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Alternative Medicine

Herbal medicines and supplements are often called "alternative medicine" because in many cases we don't have a wealth of biomedical research to support their safety and efficacy, ideal dosage, drug interactions, or side effects. . .but their use is mainstream.  According to Prevention Magazine (7/99), Americans now make more than 600 million visits to alternative practitioners per year, almost double the number of visits per year to family physicians.  And while 4 out of 10 Americans say they have tried some form of alternative medicine, 7 out of 10 of them have not shared this information with their physicians.

The good news about alternative medicines is that our research base to support their use (or not) is increasing.  However, I do have some concerns about the bad news.

First, I am concerned about patients who fear the side effects of "traditional" medicines so they choose herbal remedies assuming that they must be safe since they're sold over-the-counter. Most consumers do not realize that herbal products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration the same way that prescription or standard over-the-counter medicines are.

Next, I am concerned about patients who think that "If a little is good, a lot is better." They take their prescriptions as well as several other herbal products!  Many of these products may cause interactions, negate the effects of their prescriptions, or may simply be redundant.

Finally, I am concerned about patients who have been advised against taking certain prescription products for medical reasons and then take herbal "alternatives" not realizing that their active ingredients may act in the same way. 

The bottom line?  If you are taking herbal products or supplements, know what you're taking and why.  As with any medicines, be sure to discuss them with your healthcare provider and make sure this information is in your medical record.

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Created: 4/30/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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