Forbes.com
By Miriam Marcus, 10.31.07

image002.jpgA computer user in her 50s suffered from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, affecting the use of her hands at work. She tried conventional pain medicines and physical therapy for two years, with little relief. Then she started taking omega-3 fatty acids as supplements, using acupuncture and practicing yoga. Three months later her symptoms were gone.

Another woman, 52, suffered both from high cholesterol and from arthritis in her knees and back. Anti-inflammatory medicines failed to relieve her pain. Prescription drugs lowered her cholesterol only slightly. She started taking a marine plant-based dietary supplement called Sea Vegg. Over the next six months she felt so good that she was able to start exercising, and her total cholesterol dropped from 225 to 205. She then stopped taking her prescription medicines.

Just two isolated cases? Hardly, say the doctors that treated them. According to a study conducted in 2005 by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences, an estimated 15 million adults take herbal remedies or high-dose vitamins along with prescription drugs. More than a third of American adults reported having used some form of complementary and alternative medicine, at the time of the survey.

But which are safe? Which effective? Which are compatible with textbook medicine? Myths and misconceptions abound.

image004.jpgOne common misconception is that alternative and conventional medicines are mutually exclusive. That’s not so, says Dr. Monica Mykelbust, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. In her view most patients are best served by a combination of the two called CAM, for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. She recommends that anyone suffering immediate, serious or painful symptoms go the conventional route first.

Dr. Paul Anderson, core faculty at Bastyr University in the School of Naturopathic Medicine in Seattle, Washington,

http://www.bastyr.edu/default.asp

Agrees. “If a patient has a severe cut, I’ll sew up the wound. A threatening strep infection? I’ll prescribe antibiotics like any M.D.,” he says. “We don’t dislike the standard system of medicine. We just have other things to add to make it work, and sometimes work better.”

Another false assumption: “Natural” is always synonymous with “safe.”

Prescription drugs and pharmaceutical products must meet high standards of consistency.

Natural and herbal compounds vary in strength. Dr. Wendy Biggs, a family physician at Midland Family Medicine Residency in Michigan, draws an analogy between dietary supplements and wine.

“Every year vineyards will produce wines of a different character,” she says. “[Likewise] herbal supplements such as St. John’s Wort may be of different strengths each year.”

Kava, often taken for anxiety, can in rare cases cause liver failure, even from a single dose. Ginseng, ginkgo biloba and garlic supplements all make you bleed more freely, in a way similar to aspirin. You shouldn’t take them before surgery. Consider, too, that all-natural supplements can interact with the conventional medicines prescribed to you, causing side effects.

Before taking alternative medicines, do your homework. There is a wealth of information about herbal supplements and alternative care. For example, a governmental regulatory agency in Europe called “German Commission E” provides information on over 300 alternative supplements and drugs.

It’s important to discuss all therapy options with a conventional medical doctor, as well as an alternative practitioner, even for conditions you consider minor.

“A minor condition can turn into a major one overnight,” warns Dr. Colleen Badell, author of 6 Myths About Alternative Medicine, among others.

In one doctor-reported case, a 65-year-old man thought his prostate was enlarged because he was having trouble urinating. On the advice of a friend, he began taking saw palmetto, an herbal treatment known to be good for the prostate. His symptoms improved and he didn’t see a doctor. A year later he began to urinate blood. The man did have a prostate problem–he had prostate cancer ­but it wasn’t caught in time because he had relied solely on alternative therapy.

The lesson?

If you’re not a doctor, conventional, alternative, naturopathic or otherwise, don’t presume to treat yourself.