Is alternative medicine safe?

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.