Any medicine is more effective if you have a positive feeling about getting better. If you are using prescription drugs, you must take them correctly to get well. The same is true if you are taking natural medicines.
Natural medicines or herbs should only be started one at a time. Otherwise it is difficult to determine what helps or is doing harm. You must take the right number of pills the right number of times a day. Starting and stopping medicines often, or taking the wrong dose is not likely to give you good results. You need to know that natural medicines such as herbs and supplements can have side effects and can interact with each other or with some prescription drugs and health conditions.
The words complementary and alternative are often used to describe the use of natural medicines and therapies. Complementary suggests therapies such as diet, massage and some nutritional supplements used along with conventional medicine.
Alternative therapies are considered by some people to replace conventional medicine. Naturopathy, homeopathy and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are often considered alternative to conventional or modern medicine. The term Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is used to include all forms of 'natural' therapies.
There is no need to label a therapy as either complementary or alternative. Most can be used along with conventional medicine, as long as patients inform their medical doctors. Be suspicious of any practitioner, therapist or product that guarantees a cure. The human body is too complex and individual healing too variable for any cure to be certain.
The National Institutes of Health Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in the United States has identified seven categories of CAM. These are listed in Table 1. There are over 350 methods for CAM in all, and about 10,000 ways of using them! One form of CAM that is receiving a lot of attention right now is herbal medicine.
(from The Honest Herb, Dr. V. Tyler)
The first two sidebars were adapted from: Canadian Journal of CME, March 1999.
Herbs have been used for centuries to treat and prevent disease. The sidebar lists a number of herbs that are considered 'probably effective' according to Dr. Varro Tyler, author of The Honest Herb. Aside from this short list, there are hundreds of other herbs available for people to use. Not all of these other herbs have good information and research to support their use.
Many people believe natural products, like herbs, cannot cause harm. This is simply not true. Herbs are really just drugs found naturally in plant form, and have the same potential to cause side-effects that other drugs do. For instance, people taking St. John's wort may suffer from stomach upset, a rash from the sun, or trouble sleeping.
Herbs can interact with some prescription drugs. For instance, patients taking blood thinners should avoid garlic and gingko. Patients treated with anti-depressant medication should not take St. John's wort. Also, herbs may make a disease worse. Patients who have SLE (Lupus) should not take alfalfa supplements, as alfalfa has been shown to reactivate the disease.
These are just a few examples of potential problems. There are many others! It is very important that you seek out health professionals who know about CAM before treating yourself with 'natural' therapies. This is very important when you have medical problems or are taking prescription medication.
It is usually safe to treat minor complaints with natural therapies, as long as you are not being treated for another serious illness or taking prescription medicines. In those cases, you need to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before self-treating because you will need to understand the potential risks and benefits of your natural treatment. Do not treat yourself with natural medicines if you have any of the problems listed in Table 3.
If you are determined to try a natural therapy for a serious illness, it is very important that you find a good CAM practitioner and you need to be comfortable discussing your choice with your medical doctor. When treating serious illness with natural therapy, you will also need to consider the consequences of turning away from or adding to conventional treatments.
One way is to look for licensed practitioners. These people have an organization that over sees the way they work. For instance, most provinces have licensing bodies for naturopaths (ND) and for acupuncturists (LAc). Unfortunately this is not a foolproof means of finding a good CAM practitioner. For instance, most provinces do not have a licensing body for homeopaths. It is important to check with people who know and have had experience with the person. You may also want to ask other health-care workers such as pharmacists, doctors and nurses if they know of the CAM practitioner's work.
If you have a condition that can be safely treated using herbs, make sure you use quality products. Avoid anything that is unproven and may be unsafe. How do you know a good quality product? Most are standardized extracts. This means that the herb has been tested to ensure that it contains a certain percentage of the key ingredient of that particular herb. The product is then concentrated (somewhat like frozen orange juice) and contains more of the herb's natural chemicals than the whole herb would normally contain.
Another indicator of a quality product may be the presence of a drug identification number or DIN. The product must have an expiry date and a lot number. Wherever you buy your herbal extracts, make sure you ask about the quality of the products.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine is here to stay. Natural medicines and therapies can be part of maintaining or improving your health. It is important to remember all medicines, whether natural or prescription, may have risks along with their benefits. They need to be taken correctly in order to work. There are many minor health problems that are safe to self-treat with natural medicines, but you need to know a lot about the treatment you have chosen.
When selecting a CAM practitioner, make sure that person is well-qualified to deal with your health problems. Each of us is responsible for our own health. That includes using natural medicines responsibly.