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:

Horse-3copy_PigsCowPamela Wible, M.D., is a family physician in Eugene, Oregon, and author of Pet Goats & Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx Talk “How to Get Naked with Your Doctor.” Photos by Geve.

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23 comments on “The Shocking Ingredient in Natural Medicine
  1. MaryJo Comins says:

    Wonderfully helpful information, Pamela. I’ve never taken any of the drugs mentioned and I will certainly look closely at sources for any supplement I consider. My relatively graceful menopause was achieved years ago with Vitamins A, C, and E plus Osteoprime (oyster shell calcium). Whee!

  2. Debbie Whitworth says:

    I am one week away from being 64 years old and I went through menopause in my early 50’s. I wouldn’t think of taking any of the above mentioned medicines and have navigated menopause and post-menopause without any problems. The most helpful changes I made were to avoid dairy products and processed foods, and focusing more on green and orange vegetables. Women have been going through menopause for thousands of years successfully this way.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      And in some cultures women have been going through menopause so gracefully they do not even have a word for menopause. In the US we tend to medicalize normal life milestones.

  3. Mary DeForest says:

    I’m one of hundreds of thousands that can’t process synthetic thyroid replacement hormones. I cannot break the T 4 down into T 3, among other things.

    Thyroid used to come from a beef slaughter house in Phoenix , AZ-and PETA and people like you got it shutdown. I am not Jewish nor Islamic, but pork makes me sick. I don’t digest it well, it’s heavy on my stomach, I feel bad-tired-Ever since the Phoenix slaughter house was shut down- my thyroid goes all over the place–people like you make my life miserable. I took beef for over 20 years and was stable. You seem to forget that the rest of the cow goes to McDonalds for hamburgers.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      I did write that synthetic thyroid works well for most people. NOT all people. That is why some people are still on pig thyroid (including a few of my own patients). Not everyone wants to support the factory farming industry and this is one reason why people opt out of using some of these supplements.

      • Mary DeForest says:

        Thank you for replying. If you had stated that you occasionally prescribe Armour, your article would have been more even, which meets journalistic and medical standards.

        I had an emergency hospitalization last May. While getting in bed, getting IVs, lab work, medical history, who my doctors were, showing me the phone, nurse button, another surgeon looking me over, how to use the bed, TV, family contacts, diet, medication history, IV antibiotics, a preliminary physical therapy assessment, I spent over an hour arguing with the hospital pharmacy. I didn’t know how long I would be there-and I had to explain that my body didn’t need the trauma and shock of going without thyroid supplement-and it could affect my recovery-my heart rate, etc. That I cannot break the T4 down into T3, and it seems to strongly affect me mentally, and I did not want to end up in a straight jacket.

        The major hospital did not have any Armour thyroid on the premises because of the fear of Medicare regulations causing them to loose funding or being investigated. First-whoever went over the legalities of my family bringing thyroid from home–Ward doctor and head nurse had an adamant -NO-which the lawyers agreed with because of liability. Then we had another go around about synthetics, which included an internist and endrologist. The nurses were mad at the pharmacy-I explained to them that a few months earlier, I received a mailing from Medicare and the HMO pharmacy board that it was illegal for me to take Armour and for my PCP to scribe Armour. I was paying for it out of my own pocket.

        The hospital filed with medicare for an exception for me about Armour. The pharmacy board and lawyers worked on getting an exception for other Armour patients that might come in. It seems other patients backed down-either went without or had it smuggled in. The head of the pharmacy came in and thanked me for being so strong, while so injured, because it forced medicare to do the right thing for once.

        Again I will say—99% of the animal goes into food production-beef-McDonalds– pork- Jimmy Dean—and I do not trust Canadian pharmaceuticals or Canadian meat processing. I still do not like pork, as my TSH seems to change every 6 months. That causes me great problems. Securing animal thyroid is a slaughter house problem and doesn’t have anything to do with factory farming.

        My comment is based on shutting down beef thyroid production-and, while it’s not your fault, Medicare’s push to eliminate natural thyroid. Because of that, my HMO pharmacy board will not cover Armour. I had to fight about the principle of my right to purchase a med that my doctor feels is medically necessary. Friends that were in the FDA told me about this, as throwing a bone to PETA, and other animal rights’ groups. It also was about contamination from thyroid and other contaminants from slaughtering-and a FDA and EPA problem.

