Understanding Natural Health Products And Plant Medicine

The benefits of therapies which involve psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca tea, or peyote all derive directly from plant materials rather than synthetics. For this reason, they may fall under the umbrella of alternative medicine as natural health products (NHPs) while they become more broadly used and understood. We have already discussed the way that conventional medicine is rooted in the historical use of plants for healing alkaloid compounds found in plants are the natural precursors to the synthetics that we know today as pharmaceuticals. The distinction between the two is often rooted in perception. 

In spite of their historical use, NHPs are still an emerging industry with less oversight than doctors of conventional medicine are subject to. For this reason, the relationship between NHPs, practitioners and their consumers can be dubious or even risky.

As a consumer, what are the best ways to avoid improper care and get the most out of your NHPs? 

NHPs: What is the Product?

This has already been an issue in ayahuasca retreats. There have been reports of ayahuasca tea being supplemented with the far-riskier datura in order to produce stronger hallucinations —or even tobacco to help induce purging. For this reason alone, it’s important to research your retreat venues and ask about the ingredients used in tea preparation. These precautions reflect the same strategies you should employ when deciding which NHPs to purchase over the counter.

The first factor to consider is product licensing. As of 2004, the federal government of Canada has started regulating NHPs to consider such factors as manufacturing practices, ingredient integrity, dose consistency and clinical evidence. You can identify which products have been licensed by looking for a Natural Product Number (NPN) on the package. This is meant to guarantee a baseline level of quality for your purchase, although there have been reports of enforcement being lax. In our recent interview with Steven Newmaster, founder and director of the Natural Health Product Research Alliance, Newmaster claims to have uncovered significant ingredient adulteration in NHPs taken from store shelves sometime after 2010, in spite of regulations. 

With all medications, natural or pharmaceutical, it never hurts to do your own research. In the case of NHPs sold by private manufacturers, you can make a point of vetting these companies yourself. Newmaster continued to point out that certain NHP distributors readily participated in University-conducted research to ensure the effectiveness of their products. If you find links to such research shared on their websites, this is certainly encouraging. Participating in research demonstrates commitment which goes beyond simply getting licensed for sale. 

Above all, be sure to consult your physician as well as your alternative medical practitioner before starting a new medication. Their insights with your medical history can prevent you from experiencing an adverse reaction with existing medications and treatments. 

Finding Trustworthy Alternative Medicine

Who you receive treatment from can be just as important as the products you choose. Obviously, you will want to find knowledgeable practitioners who have your best interests at heart. In terms of ayahuasca retreats, paying attention to the behaviour of your facilitator and ensuring that they have proper safety measures in place can protect you from a potentially dangerous situation. The level of oversight placed on alternative medicine practitioners varies depending on your location —but is generally less stringent than the oversight conventional doctors are subjected to

Because alternative care is still mostly privatized, it is important to look out for certain warning signs to ensure that your practitioner has no ulterior motives. If sessions are expensive, this alone does not mean they should be avoided —health care and the research that goes into it can be costly —but avoid large, upfront sums of money that may be intended to create the effect of a “sunk-cost” fallacy intended to keep you coming back for more. Never be afraid to ask for proper credentials from reputable sources and avoid alternative medicine practitioners who contradict and work against the advice of your physician.

An Open Mind and a Critical eye

As therapies with psychedelics begin to emerge and the NHP industry continues to grow, being an active, critical participant in your own health care is more important than ever. The same can be said about conventional medicine —except in the most extreme circumstances, medical advice should always be discussed to determine which treatment suits you best. Regardless of the treatment you may pursue, ethical considerations, including “informed consent”, must always apply. 

Some alternative healthcare providers have used the term “holistic” to describe their philosophies —signifying an openness to the principles of conventional medicine, while also considering factors such as lifestyle, wellness, and nutrition. Many of these approaches involve branded medicines and supplements that can be purchased over-the-counter. This accessibility, while convenient, puts the responsibility on the consumer to know what they are buying and how safe it is for them. In order to get the most out of these new forms of treatment, never forget that a truly “holistic” approach still includes you and your judgement. 

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