“I don’t take any medications,” said my friend. I told her that was nice.
A few minutes later, she mentioned that she takes berberine and banaba to control her blood sugar. But wait! Those are medications. True, they’re not prescription medications, but they’re medications nevertheless. The definition of medication, or medicine, includes “any chemical compound used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of disease.”
There’s a popular misconception that supplements, which don’t require prescriptions, are safer than prescription medications. There’s a popular misconception that anything that’s natural is safe.
Wrong on both counts!
The common diabetes drug metformin, which requires a prescription, was developed from goat’s rue, or French lilac, which has been used to treat diabetes since the Middle Ages. The problem with goat’s rue, which is “all natural,” is that it is felt to be too toxic for regular human use, and animal deaths have been reported when animals graze on the plant. Metformin can also have side effects, primarily nausea and diarrhea when first started, but they’re not as serious, although there is always the potential for lactic acidosis, especially with compromised kidney function.
When it comes to supplements, when they come from some foreign countries, some have been found to be contaminated with prescription medications. For example, some “herbal” supplements for diabetes were found to contain sulfonylureas. Some contain heavy metals. Sometimes, an herbal product contains a prescription drug that has been banned in the United States.
Of course, we know that sometimes prescription drugs made here in the United States can be unsafe too, as illustrated by the recent fatalities from injection drugs that were contaminated by a fungus; the injections have killed 32 people so far, with many more made ill.
So we have to be careful with any drug we take, and that includes our supplements.
Even food can be dangerous, but most of us have grown up knowing the dangers of trichinosis from undercooked pork, botulism from home-canned food, or salmonella infection from foods that aren’t properly refrigerated. We’ve always thought our medications were safe.
When we have diabetes, we have to worry about a lot of things, and we don’t need to worry about more. I think our prescription medications as well as over-the-counter supplements are usually quite safe.
But we should remember that supplements, as well as prescription medications, are medications, and when we try something new, even just a different brand of something we’ve taken for a long time, we should be alert for unexpected side effects or interactions with other drugs.