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The Safety of Alternative Medicine

Scott Olson, ND

Many people associate the word “natural” with safe and think that alternative medicines must be benign. This is often not the case! For example, cyanide and arsenic are natural substances and have the potential to create much harm (even death). While most CAM therapies are safe, many have side effects or can interfere with standard medical prescriptions. Problems often arise when people take large amounts of natural supplements thinking that "more is better", or when people take supplements along with standard medications without first checking to see if mixing treatments in this fashion might cause problems.

Complementary and Alternative medicines have the advantage of being easily available over-the-counter (a prescription is not necessary). The ease of obtaining CAM medicines may lead to a false sense of security about their safety. Remember that CAM remedies are not harmless. Natural substances can have side effects and/or interfere with conventional drugs (either by strengthening or weakening their effects). If you are taking any prescription medications, always check with a qualified health practitioner before starting any natural therapy.

Supplement quality is also a concern. There is very little oversight of supplement manufacturing companies; as a result, these companies may at times skimp on ingredients or fail to follow good manufacturing practices. Your CAM or standard health care provider is probably the best source of information useful for determining which brands of supplements are worth purchasing and which are not.

There has been a recent move to standardize herbal preparations. While standardization is mostly a good thing, the end result is that the final herbal products are more highly concentrated. A highly concentrated herb acts much more like a drug than a benign plant. Standardized St. John’s Wort, for example, interferes with the metabolism of many other drugs (usually making prescription drugs less effective). Again, caution is warranted with these medicines, and self-treatment (without the guidance of a qualified practitioner) is not recommended.

Understanding that “natural” does not necessarily mean harmless is a good place to start. Checking with your health care practitioner whenever you decide to start taking a new supplement is an essential part of taking care of yourself.

The Role of Alternative Medicine in Mental Health

Alternative medicines for mental disorders occupy a supportive care role, for the most part. However, for a few select mental disorders, there are well-researched supplements that may stand on their own and substitute for standard medicines. St. John’s Wort for depression and Kava for anxiety are two examples. For the bulk of CAM therapies, though, this is not this case. Research investigating the effectiveness of these treatments is either minimal, poorly done, or inconclusive (contradictory results across studies make broad conclusions difficult).

The selection of a CAM therapy is best determined by the severity of your disease, how well it helps or hinders conventional therapy, and your willingness to try a therapy that is largely untested. Some supplements, such as the Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils), will probably always remain in a supportive role and never stand as a solo-therapy.

It is the experience of many practitioners who use alternative and complementary medicines that the patients who approach a problem from more than one angle are the most successful. That is, if you try taking a supplement and an herb and also incorporating some form of exercise (yoga, running, biking) into your treatment regimen, then you are much more likely to have success. Using a good health care practitioner who can help you to integrate different therapies, along with avoiding drug interactions and other pitfalls, tends to be the most effective strategy for any health condition.