Natural Health Products (Herbal Medicines and Natural Products)

What are natural health products?

In Canada, natural health products are substances you eat or drink. They can be vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants, amino acids (the individual building blocks of protein), or parts of these substances. They can be in pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form. They supplement (add to) the diet and should not be considered a substitute for food.

Natural health products are widely available in Canada in health food stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, on the Internet, and by mail. People commonly take them for health-related reasons. Common natural health products include vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C or a multivitamin), botanicals (herbs and plant products, such as St. John's wort), and substances that come from a natural source (such as omega-3 fatty acids).

Makers of natural health products cannot legally say that natural products can diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent disease. But they can say that they contribute to health maintenance and well-being.

People have used the active ingredients in natural health products for thousands of years to help health and to treat illness. Sometimes those natural products are the basis for some of today's common medicines. For example, people have used willow bark tea for centuries to control fever. Pharmaceutical companies eventually identified the chemical in willow bark that reduces fever and used that knowledge to produce aspirin.

The Natural and Non-Prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD), within the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, regulates natural health products in Canada. Natural health products must be reviewed and approved by the NNHPD before they can be sold in Canada.

What are natural health products used for?

People use natural health products for many health conditions.

  • Historically, people have used herbal medicines to prevent illness, cure infection, reduce fever, and heal wounds. Herbal medicines can also treat constipation, ease pain, or act as relaxants or stimulants. Research on some herbs and plant products has shown that they may have some of the same effects that conventional medicines do, while others may have no effect or may be harmful.
  • Researchers have studied some natural products and have found them to be useful. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, may help lower triglyceride levels.

Researchers have found that some natural health products do not help prevent or treat certain health problems. For example, beta-carotene and vitamin E do not lower risk of heart disease or heart attack.

Are natural health products safe?

Not all natural health products are safe. If you are unsure about the safety of a supplement or herb, talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian.

Always tell your doctor if you are using a natural health products or if you are thinking about combining a natural health product with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a natural health product. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

When using natural health products, keep in mind the following.

  • Look for products that have a Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label. These numbers tell you that Health Canada finds the product to be safe and useful if you follow the directions on the package.
  • Like conventional medicines, natural health products may cause side effects, trigger allergic reactions, or interact with prescription and non-prescription medicines or other natural products you might be taking. A side effect or interaction with another medicine or natural products may make other health conditions worse.
  • The way natural health products are manufactured may not be standardized. Because of this, how well they work or any side effects they cause may differ among brands or even within different lots of the same brand. The form of supplement that you buy in health food or grocery stores may not be the same as the form used in research.
  • Other than for vitamins and minerals, the long-term effects of most natural health products are not known.

Other Works Consulted

  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2014). Vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplements for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsvita.htm. Accessed March 28, 2014.

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerKathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Current as ofMarch 3, 2017