Common Myths About Natural Medicine

The term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to a broad group of medical practices that are used either alongside or instead of conventional therapies. Natural products –including botanicals, minerals, vitamins and other supplements from natural sources – form a major part of CAM. Despite the popularity of natural medicine, there is a lot of confusion regarding how safe, how effective, and even how common it is. Here, we (Natural Standard) address some common myths about natural medicine.

Myth: Few Americans use natural medicine or other forms of CAM.

A few years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics conducted a survey on CAM use in the United States. This survey showed that in 2007, over 40% of American adults used CAM –most commonly as non-vitamin, non-mineral natural products (such as herbal extracts and amino acids). That year, the out-of-pocket expenses for CAM products and services were nearly $34 billion in the United States. To put this number in perspective, the 2007 budget for NASA – just over $16 billion – didn’t even amount to half of what Americans spent on CAM. These numbers continue to rise.

Myth: If it’s natural, it must be safe.

There’s a common assumption that “natural” means “safe.” With so many poisonous (and often deadly) plants found in nature, this assumption is clearly incorrect. Even some natural products that are marketed to promote health may increase the risk of liver toxicity or kidney toxicity. Furthermore, there have been many recorded cases of bleeding and/or drug interactions with certain herbal products and dietary supplements (see next myth). Pregnant or breastfeeding women need to use extra caution. Extracts may contain high volumes of alcohol. Like pharmaceutical drugs, natural products can be helpful but need to be used safely and be monitored by health-care providers.

Myth: It’s okay to take natural medicines along with conventional therapies.

The term “complementary medicine” implies that it should be used alongside conventional therapies. However, it is important to know that many natural products can affect how drugs work. One example is St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which may alter how many drugs are metabolized. St. John’s wort thus has many potential interactions, and its use is contraindicated (restricted) with several drugs. Grapefruit also has several well-known drug interactions. Grapefruit juice may slow the metabolism of many chemicals, thus increasing the blood serum concentrations of certain drugs.

Natural Standard Research Collaboration conducted a systematic review of clinically documented herb-drug interactions. We noticed that in addition to grapefruit, herbs beginning with the letter "g" (garlic, ginger and ginkgo) were among the supplements most commonly involved in herb-drug interactions. Garlic, ginger and ginkgo have all been associated with increased bleeding, and all have been clinically shown to interact with blood-thinning drugs.

Myth: Doctors and patients don’t need to discuss the use of natural therapies.

Because many natural products are available over-the-counter, patients often may think, “Since I didn’t need a prescription to get this, I don’t need to discuss it with my doctor.” At the same time, studies have shown that physicians are often unaware that their patients are using natural products or other forms of CAM, like chiropractic therapy or acupuncture. Since many natural products have well-known adverse effects and drug interactions, there needs to be better communication between patients and all health-care providers to assure a personalized safe and effective integrative care plan.

In general, both patients and clinicians should be cautious about using any natural products with blood-thinning drugs like warfarin, which is widely known to be sensitive to vitamin K intake. Any blood-thinning drug may potentially interact with any herb or supplement with anticoagulant properties, such as vitamin E, fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids. Because many natural products may increase the risk of bleeding, clinicians should ask their patients before surgery (including dental surgery) whether they use herbs or other natural products. Discontinuation of these products should be considered well before any surgical procedures.

Health-care providers should include the topic of CAM as part of a new patient assessment. For example, when discussing medications, physicians should ask about everything the patient ingests – including over-the-counter products, vitamins, minerals, herbs, and even the patient’s diet. Yoga? Acupressure? Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)? Physicians may consider having the patients bring in the actual bottles of herbs and supplements for evaluation. A list of all therapies and practices should be provided by patients during office visits and at store counters.

Myth: Pharmacists just dispense drugs.

Pharmacists – many of whom hold the Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree – are often the last clinicians that patients encounter before taking medications/dietary supplements home. Therefore, Pharmacists are in the position of being the final “safety net” for drug interactions, nutrient depletions and adverse effects, and should constantly be on the lookout. They need to be proactive about counseling patients on potential interactions between drugs and foods, herbs, and dietary supplements. At the same time, patients need to tell pharmacists what natural products they are using; otherwise, dietary supplements won’t show up in patient records. Patients should keep an active list of medications (prescription, over-the-counter, or CAM) and ask the pharmacist if there are any potential adverse effects, interactions, or other considerations when using any other drugs or natural products. Note that retail clerks are not necessarily well trained in this area.

Myth: Natural therapies are not supported by scientific evidence.

Scientific evidence supports many natural products for several health conditions. For example, there is strong clinical evidence that peppermint (Mentha × piperita) may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Another example, kava (Piper methysticum) is also supported by clinical evidence for reducing anxiety; however, due to widespread concern regarding potential liver toxicity, kava has been withdrawn in several European and North American markets.

Although scientific evidence supports many natural therapies, there are still many CAM products that lack evidence despite their widespread use. More research is needed for natural therapies in general to determine safety, effectiveness and proper dosing. Manufacturers need to be held to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and encouraged to conduct clinical trials on their products.

Conclusions

Natural products are important sources of pharmacologically active compounds, which often form the basis of both CAM and conventional medicine. On one hand, natural products are often used as primary therapies (or to complement conventional therapies) despite uncertain effectiveness or safety. On the other hand, natural products have given rise to numerous conventional drugs, which are widely used today as first-line treatments for numerous conditions. As herbal products (and dietary supplements in general) continue to grow in popularity, patients and health care providers need to be aware of potential herb-drug interactions and other safety issues. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness of many CAM therapies, and how to reach a balance between the potential benefits and risks. Reliable sources of information are also crucial for patient and providers to make educated and evidence-based decisions.

**Wausau Wellness Center has herbal/pharmaceutical counseling available. If you like to set up an appointment with our Naturopathic Doctor, to go over your pharmaceuticals’ to check for interactions, reduce your pharmaceutical intake and/or use only natural alternatives for your current health condition; please call 715-842-7237 and ask to set up an appointment with Dr.Peters.

If you are looking for a complete elimination of herbal and pharmeceuticals, set up an appointment to determine which substances cause physiological stress and then subsequently reduce the stress by providing positive stimuli in the form homeopathic frequencies inducted into laser light. The appointment will incorporate a meridian and energy stress assessment and low level light therapy. Call for an appointment with Dr. Peters N.D. 715-842-7237

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