American writer Robert Green Ingersoll once said, ‘In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.’ Or as Homer Simpson said, ‘The bee bit my bottom. Now my bottom’s big.’
Even if something is natural, that doesn’t mean it is safe. All medicines have risks.
To illustrate this, let’s look at some of the risks of medicines that use ingredients from bees. Bee pollen, royal jelly, and even bee venom are all used in natural or traditional medicines. Most people won’t have an adverse reaction to these products, but those who do could have a serious one.
Here are some of the risks:
- Bee pollen can cause serious allergic reactions.
- Royal jelly, a food bees make to feed their larvae, has a small risk of severe allergic reaction. For this reason, in Australia royal jelly products must display the warning ‘Not to be taken by asthma and allergy sufferers.’
- Bee venom side effects are common and can be life-threatening. Bee venom becomes more dangerous the more you are exposed to it. According to the Journal of Asthma Allergy, ‘hypersensitivity to insect stings affects up to 5 %–7.5% of the population’.
There are also medicines from natural sources that may trigger other types of nasty adverse effects in the broader population. These effects can be less predictable than allergies. For example, in 2018, we issued a safety alert to alert consumers and healthcare professionals about a potential risk of harm to the liver through the use of green tea extracts.
What makes a medicine natural?
Here at the Therapeutic Goods Administration, we have published guidance on using the term natural in advertising so that the meaning is clear for consumers. We published this guidance because we want to make it easy for you to know what it means when a health product is promoted with natural claims.
To include a natural claim in an advertisement, the advertiser must ensure their product meets three conditions. The natural raw material of the medicine must:
- be produced from a raw material found in nature, such as a plant
- undergo minimal processing, such as grinding or freezing
- stay chemically the same after processing.
Or the advertisement has to tell consumers what it means when it uses natural to describe a product.
This includes advertising that uses similar language to natural, such as ‘naturally derived’. The Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code and other requirements also apply. For instance, advertisers must hold evidence that supports any claims made about the product in advertising.
A medicine with one natural ingredient may have other chemicals such as preservatives. Where in doubt, check the label or ask the manufacturer.
Not the bees!
As we saw looking at medicines and medical devices made from bee products, natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Sometimes, bee venom is described as a natural alternative to dermal filler, but even if this product is natural it can be as risky as a prescription medicine.
In fact, many prescription medicines use ingredients from nature. For example, some dermal fillers come from the combs of roosters.
Don’t rely on anecdotes or outrageous claims. If you are planning on using a medicine or medical device ‘bee aware’ of the risks, and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure.
Then you’ll be getting honey from hives, and not hives from honey.