While an addiction to illicit substances and prescription medication is well known and documented, it is less so with a dependence on herbal remedies and natural health products. However, these remedies and products should not be ignored as a potential for addiction given its pharmacological action on the body. Many think that these products, which are touted as being completely safe, are unlikely to be addictive but depending on its chemical composition and the psychological state of the user, an addiction may be just as possible as it is with illicit substances and prescription drugs.
Herbal Remedies and Natural Health Products
Plants have been a source of medicines for as long as civilization has existed. Every culture and traditional system of medicine has used herbal remedies in some form or the other to treat illness. It has been life-saving in many instances although less widely accepted as a first option of medicine in the 20th and 21st century when modern medical science provides a more cost effective and clinically proficient option in the form of drug therapy and surgery. However, this has not significantly hampered the popularity of herbal medicine amongst the masses and today herbal remedies in some form or the other exists in every pharmacy and even supermarket.
Natural health products is a broad term that encompasses many different types of complementary or non-pharmaceutical agents, including herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies, nutritional supplements and in some instances even animal parts. Despite the different types of natural health products it is nutritional supplements and herbal remedies that still dominate the complementary health product market.
Action of Herbal Products on the Body
Herbal products have various chemicals, some of which can have a physiological effect on the body and are referred to as active ingredients. These pharmacologically active substances may have a similar effect to pharmaceutical agents and many modern drugs have been derived from herbal remedies. Medical science time and again turns to Mother Nature for possible answers to health ailments.
However, the difference between a herbal remedy and pharmaceutical drug is that the effect of the latter is better understood, clinically tested and can be more accurately controlled. With herbal remedies the quantity of the active ingredient can fluctuate from season season or even among individual plants of the same weight sourced in the same harvest. This makes its actions less predictable and in many cases the clinical efficacy of these plant extracts have never been verified against the claims made by manufacturers and distributors.
Herbal remedies can be toxic when consumed in certain quantities and has side effects since it has a pharmacological action. However, the toxicity and side effects may be minimal or the quantity of active ingredient consumed is insufficient to product these effects. This is in contrast to pharmaceutical drugs where the active ingredient has been concentrated into a small pill.
Addiction to Herbal Remedies and Natural Products
Herbal remedies can have addictive substances within it and many illicit substances are plants or extracts from plants, like marijuana and cocaine. Therefore it can be surmised that some herbal products may be addictive irrespective of whether it is being consumed for its health benefits. With other natural substances, the presence of substances that can induce a euphoria may mean that it can be physically addictive as well. Some of these are purposely included in the product formulation as an energy booster or ‘feel good’ tonic.
However, the aspect of psychological addiction also needs to be considered. With health products this psychological dependence may not be as a means to distort perception or ease emotional pain. Instead it may be associated with concerns about one’s health, misconceptions about the benefits of certain products, the placebo effect and even fear of not using the product. Sometimes traditional customs and cultural beliefs may be a factor in the addiction.
The bottom line is that any substance even an inert substance has to potential to be addictive, if not physiologically, then at least on a psychological level. Therefore herbal remedies and other health products are not different and if the pattern of use is suggestive of addiction, appropriate help should be sought from a professional.