The shocking ingredient in natural medicine

The shocking ingredient in natural medicine

So you think your medicine is natural. Ever wonder what’s inside? A product can be labeled “natural” if the main ingredient is from an animal, plant, or mineral. Arsenic, horse urine, and cow brain are natural. But are they natural for you? Here are four drugs whose origins may surprise you.

Insulin was discovered in 1922. Until the 1980s, all insulin was “natural” — collected from the pancreas glands of slaughtered cattle and pigs. Now we have a limitless supply of synthetic human insulin that works well for most people. Plus no risk of mad cow disease. Maybe human insulin is more natural for humans.

Estrogen was discovered in 1929. First on the market was emmenin — estrogen from the urine of pregnant women. In the 1940s, human estrogen was replaced with a cheaper source — pregnant mares’ urine, Premarin, a combination of multiple horse estrogens. Although Premarin was the #1 prescribed drug in the United States during the 1990s, it’s now linked to cancers, strokes, and heart attacks. Today synthetic estrogens are derived from soy and yam extracts. They are bioidentical — identical in structure to human estrogen — and likely have similar health risks as other estrogens. So what’s natural? Factory-farmed horse urine? Yams in a lab? Or maybe a graceful menopause?

Thyroid pills are prescribed as either natural pig thyroid or synthetic human thyroid. Pig thyroid has been used for more than 100 years, while synthetic thyroid has been available since the 1950s. Today, pharmacies offer bioidentical thyroid hormones exactly as your body produces them. Recently, a Jewish woman with a history of domestic abuse wanted me to refill her “natural” thyroid. I asked her if it made sense for a battered Jewish mother to take slaughtered pig thyroid? She didn’t think so. Now she’s doing well on synthetic thyroid, which she considers more natural.

Melatonin — a hormone that regulates sleep — is secreted by the human pineal gland, located in the center of the brain. Melatonin was first isolated from bovine pineal gland in 1958. Supplements (available since the 1990s) are either synthetic human melatonin or “natural” from slaughtered cattle. Swallow the pineal gland from the center of a cow’s brain if you like. But why risk mad cow disease and bad karma when your own pineal gland secretes melatonin right into your bloodstream? Your pineal gland produces ten times more melatonin at night than during the day and what’s leftover is excreted through your urine. If you want a 100%-natural melatonin supplement, follow the ancient practice of Indian yogis and drink your first-morning urine prior to meditation or just before your next power nap. Yum.

Still confused about what’s natural for you? Let’s ask our consultants:

The shocking ingredient in natural medicine

The shocking ingredient in natural medicine

The shocking ingredient in natural medicine

Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Pet Goats and Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx talk, How to Get Naked with Your Doctor. Photos by Geve.

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  • goonerdoc

    Hmmm…..over/under for number of responses to this Wible piece? I’m setting it at 100. Go!

  • Patient Kit

    I see that your models refused to hold signs today. I can’t blame them since the most natural way for them to hold signs is with their mouths — and then it would have been difficult for them to talk. ;-)

    I agree that the word “natural” has an unrealistically “always good” connotation to many people, which makes the word highly exploitable to those who want to sell us stuff, including medicines and treatments. I wonder if most peeps think of tobacco as natural. For the most part, the word isn’t used much to market cigarettes, even though tobacco is, in fact, natural.

    It’s also natural for many creatures to eat meat. I’m thinking of a vegetarian acquaintance who tried to turn her cat, Hal, into a vegetarian. Poor Hal. That was a tough phase for him when Alice tried to make him eat string beans every day instead of chicken. The look on that cat’s face when Alice put the veggies in his bowl was, under the circumstances, quite natural. Luckily, Alice lost that battle and Hal went back to eating more naturally.

    I’m all for natural, graceful menopause. BTW, speaking of natural things, I’m still waiting for your vagina piece to appear here.

    • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

      Coming soon . . . would be a natural response to your request. :)

      • Patient Kit

        I already read your “vagina monologue” on your blog but I look forward to the discussion it provokes here at KMD. Could be interesting. Or, if it becomes your first post here with few responses, the silence will speak volumes and highlight your point. Win/win situation for you, whatever the response. ;-)

  • EmilyAnon

    You’d think the animal rights activists would yelling to high heaven over this.

    • Anne-Marie

      Actually they are. PETA has worked quite aggressively on a boycott of Premarin, for instance. But the activists are usually regarded as fringe groups, so most people don’t pay any attention to them.

    • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

      If they only knew. . . .

  • ninguem

    Pamela step back from the pigs.

    Them’s the sheriff’s girls.

  • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

    What gets me is that they told us to always get informed consent before prescribing drugs or procedures. Then they told us all menopausal women need to get on HRT (Premarin specifically) for “health care maintenance.” When I reviewed the actual pros, cons, and origin of Premarin nobody really wanted it. Do you know how many times I got pulled into the attending’s office and lectured? Yes, I got in trouble for this. . . .

