Going au naturel

Going au naturel

Millions of Canadians use natural health products to cure what ails them. Researchers are now taking a closer look at the science behind their medicinal use.
September 22, 2010
How often do you use natural health products (NHPs) in your everyday life? You might take a vitamin or two and an omega-3 supplement. Or maybe you take a dose of glucosamine when your joints are sore or an echinacea tablet when you’re under the weather or rub aloe vera on your skin when you’ve been in the sun too long. If you have, you’re not alone. According to a 2005 Health Canada survey, 71 percent of Canadians regularly take vitamins and minerals, herbal products, homeopathic medicines and other NHPs.

Despite the ongoing popularity of NHPs, there is a lack of scientific research on their efficacy, since decades or even centuries of traditional use often supersede the need for new research. “If you can cite from traditional practice that your product does something, you’re good to go [in terms of labelling],” says Joan Shellard, a researcher in the Biotechnology program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). “There’s no real incentive for a company to pay for additional research.”

Nevertheless, Shellard and her fellow investigators hope to fill that research gap by determining the true therapeutic value of NHPs. “People want to know if NHPs really help,” says Sarah McLeod, one of Shellard’s colleagues. The science behind them is not very rigorous, she adds. “NHPs don’t go through all the trials that drugs do. Are companies using the right stuff, and is it there in the right concentrations to have the desired effect?” The researchers are looking to follow the production of NHPs, from growing the plants to assays, animal models and trials to determine whether a particular NHP does what it claims.

The challenge lies in how the science of drug discovery is typically carried out. The process involves assigning a specific biological activity to a specific compound, but this goes against the very nature of NHPs, which are inherently complex — sometimes made up of thousands of separate chemical constituents. The scientific inclination to extract and test single entities means that tracking the collective potential of an NHP is lost. 

“We’re intrigued by the idea of synergistic effects and keeping NHPs whole,” says McLeod. “When you look at the treatment of complex diseases, you have to come at it from multiple angles. There’s a real idea that NHPs, with their multiple entities, may function together to better treat human disease. When you separate them, you may lose out on the common elements.”

The idea is based on the underlying tenet of traditional medicine: the whole is greater than its parts. Shellard and McLeod aim to develop a holistic scientific approach for the biological testing of complex NHP mixtures so that ultimately, they can identify optimal botanical preparations that could prevent diseases such as cancer.

Shellard likens the process to winemaking. In the same way that winemakers try to identify and reproduce a fine vintage, says Shellard, “we’re trying to find the vintage of NHPs by figuring out what the ideal chemical profiles might be. We want to be able to go back to a ginseng grower and say, ‘Whatever you did that day, that was the best plant.’ We want to replicate the growing to create the same chemical profile so that every batch is good. Plants are variable, so it’s about trying to maximize for the desired activities.”

In addition to testing holistically, Shellard and McLeod also want to find out the non-traditional benefits of NHPs, particularly in the realm of cancer prevention.

“At the root of a lot of diseases, such as cancer, there’s inflammation,” says Shellard. NHPs have been used traditionally in treating inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and have also been a fruitful source for the development of anti-cancer drugs. As a result, the team is confident it will be able to identify and characterize these types of biological activities in selected NHPs.

Shellard points to vitamin D as an example of an NHP that has gone through this value-added paradigm shift. “In the ’60s, we added vitamin D to milk, because kids in the North weren’t getting enough sunlight. Now we see that it might also be staving off multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. But it was not originally seen as an anti-cancer or autoimmune product. So it’s important to look at what else an NHP can do.”

McLeod agrees. “It’d be a big boon to human health to discover something that ultimately may prevent the development of a chronic disease,” she says, “especially if it doesn’t have the extreme side effects of some current medicines.”