There are no uniquely "natural" chemicals as every chemical is naturalSubmitted by Delysid on Mon, 08/13/2012 - 00:34
The word "natural" is now ubiquitous in our society. Companies market "natural" products, governments regulate "natural" products (or more specifically the very similar and sometimes synonymous term "organic"), and scores of people devote much energy to live as naturally as possible. People discuss "natural" food and medicine as if it is self-explanatory. It is not self-explanatory and everyone seems to have a different idea of what it means. In fact the term 'natural' is about as specific and standardized as 'normal.' What is normal? What is natural?
The most common definition I see of "natural" is that if a chemical is extracted from something in nature, then it is natural. One example is Saint John's wort, which is used as an alternative treatment for depression. Hypericum perforatum (Saint John's wort) grows in nature, therefore it and the chemicals it produces are natural. Research so far has shown that the major antidepressive constituents in the plant are hyperforin and hypericin and possibly some flavenoids and tannins. These drugs are thought to inhibit serotonin reuptake (much like the SSRIs like Prozac and Zoloft) and inhibit noradrenalin and dopamine reuptake (like Wellbutrin). The "natural" drugs have similar pharmacological mechanisms as "synthetic" drugs, yet the latter is often demonized and the former is not. The criticism of the "synthetic" drugs does not focus on their mechanism of action, but on the source of the drug.
One could argue that the chemicals in Saint John's wort are safer than the Big Pharma antidepressants. This may or may not be a valid claim. In this case the chemicals in Saint John's wort have similar pharmacological mechanisms as the "synthetic" antidepressants, but being different chemicals they inevitably have certain differences in their biological effects. Negative effects in humans have been documented and it is known that Saint Johns wort is toxic to livestock, so it is not necessarily safer than drugs like Zoloft simply for being "natural."
"Natural" drugs are often promoted as safe, but this wildly inaccurate. Every drug, regardless of how it is classified, has positive and negative effects. This is without exception. Even water in high enough doses is fatal.
It is one thing to compare and contrast the therapeutic benefits of two different drugs, but what if a "natural" drug extracted from a plant is the exact same chemical as one synthesized in a laboratory? (This includes stereochemistry and geometric isomerism.) If one strictly analyzes an isolated product, the mechanism for producing the chemical doesn't matter. If you introduce a chemical into our bodies, our enzymes do not care about the source. Our metabolic pathways do not change based on whether a chemical was extracted from a plant or synthesized in a laboratory. Nature is not prejudiced and superstitious like humans. (i.e. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwichs made peanut butter first then jelly and I hate jelly than peanut butter. It is the same final sandwich.) It is the same chemical.
I see a lot of criticism about chemotherapy in libertarian forums (some justified and others paranoid), but a perfect example of the natural-unnatural fallacy is the drug Taxol. Taxol, the generic name being paclitaxel, is a "natural" drug found in the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Originally it was derived from the bark as a "natural" drug, but now due to scarcity of the tree it is totally synthesized in a laboratory. It is the same product. The same chemical. Critics promoting "natural" alternatives to this type of chemotherapy ignore that this drug is "natural" according to their own arbitrary classification schemes.
It is a similar situation with the notorious drug methamphetamine. The 'legalize it' crowd frequently promotes the "natural" qualities of marijuana and demonizes the synthetic and artificial properties of drugs like methamphetamine, but methamphetamine is produced by the plant Acacia berlandieri. It is every bit as "natural" as THC.
But what about the chemicals synthesized in a laboratory that are not found in nature? My response: how do you know? There is an entire industry based on exploring the ocean and jungles for undiscovered chemicals. There are teams of chemists who go diving to collect any specimens they can to test them for anti-cancer drugs. They have spectroscopy instruments and biology labs right on the boats. Many commonly used drugs today (and sold by Big Pharma) were first isolated from plants, animals, bacteria, and other organisms. There is an endless supply of chemicals found in nature that are completely unknown to man. It is possible that every single chemical ever discovered by man is produced by some organism somewhere.
Many of host organisms for these medicines are rare (like the Pacific yew tree), which makes it impractical to do large scale extractions, so it is essential to "artificially" synthesize these drugs from more common precursors. This process should not be feared, as purity and concentration of the final product can be strictly controlled. There is concern that isolating a bioactive drug can possibly remove the synergy achieved when the drug is in situ (like in a flower), but this goes both ways, as isolating the drug might also remove it from other drugs that undermine the therapeutic benefits in situ. This is an important consideration to make when deciding on a medical treatment, but isolating a bioactive molecule does not affect the inherent "naturalness" of the drug.
Some people in the "natural" culture seem to forget that humans are a part of nature. Plants and other organisms produce chemicals in the same manner as scientists in a laboratory- through a series of chemical reactions. Humans use chemistry to our advantage, both intrinsically and extrinsically, as every other organism in existence. Efforts to live and eat more "naturally" are often in vain (don't confuse the terms "naturally" with "healthy"), as it is impossible to avoid consuming "unnatural" chemicals. For example, cooking food, one of the most primitive- advanced human activities, is an "unnatural" chemical reaction. Meat is not cooked in nature (unless a cow is caught in a wildfire or struck by lightning).
But these examples bypass the ultimate point that all atoms and molecules exist on Earth and in the universe, therefore all chemicals are natural.