Have you ever used a natural remedy to help get you through a comedown? Tried to use an obscure natural health product to get high? Many people have used natural health products to feel a buzz, to ease a hangover or to enhance the effects of recreational drugs. Rayna Sharma is a researcher on a mission to find out more.  

A PhD student at University of Auckland (Waipapa Taumata Rau), Sharma is seeking 100 people to participate in a study about how New Zealanders use natural health products as recreational drugs, or to help with alcohol and other drug issues.  

Sharma is in her third year of a PhD at the School of Pharmacy. Alongside her studies, she works part-time as a pharmacist. Her PhD is exploring both preventive and recreational uses of natural health products. 

Sharma is interested in how people might use natural health products to help reduce symptoms, such as someone taking them to treat hangovers and cravings. She’s also interested in their use as substitutes for recreational drugs

Sharma says that other studies into recreational drug use should routinely ask about natural health products too. “There’s not a lot of information on this stuff in the New Zealand context,” she says.  

Generally, natural health products are made from things that are found in nature – like plants, minerals or organisms (e.g. probiotics). 

Sharma's study has a broad definition of natural health products, including plant-based materials, dietary products, nutraceuticals, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, probiotics, prebiotics, and substances like ayahuasca, salvia, kamini and kava. 

Natural health products are very popular in New Zealand. A vast range of products are available for purchase through pharmacies, health stores, supermarkets and online. Many natural health products claim to help consumers stop smoking, or to ‘detox’ the liver in relation to alcohol use.  

Currently, there are no specific regulations that require checks on the effectiveness or safety of natural health products.  

"People can just go to the supermarket or pharmacy, buy something, whether it works or not. Some products claim to help people detox their livers or prevent you from having cravings for nicotine… It’ll be interesting to find out what products are being used and for what reasons," Sharma says.

The government currently has a therapeutic products bill in development, which is expected to introduce some more regulations for most categories of natural health products. 

Sharma says research on the use of NHPs for recreational purposes or as aids in substance use is severely lacking or outdated. This topic is very important to her: “I think a lot about safe use of medicines and harm reduction, especially in the drug and alcohol use space.”  

What does the study involve?  

The study involves a 30–40 minute questionnaire that asks participants questions about their use of natural health products and substances.  

The purpose of the initial phase of the research is to help refine the questionnaire based on areas that participants felt could have been clearer or were missing. 

Interested in participating?  

To take part in this study, you need to be 18+ and have at some point in your life used cigarettes, alcohol, or any illicit substances. The researchers want to hear from a diverse mix of people from different ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, and locations within New Zealand.  

You’ll receive a $20 voucher for your time. 

Sharma says participants will be contributing to a pool of research and knowledge about natural health products. 

From the pool of respondents, Sharma plans to conduct in-depth interviews with 20 people to further explore their thoughts about the questionnaire. People who take part in an interview will receive an additional $50 voucher. 

Participant feedback will be used to refine the questions before distributing an improved questionnaire to approximately 1000 representative New Zealanders in another study. 

Head to the University of Auckland website for more info.

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