Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Getting the Most Out of Alternative Medicine
These days, you don't have to look far to find an alternative remedy for just about anything that ails you. There is echinacea for the common cold, ginkgo biloba for memory loss, herbs for circulation and digestion, and teas for relaxation.
Every open-minded person welcomes new solutions to health challenges. As a physician, I am also concerned with the medical basis and validity of these treatments. That's why I took a year's sabbatical from my teaching at USC to delve into the science and art of alternative medicine.
The result was my book, What Your Doctor Hasn't Told You and the Health Store Clerk Doesn't Know: the Truth about Alternative Medicine and What Works.
In the course of my research, I discovered many effective remedies. I also found that, in the search for answers and safe solutions, patients are often caught between a rock and a hard place.
The Rock and the Hard Place
The rock is the physician who often lacks the time, training, or inclination to discuss alternative remedies. Sensing this, patients are often reluctant to raise the subject with their doctors.
The hard place is the helpful health store clerk who seems to have a product for whatever ails you – yohimbe for libido, saw palmetto for the prostate, ginseng for low energy – but knows nothing of the science behind it.
I visited two dozen health stores where many clerks seemed to have an impressive body of knowledge. Most learned what they knew from their store manager, who, in turn, learned from a previous manager.
Tips for the Consumer
So, how can you evaluate a remedy? Should you try acupuncture for fibromyalgia, chiropractic for back pain, Reiki for cancer pain? My book provides a thorough evaluation of all these therapies and more. But in the meantime, here are a few guidelines for the informed consumer:
First – if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is! Be wary of the argument that physicians don't have answers but alternative practitioners do. Two wrongs don't make a right. Be a critical consumer of all claims, no matter who makes them.
Second – if your physician refuses to discuss alternative therapies, find another physician. Your doctor needs to know about every alternative treatment you are considering or receiving. For example, gingko, ginseng, red clover, aspirin, and estrogen all effect blood-clotting.
Likewise, your alternative practitioner needs the same information about any traditional Western medicines you are on that may interact with alternative treatments.
Third – be aware that herbal remedies are not controlled by the FDA. In a study done by The Los Angeles Times, 10 bottles of St. John's Wort were tested for their contents. The results were shocking: the active ingredients varied from 35 to 135% of the amounts claimed on the labels.
Look for remedies that are labeled "USP" (U.S. Pharmacopeia), the stamp of approval of the official authority for prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Another way to protect yourself is to buy from large chain stores, such as Costco or CVS. These chains require testing of the products they sell.
Finally, remember there is a powerful connection between mind and body, between belief in a remedy and its actual efficacy. As long as an alternative medicine or therapy is not dangerous and is perceived to be working, there is no good argument against it.
In my next article I will explore specific types of alternative treatments. For now, whenever considering alternative remedies, it's best to recall the Latin saying, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.
Dr. Edward L. Schneider heads the largest private center for research and education on aging, the Andrus Gerontology Center of the University of Southern California. He also serves as Dean Emeritus of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and Professor of Medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine. Dr. Schneider has written or co-written twelve books, including Ageless: Take Control of Your Age & Stay Youthful for Life, and published more than 180 scientific articles on topics related to aging.