Natural remedies vanishing from Canadian shelves

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      Pharmacist Harlan Lahti believes in the power of natural medicine.

      “I was a very chemistry-oriented pharmacist,” he says. Then, “over 20 years ago, I reached out to homeopathy for family use. My wife came down with dengue fever and she was getting no relief from any pharmaceuticals. I picked out a couple of homeopathic products from my shelf, and within two days of giving her the remedy, relief appeared.”

      Although at the time he was amazed, now, he says, “I try to get people away from pharmaceuticals to live a healthy life.”

      It seems Canadians are finding their way to natural health products, with 73 percent regularly using vitamins and minerals, herbal products, or homeopathic medicines, according to a 2010 survey done by Ipsos Reid for Health Canada.

      Lahti warns that some of these regularly used products are disappearing from shelves in Canada.

      He isn’t the only one to notice the trend. Ayla Wilson is a naturopathic physician in North Vancouver, the only one in Canada specializing in the treatment of kids with PANDAS (a hypothesized autoimmune condition otherwise known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections). She sees patients from across Canada for this and immune-related diseases. Wilson says that many patients who gained results from herbal remedies have seen those remedies pulled from the shelves. “It has happened slowly over the years.”

      She says she has heard patients talking about going to the U.S. to find remedies there that they can no longer get in Canada or getting products sent from outside the country.

      Wilson lists three herbal supplements that she frequently prescribed that are no longer available to her in Canada: tribulus, a supplement to support adrenal function and production of DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone); red yeast rice, which is used as a natural statin to lower cholesterol; and plant-derived cortisol.

      She points out that although the gentler herbal alternatives are no longer available, she can still prescribe the pharmaceutical equivalent. “I can prescribe statin medications, but I choose not to. I can prescribe Cortef, a pharmaceutical cortisol, but plant-based cortisol is easier for most people to tolerate.”

      Where are the natural health products going? In 2004, new federal Natural Health Products Regulations came into effect that stipulated, according to the Health Canada website, that “Natural Health Products must be safe to use as over-the-counter products and not need a prescription to be sold.”

      What is “safe” seems to be in question; once a product is determined to need a prescription, it falls under the more rigorous Food and Drug Regulations. Lahti speculates: “Health Canada wants herbal and homeopathic remedies to be measured by the same measuring stick. Many of these alternative companies haven’t been tested because they don’t have the money to test them according to Health Canada’s standards.”

      He points to citronella, often used as a bug repellant. “It’s been on the market for many, many years. It’s proven effective, not as effective as DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), but citronella is not nearly as poisonous.” He concludes: “Testing requirements removed DEET’s major competitor.” (Last December, Health Canada appeared to back off its stated plan to phase out citronella and told the CBC that it would be reviewing its regulations.)

      Naturopathic physician Alex Chan says some herbal treatments are no longer being allowed across the border.
      Stephen Hui

      Other remedies that have disappeared over the last few years include: natural anti-inflammatory agents such as nattokinase and lumbrokinase; a nonintoxicating extract of cannabis used for rheumatoid arthritis and some autoimmune diseases; digitalis, an herb used for cardiovascular conditions; rauwolfia, used for lowering blood pressure; and doses of Vitamin D larger than 1,000 international units.

      Alex Chan is a Vancouver-based naturopathic physician who expresses a similar frustration at having her trusted remedies pulled. Her clinic’s pharmacy stocks herbal remedies that are sometimes allowed across the border and sometimes not.

      “It seems random,” Chan says. “We trust those formulas; they are high-quality, effective products. If we can’t get our supplies, it affects our practice.” When used appropriately, herbal and naturopathic remedies can have fewer side effects and can work synergistically in combination with other remedies. “Now it can be hard to find those synergistic products because a particular herb has been prohibited,” Chan says.

      Chan and Wilson agree that Health Canada should do its own research to validate safety and efficacy claims. “It helps keep the consumer safe,” Wilson explains. Yet they also say that, as professionals, they need to have access to the products they have found to be curative in order to give their patients the best treatment. “We can only give that consumer the best-quality products if we can source them,” Chan notes.

      “Hopefully,” Wilson says, “[Health Canada] is doing the research and not just saying, ‘We aren’t sure,’ and thus not making it available.” She says she has never seen a pulled product return to the shelves.

      Lahti, the pharmacist, insists that all Canadians should care about having access to naturopathic health-care products because they are a “good, safe, effective choice for getting health into your own hands”. Without them, he says, “you are losing freedom of choice.”

      Health Canada did not respond to an interview request by deadline.




      Feb 4, 2015 at 12:39pm

      I can't tell if you're doing it on purpose or not but this article seems to conflate homeopathy and naturopathy together and they are completely different things.

      And yes, anything we're taking as medicine should be held to the same standards of testing.

