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.)
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.