        I don’t care for factory farming-but as long as animals are slaughtered in the US, we should be able to use all animal parts. I’m also “the buck stops here” person. I believe that it is immoral to push our environmental problems to other places and other countries. Look at China, and how this practice is damaging everything.

        • Pamela Wible MD says:

          What a fiasco trying to get on the medicine that works for you. Wow.

        • Brenda Izen, M.D. says:

          Hi Mary,
          I wanted to let you know that there is an alternative for you if you wish to discuss it with your doctor. I treated many patients like you who could not make T3 from T4. Occasionally, I would use Armour thyroid, which is probably what you are using, but I preferred to use synthetic T4 and synthetic T3. Neither of these are made from animal products. The other upside is that there were more dosing options available than there are with Armour thyroid. The T3 product is called Cytomel and it is also available in a generic version. The downside is that you would have to take 2 pills. They are pretty cheap and most of my patients felt great so they did not mind. I monitored them by checking TSH, Free T3 and Free T4. I hope that you will find this information helpful. Things are changing all of the time in medicine so it is good to know about options.

  4. Craig Einhorn says:

    Great article! For many years I’ve noticed people say, “Natural is better”. But is it really? Not all things natural are good for us. I recall a family in San Francisco that picked some mushrooms, mixed them in with dinner, and then they all died after the mushrooms caused fatal liver damage. What’s good for us is what’s good for us. At the same time it would be nice if what’s good for us isn’t derived from from a source that causes others harm.

  5. Michelle D'Amico Rosenthal says:

    I know several women, including my own mom, who have been greatly helped by bio-identical hormones, the ones that are prescribed by a compounding pharmacy based on each person’s individual work-up. Your article almost sounds like you think all women should just cope with menopausal symptoms. Since all women experience these to different degrees, is it so wrong to want some relief when that relief is readily available? Why should women have to suffer through unpleasant symptoms and drive their loved ones and those around them crazy with their mood swings, etc.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      I believe everyone should chose the best therapy for them based on informed consent of all options, including no option. Lots of my patients re on bioidenticals for menopause. Though I am happy to reveal that I have never prescribed Premarin. 🙂

  6. Kerry Garchow says:

    Thanks Pamela, this is great information! With the extremely poor quality of cows and other factory farmed animals, I would never put that in my body. Interestingly enough, a study was just done and McDonalds’s beef was found unfit for human consumption. There are many more reasons besides Mad Cow Disease to avoid them. Canada has higher food standards and they enforce them, but I still couldn’t do it. And the soy replacement therapy was all the rage back in the 90’s, it was the first time they pushed GMO roundup ready soy on people, the rates of ovarian, uterine and breast cancer skyrocketed. I haven’t reached menopause yet, but I am very hopeful that I can get through it without taking anything. I’m eating the Paleo diet, I’ve cut out a lot of the Chemicals and crap in my diet. Maybe that will help! =)

  7. iva ioneskov says:

    I went through menopause and it was not fun. I still wake up like a clock at 3 am, and I am completely awake, not groggy or sleepy, just eyes wide open..awake. I hate it. I want to sleep like the rest of my neighbours but I can’t. May be it is sleep apnea… may be menopause. . I mentioned at family dinner once, how I went through menopause and no one noticed. There was a long silence and exchanged looks.. My daughter turned to me and said: “You are joking ,right?”

  8. ch davis says:

    As much as I respect this authors fight. Levothyroxine is not a great medication for a lot of people. I was on it for over 20 years and once I switched to Armour, it was like a switch being turned on. I will never go back to levothyroxine, and there is a body of evidence on how levothyroxine is a pretty inferior medication. I hope that instead of just throwing people off the boat by putting them on levothyroxine, because it’s synthetic ,you support further research into finding a good medication that is not animal based. Please tell me no one is riding that horse. That is one thing I find appalling, we have 2 rescued race horses that will never have to feel a saddle on their backs ever again.

    • Deborah McNeely says:

      Please explain what differences you noticed when you started Armor. I have Hashimotos with antibodies >600 and I have used Levothyroxin and Cytomel. My main problems were constipation and extreme swelling feet. My doctor just switched me to Armor and I am concerned about comments I see posted. I would love to hear about your experience with Armor since you feel it is better. Thank you!

  9. Diane L Griffiths says:

    Omg. I am so glad I checked your website out. I am trying pescatarian…and I use melatonin. I had no idea that it came from a slaughtered cow. I am throwing mine away!