      Alex T

      Feb 4, 2015 at 2:37pm

      There are many reasons why people may thing homeopathy works (natural course of the disease, selection bias, taking other meds, etc) but actual efficacy isn't one of them. It's literally magic water, with no active ingredients, no possible physical mechanism and is concocted just like magic potions. As much as we can state anything for a fact, we can say that homeopathy does NOT work. Period. For more details, start with:

      The fact that the Straight couldn't get a single person to report what should be stapled in 50-pt font on any homeopathic "medicine" is doing readers a huge disservice.

      As to the claims in the article, homeopathy and all alt-med products are already judged by a completely different standard, set to ensure that consumers will still be able to access all the products they wish. There are no standards for efficacy and barely any standards for labeling. We deserve better. The standards should be tightened, not slipped even further.

      Edith Wharton

      Feb 4, 2015 at 7:24pm

      Prescription pharmaceutical drugs kill HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of human beings every year in North America alone, I can't speak for the rest of the world, but in the United States herbal supplements and nutraceuticals have killed precisely ZERO human beings in each of the last several years. The less interference by the unknowing oppressive government bureaucrats the better!


      Feb 4, 2015 at 10:54pm

      " in the United States herbal supplements and nutraceuticals have killed precisely ZERO human beings in each of the last several years"

      Yep, placebos tend to be safe, news at 11.


      Feb 5, 2015 at 7:37am

      I hear that snake oil has more omega 3 than fish oil.Oh by the way the article is full of inaccuracies. Perhaps a reputable fact checker would help. Oh wait, that wouldn't be news worthy.


      Feb 5, 2015 at 7:45am

      My entire family has used homeopathy for the past 29 years. Our family homeopath treated my husband, who was walking with a cane, for two herniated lumbar discs. He had tried conventional medicine without success for over a year. The only alternative was surgery which he was told provided no guarantee that he would ever be without pain. Within three months, my husband was playing golf once again. Total cost of the treatment, including our 120 mile round trip by car was less than one-hundred U.S. dollars.

      My family has used remedies for burns, severe bruising, bee and wasp stings, toothaches, aid in healing of broken bones, flu, fevers, upset stomachs, food poisoning, earaches and emotional upsets to mention just a few challenges. The use of homeopathy, both under the care of our homeopath and remedies that we can purchase ourselves, has saved our health insurance providers thousands of dollars over nearly three decades. When it comes down to dollars and cents (& sense) health insurance providers like what natural approaches, including homeopathy and CAM, offer in the way of cost effectiveness; e.g. less doctor visits, hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

      To advocate a form of medicine that pushes substances that are toxic (liver, kidney, etc) makes no sense. Homeopathy is used and supported by 550 million people and the medical societies in 80 countries. In comparison, a few thousand skeptics who pontificate about the supposed ineffective use of homeopathy want everyone to believe their spin - without publication in any peer reviewed journals of their own DB placebo controlled studies to prove otherwise. As a Yank who grew up in Virginia, I say the skeptics are still “whistling Dixie.”


      Feb 5, 2015 at 8:10am

      Homeopathic medicines have a 200 year plus history of safety and real-world effectiveness. They do not work on the same principal as chemical drugs so the notion that they should be "tested" the same way is ludicrous. They are manufactured according to very exacting quality control standards. Any complaints about their safety or effectiveness are NOT coming from consumers but from armchair philosophers.


      Feb 5, 2015 at 5:35pm

      What a shame that trusted, natural healing medicines would be denied to the Canadians who want them. Speaking of homeopathy in particular, it is safe, non-toxic, non-addictive and creates no iatrogenic diseases as conventional drugs are well known to do. It is also inexpensive and very effective for the majority of people who use it. Homeopathy often cures where conventional medicine fails. Most people trying homeopathy for the first time do so after conventional treatments failed them, and they are quite often very pleased with the results. If their organs are so damaged that cure isn't possible they often find that it improves their quality of life and daily functioning.

      My experience with homeopathy has been so positive, so safe and so satisfying that it is now my primary form of medicine. I have turned to it first for both acute and chronic conditions and also for injuries. It has never failed me. It normalized my high blood pressure and high intraocular preassure several years ago. I was able to stop using the remedy at that point. Pressure checks every six months since then assure me that they are still normal. I don't have to take drugs for the rest of my life to control the symptoms, and I don't have to take the risk of developing the diseases those drugs cause. Homeopathy is a win-win no matter how you look at it.


      Feb 7, 2015 at 3:52am

      I don't believe in western medicine and I don't believe in eastern medicine. Traditional medicine, alternative medicine, natural medicine, pharmaceuticals, it's all bunk. You can eat all the bark you want and pop all the pills you want, but you are still going to get sick and weak and die. Deal with it.

      Dr. Brock

      Mar 26, 2015 at 2:43pm


      If you can't or won't do controlled research to demonstrate that a product has a medicinal effect, then it is immoral quackery to claim that it has any effect at all. Make no claims, and you can sell whatever you want.