Supplements and Safety

I’ve been getting a lot of comments and questions about the ABC Four Corners story on supplements and safety aired on 16 May 2016.  As a Naturopath I use supplements and herbal medicines. They form a key part of many treatment plans.  However, I have always been of the belief that any supplements need to either address a specific nutritional deficiency or support the body to recover from illness.


Like pharmaceutical medications supplements should, in an ideal situation, only be prescribed for the shortest amount of time possible.  The foundation of ongoing health should be a healthy, nutrition dense diet, regular exercise, quality sleep and stress management.

So let’s breakdown some of the discussion points from the program.

Supplements can be dangerous

Yes, they can.  Just because something is natural does not mean it is safe.  To recycle a somewhat hackneyed example: too much water can cause hyponatremia.  This can be life threatening.

The article makes mention of 6 organ failures linked to supplements. Look, in my book even one is too many. For some perspective a 2014 Harvard article noted in the USA prescription drugs when used as prescribed were responsible for 2.2 million hospital admissions and resulted in 128,000 deaths. That’s a sobering statistic. Should we stop using prescription medications?  Of course, not.

There are a couple of key considerations here.

Anything in the wrong hands can be dangerous

This is where knowledge comes in.  Most of us wouldn’t think it was a good idea to decide for ourselves that a certain prescription medication would be good for us and head off to buy it on-line.  No, we go to a doctor, have a consultation and then we purchase it from a pharmacist.  We feel safe because both of these health professionals have extensive training and knowledge of our health condition. They also understand how the medication works and any common side effects.


A similar thinking should apply to supplements.  If you have a health condition and you want to explore complementary treatment options make time for a consultation with a qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist or Herbalist. The minimum standard for education for these professions in Australia is now a Bachelor degree. This equates to 4 years of full time study.  It makes sense to consult with a professional for something as important as your health.

Interactions between natural supplements and pharmaceutical medications

Like standard medicine a key principle of Naturopathy is “First do no harm”.  In addition to learning in detail about herbs and nutrients we also have to study pharmacology so we know how all key drugs work and what interactions they may have with herbs, and nutritional supplements.

Another advantage of seeing a Naturopath is that we can also ensure you get the right dose and product based on your health condition, age, weight, pregnancy and breastfeeding status.

Monitoring is another important aspect of treatment.  Under the care of a Naturopath you can provide feedback on any issues so that an adverse reactions are resolved promptly.  Dosages can be adjusted based on changes in your condition or other medications added.

Regulation, or lack of

The Four Corners story used the American natural supplement industry whose manufacturing processes and quality controls are very lenient compared to Australia.  The Australian regulatory agency – Therapeutic Goods Administration-  has some of the most stringent standards for natural supplements in the world.  Our natural supplements are made to the same standard as pharmaceutical medications.

Now, manufacturing standards aside.  The discussion about Aust L and Aust R products is accurate.  Both require supplements to be safe but only Aust R products have to prove they do what they say they will.

The ability of consumers to purchase supplements on the internet has added a whole new dimension and like anything else on the internet you get the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.  There are some legitimate and ethical operators out there but there are also a lot of snake oil salesman.  They have an eye on the quick buck and not on your health. Weight loss and detox products are areas to be particularly cautious around.

Price is often a guide especially with herbal medicines and supplements.  Cheaper “alternative” herbs are often passed off for more expensive ones.  At best this makes the product ineffective but at worst this can result in organ failure or death.

All the key suppliers of “Practitioner only”herbal products in Australia test each batch of herbs they receive  to ensure firstly, the herb is what it is supposed to be (some herbs look very similar when dried) and secondly that it has the appropriate amounts of the active ingredients. This ensures a more reliable clinical result.

Supplements can “cure” a disease

Be wary of anyone who claims they can “cure” a disease with only their products.  Recovery from illness or management of a medical condition is a complex process involving many interacting factors. The best health care outcomes often include a combination of treatment from both standard and complementary medicine.


Do supplements have a place?

Yes, they do but not as the only strategy for your health.

Top tips:

  • Seek professional advice to get the right supplement and avoid wasting money on a cupboard full of things you don’t need.
  • Let your other health care practitioners know what you are taking
  • Buy from reputable Australian certified suppliers
  • Only take supplements for as long as you need to.  Long term focus should be on diet and lifestyle changes.


As a Naturopath I want my clients to make changes to their diet and lifestyle that support ongoing health and well-being. Providing this knowledge is a core part of my practice.  My most rewarding and successful clients are the ones who are also committed to this journey and leave me armed with the tools to implement healthy habits into their lives.

Need help with your health?

Norelle Hentschel is an experienced Naturopath with a clinic in Stones Corner, Brisbane who enjoys supporting her clients to reach their health goals.


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