — a substance used in anti-cancer drugs.

In response to public concern over the safety of NHPs, Health Canada passed Natural Health Products Regulations in 2004. These regulations require NHPs to be licensed before they can be legally sold in Canada. Health Canada has labelling and packaging requirements and manufacturing practices that must be met and, above all, Health Canada requires proof of product safety, efficacy and quality before an NHP is licensed.

All regulated NHPs will have a Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label.Fast Fact: Prior to 2004, natural health products were classified under Food and Drug Regulations in Canada.

Since Health Canada passed these regulations, there has been some backlash from the natural health industry, mainly over the number of products that have not been licensed.

As with all drugs, when choosing NHPs, it is best to use caution and talk to your doctor before taking anything. Because remember: arsenic is natural as well!

Learn more!

About Natural Health Products – Health Canada

Licenced Natural Health Products Database - Health Canada

A Tale of Taxol - Florida State University Office of Research

Exploring consumer and pharmacist views on the professional role of the pharmacist with respect to natural health products

Functional Foods and Natural Health Products Regulations in Canada and Around the World: A Summary

Article first published March 22, 2011.

Sophia Akl

No bio available. Note biographique non disponible.

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