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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. The use of these products, however, is definitely 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 those 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. I have some concerns about the bad news, however:

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 FDA) 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 all right, as well as an several other herbal products! Many of these products may overlap or interact.

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.

Created: 3/26/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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