    • Geralyn Devereaux says:

      Tart cherry capsules/juice have melatonin in them as do most black grapes, juices, black berries…

  10. Chaya Patchell says:

    Very interesting on thyroid/melatonin I have just been reading the last few days about the main cattle feed still in our country contains rendered animal protein this consists of ground dogs & cats from municipal pet euthanizing etc., sheep, poultry(including poultry feces) etc. horses, and any other dead animals, so they are feeding cows, dead cows or parts, but any other animal. The main stream milk and beef cattle(hopefully not the organic but who knows)cow feed contains all these animal part including brain, etc just not cow.. does it seem like if a vegetarian animal eats ANY other animal parts especially brain, spinal column etc. that this infected prion situation on many levels not necessarily the deadly Mad Cow but what about lesser forms of this. I find it disgusting that not only cattle but all mainstream livestock, pigs, chickens, turkey, sheep, etc are getting this meal with grains of course probably GMO everything and then with added rendered animal products. I have just done some extensive research online about Mad Cow Disease and there is concern not only about the brain, spine, and spinal fluid could be involved but also the hormones especially pituitary, thyroid etc. located in or near brain and head, could also be affected, and the full extent of the part some of these these aspects might play in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is being speculated on! I was on Armour thyroid for yrs but do not eat red meat at all for over 40 yrs. I was always grossed out using the Armour thyroid, but it always worked well for me. I went on synthetic for awhile then back to Armour (mainly because my original Dr. who prescribed to me was an MD and a Naturopath and she thought the Armour was best because of the T3 T4 aspects discussed above) but now went on levothyroxine and may be going on to the synthetic T3-4 situation also but I am glad to stay on the synthetic after reading so much about the Mad cow, human CJD, and a list of the similar disease in sheep, etc. I also just started taking Iodine/Iodide product which some researchers even say could help hypothyroidism, to the point of getting off med, my current Dr says can help sometimes and sometimes not, even suggests could do harm, I also just started taking again a cortisol suppressing product as the stress hormone cortisol can also wreak havoc with thyroid hormone, I have been under a lot of stress for years and I feel that could definitely be a factor for me, there are diets that are said to be able to repair thyroid problems also. After what I have recently read, how even poultry is fed this feed with the rendered animal products. I normally buy at least the Natural products, eggs, chicken that are supposed to be vegetarian fed but we hear so much about how things may not really be “as marked”. As pointed out above something called natural or even organic feed I wonder about, could include rendered cats, dogs, pigs, sheep, who knows road kill maybe as the animals ARE natural, feeding ruminants/vegetarian animals ground up animals is making them into cannibals, which has also been found and studied that human cannibals have also had the CJD happen in their tribes etc. I loved what an Eastern Indian mans blog on all this said, when you mess with nature, forcing vegetarian animals to eat dead and diseased animals you are going against nature and there WILL BE CONSEQUENCES!

  11. Nic says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. There are synthetic and plant based melatonin options available these days. I’ve heard many people say that menopause is a myth. It’s really down to the woman and her own experience. Telling a woman it is either inevitable or a myth is just another label we place upon women. I’ve been lucky to live on 3 continents, and seen woman go thru it with ease, mild discomfort, and with many challenges.
    It’s always good to go natural and cruelty free, but really it’s about being in tune with one’s body and mind and going from there.

  12. Jasper says:

    Just go through menopause gracefully? The author of this article can go straight to hell. When I was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and sent into a very ungraceful menopause at 20 years old Premarin is the only thing that allowed me to have a semi-normal life since. Hotflashes, forgetfulness, extreme depression, and many other symptoms are all things I thankfully only have to deal with when i forget to take my Premarin for a couple of days. I will continue taking it regardless of where it comes from.

  13. Steve Brenessel says:

    I want to take synthetic melatonin, not natural melatonin from cow’s brains. Can you recommend some brands that are guaranteed synthetic? Thank you

  14. Pasquale Galante says:

    Thank you, Doctor Pamela,
    Vegetarian plant-based Melatonin is very expensive. I just learned how much tart cherry juice from concentrate has. Very high amounts. What are the companies that use the Cow’s pineal gland?
    I was taking Webbers naturals, Sundown, and Swansons melatonin. Do any of these companies use the cow’s brain source? I finally found a reason tho like synthetic.

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