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Tip of the Week
Once a week we will put an item from a reputable scientific source here.

How safe and effective are they?


Alternative medicine, which includes treatments ranging from dietary supplements and herbal remedies to acupuncture, have become increasingly popular among the 'do-it-yourself' crowd. Although these treatments give you more options, they aren't always safe or effective. When considering alternative treatments, be a savvy consumer! Be open-minded, yet skeptical, of medical claims. Many treatments, both conventional and unconventional, have risks and side effects.

Alternative medicine is generally thought of as being used 'instead of' conventional methods. When alternative practices are used 'in addition to' the conventional therapies, they are called complementary medicine. Together, these treatments may be referred to as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

With any alternative treatment you consider, find out if the potential benefits outweigh the risks. It's a good idea to talk to your doctor and do research on your own before trying any treatment. Be especially aware of possible side effects of herbs and dietary supplements, which can cause problems with medications. Herbs and supplements aren't as well tested or regulated as are conventional treatments. Those that have been approved by the government will have a DIN (drug identification number) or an NPN (natural product number) or a DIN-HM (homeopathic medicine number) on the label.

Dietary Supplements (including health foods and juices):
'Natural' may not be safe!

Herbal remedies, health juices, tonics, vitamins and minerals, considered dietary supplements by the FDA (Food and Drugs Administration), don't go through the same rigorous testing and labelling process as over-the-counter and prescription medications. Yet, some of these substances, including products labelled as "natural, " have drug-like effects that can be dangerous. Even some vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in excessive amounts. While some changes to federal labelling guidelines have helped protect consumers by requiring manufacturers to evaluate the identity, purity, strength, and composition of dietary supplements, some companies have until 2010 to meet the new labelling requirements. The stricter guidelines will not guarantee these products are entirely safe or effective.

Before taking a dietary supplement, carefully investigate potential benefits and side effects:

  • Talk to your doctor before taking a dietary supplement. This is especially important if you are pregnant, nursing a baby, or if you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer or heart disease.
  • Avoid drug interactions. Prescription and over-the-counter medications can interact with certain dietary supplements. For example, the anticoagulant Coumadin (a prescription medication), ginkgo biloba (a herbal supplement) and Vitamin E can all thin the blood. Taking these products together can increase your risk of internal bleeding or other problems.
  • Tell your doctor about any supplements you take before surgery. Some supplements can cause problems during surgery such as changes in heart rate or blood pressure or increased bleeding. You may need to stop taking these supplements at least two to three weeks before your procedure.


Beware of scams and health fraud!

Scammers have perfected ways to convince you that their alternative medicine products are the best. These opportunists often target people who are overweight or who have medical conditions for which there is no cure, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS and arthritis. Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Certain words and phrases can be warning signs of potentially fraudulent alternative medicine products. The FDA recommends that you watch out for the following claims or practices:

  • Red flag words. The advertisements or promotional materials usually include words such as "satisfaction guaranteed, " "miracle cure" or "new discovery. " If the product were in fact a cure, it would be widely reported in the media and your doctor would recommend it.
  • Pseudo-medical jargon. Though terms such as "purify, " "detoxify" or "detox" and "energise" may sound impressive and may even have an element of truth, they're generally used to cover up a lack of scientific proof. Watch out for these words.
  • Cure-alls. The manufacturer claims that the product can treat a wide range of symptoms, or cure or prevent a number of diseases. No single product can do all this.
  • Anecdotal evidence. Testimonials are no substitute for solid scientific documentation. If the product is scientifically sound, it's actually to the manufacturer's advantage – and ultimately yours – to promote the scientific evidence widely.
  • False accusations. The manufacturer of the product accuses the government or a medical profession of suppressing important information about their product's benefits. Neither the government nor any medical profession has any reason to withhold information that could help people.

Look for solid scientific studies

If you read about studies in journal articles, assess the quality of the research. Look for words such as "double-blind, " "controlled" and "randomised. " Doctors consider these types of studies to contain the most valuable information.

Research studies on alternative medicine are being conducted every year. As research continues, many of the answers about whether these treatments are safe or effective will become clearer. In the USA, much of the funding for these studies comes from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is also a good resource to examine when investigating alternative medicine treatments. Health Canada's Natural Health Products Research Program and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research are among the agencies that fund research here.

Many treatments, both conventional and unconventional, have risks and side effects. With any treatment you consider, find out if the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Also find out exactly what the treatment will cost.

Don 't give up conventional (medical) treatment

Ideally the various forms of treatments you select should work together with the care of your conventional (medical) doctor. You may find that certain alternative treatments help you maintain your health and relieve some of your symptoms. Do continue to rely on conventional medicine to diagnose a problem and treat diseases. Don't change your conventional treatment – such as your dose of prescribed medication – without talking to your doctor first. For your safety, tell your doctor about all alternative treatments that you use.

For a list of approved Dietary Supplements

Health Canada's Natural Health Products:

US Food and Drug Administration:

Excerpt from a Mayo Clinic article - revised by Dr. Sandra Romano Anthony.
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