    • ninguem

      I wonder what happens if you take melatonin extracted from the pineal gland of a cow afflicted with bovine spongiform encephalopathy?

      • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

        Or from a pig with Trichuris trichina. . . or a human with alzheimers. These studies have not been done as far as I know. I’m really curious though.

    • Dr. Drake Ramoray

      I got in trouble twice for discussing the pros and cons of chemotherapy in what was really end stage cancer and the patients ultimately declined to continue therapy. While not as widespread as your HRT examples, I know exactly what you mean.

      • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

        I like docs who get in trouble – for good things, . . .

      • Lisa

        As a patient, I would expect nothing less than a discussion of the pros and cons of chemotherapy, especially if I had end stage cancer. Sigh…

    • Lisa

      I thought that HRT was not recommended because of the increased risk of breast cancer.

      • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

        Ummm . . . not during my residency (1993-1996). Of course, later I found out we were one of the testing sites for the Women’s Heath Initiative so the effects of Premarin on menopausal women was researched on our patients.

        en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_Health_initiative

        • Lisa

          Did those women know they were part of a study?

          • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

            I’m not sure. I did not know and I was a resident and I was supposed to be doling out the drugs.

          • Lisa

            I’ll have to go find out more about the study. One thought though – if the women you were doling out drugs were part of the study they should have been fully informed about the study and drugs they were being prescribed before agreeing to be part of the study. But it sounds like you wouldn’t know who was in the study and who wasn’t – so I can sort of see why you you were called into the attending’s office. But what an awful postition to be in…

  • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

    From Jim:

    “I am very intrigued with your farm arrangements. Can you take some pictures and do a blog topic on ‘my other life, when I shut the lights off at the end of my day at my office . .’”

    This was a house call to visit a patients’ farm. Took some photos. More stories coming on what I do at the end of my workday. :)

    • ninguem

      The purpose of this house call.

      Did it have anything to do with talking farm animals?

      • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

        Yes. And they chose not to wear cardboard signs.

        • ninguem

          Did the sheep warn you to stay away from the fence when the farmer is around?

        • Patient Kit

          Those Animals were probably inspired when they read Wicked and are, rightfully, still miffed that they aren’t allowed into a Broadway theatre to see the musical version of the novel – just because they are Animals. >:-(

  • Dr. Drake Ramoray

    I usually try to work with patients who insist on remaining on natural thyroid products, although it is often useful to point out that Armour thyroid (now owned by Forest Laboratories) was actually first made by the Armour Meat Packing Company

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armour_and_Company

    That would be the same people who make Armour Vienna Sausages.

    http://davescupboard.blogspot.com/2010/10/armour-vienna-sausage.html?m=1

    • ninguem

      “…..That would be the same people who make Armour Vienna Sausages…..”

      “In Russia, we don’t eat that part of the dog.”

      ………Yakov Smirnoff, on seeing his first Armour Vienna Frank.

      • Dr. Drake Ramoray

        Good one!

  • ninguem

    Waitaminnit, waitaminnit, waitaminnit………

    Looking at those pictures, I realize I’ve seen that Oregon farm before.

    It was on TV

    http://gabandgobble.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/PortlandiaFarm-Nerve.jpg

    I know who you saw. It was a house call. He had those piercing eyes that looked right through you.

    http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_li2iulb2Q31qguzymo1_500.jpg

  • querywoman

    Everything on this earth and in its atmosphere is natural for the earth. What’s on the moon is natural too!
    I love on criticism of more natural older therapies that I saw once: go get a hole bored in your skull like some of the ancients.

  • Sara Stein MD

    Love it Pam! Also the famous “adaptogens” for adrenal burnout – dessicated animal adrenal gland. Great pictures and captions!

  • Jewel Markess

    Good article. On point about HRT – there is a place for it. For example, there is nothing graceful about going into “menopause” (or rather premature ovarian failure) in your 20s or 30s. This is what happened to me. HRT has its places. I did opt for estradiol/micronized progesteron. I realize that POF isn’t what you referred to, but back on POF support group, there had been many reports of doctors taking WHI result that applied to older women and stopping HRT in 20-something women hereby all but guaranteeing that they’d have osteoporosis by the nice ripe age of 45. Even now many doctors forget that the ‘control group’ for 20- and 30- something is not menopausal women but normally menstruating women and that there isn’t a single study that showed that breast cancer risk in POF-women on HRT until the age of 50 is any greater than that of women who have their periods until the age of 50.

  • Sharon

    Good article, but ditto to the comment posted by Jewel Markess. I just wanted to underscore that.

    S. Aumani, RN,BSN

  • http://www.idealmedicalcare.org PamelaWibleMD

    Aha! The reason for personalized care. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.

  • querywoman

    I knew that trepanning sometimes work. I believe everything has some use. Arsenic has been used a medicine, belladonna from nightshade, etc.