Using Alternative Medicine: Is it Safe?

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Alternative medicine is believed by some to be the true route to healthy living. Rather than arguing the merits or shortcomings, let's take a look at safety of such practices.

More and more people are turning to alternative medicine to both maintain good health and general wellness, and to combat illness and disease. The idea of using substances found in nature and natural therapies that don't contain toxic chemicals is appealing to people who believe nature holds the key to good health. While some of these treatments may hold merit, some may pose significant health risks. Alternative medicine encompasses basically anything that is different than the medical treatments approved by the American Medical Society. It usually includes natural herbs, natural diet and natural substances found in the Earth and natural therapies. Some examples of alternative medicines in the United States include homeopathy, folk medicine, nutritional therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture.

The Potential Benefits of Alternative Medicine

There has not been a lot of research on the effectiveness of alternative medicine, but out of the research that has been conducted, it appears that some therapies actually do work. For example, a scientific study published in a 2003 issue of the Journal of Applied Microbiology showed that tea tree oil is an effective antifungal, and that it may be effective in treating athlete's foot, jock itch and other fungal infections. Studies have also found that chiropractic treatment can reduce back pain in some individuals, and that acupuncture can reduce pain, nausea and anxiety in some individuals. It is likely that there are many alternative treatments that can benefit people, but the fact is that more research needs to be conducted before we will really know which treatments work and the full scope of the benefits.

The Potential Risks of Alternative Medicine

There are several potential risks associated with alternative medicine. One serious problem is that people may only seek treatment from alternative health practitioners and not from their standard healthcare provider, which can result in the improper diagnosis of conditions and in conditions going misdiagnosed or unnoticed. Another problem with alternative medicine is the legitimacy of alternative healthcare practitioners. Some alternative practitioners have gone through sufficient training, but others have not. Some of the people who dish out these alternative treatments are little more than snake oils salesman. They may have no real medical training and may be using unproven medical treatments that do not work or are even harmful. Modern day alternative therapy practitioners may label themselves with a name such as "natural doctor" to appear legitimate, even if they have no training. The problem is compounded by the fact that many areas do not have a licensing process for alternative practitioners, making it hard for people to determine if a practitioner is legit or not. People who choose to treat themselves using alternative medicine may also be in danger, as may people who take alternative medicines under an alternative practitioners advice. Alternative treatments can easily be purchased in stores and on the Internet. The sales of alternative supplements and treatments are loosely regulated, so these people may be buying products that are unsafe. Just because something is natural does not necessarily mean it is safe. The FDA warns that some dietary supplements contain vitamins and minerals that are far above the daily recommended guidelines, which can lead to toxicity. In addition, a study published in a 2004 issue of the British Journal of Cancer warns that some herbal and nutritional supplements are contaminated with toxic heavy metals and other pollutants that could potentially cause serious health problems. One of the big areas where alternative medicine is used is cancer treatment. The problem is that many people forgo treatment with a medical doctor, choosing instead to employ a natural therapy. Many of these therapies are not scientifically proven to work. By the time the patient determines that the natural treatment isn't working, and decides to try conventional medical treatment, it may be too late. A cancer that might have been treatable if caught early could easily advance to an terminal stage if cancer patients decide to try alternative therapies first.

Using Alternative Medicine Safely

You can use alternative medicine safely if you do so under your doctor's supervision. You should always consult with your doctor before taking any alternative treatments or before undergoing any alternative therapies. Some supplements and herbs, for example, are not safe for use during pregnancy, or combined with certain medications. The best way to take advantage of alternative medicine is to seek doctors and medical facilities that practice integrative medicine, utilizing both traditional medicine and alternative therapies to give you the best and safest medical treatment available. If you want to learn more about new research on alternative treatments, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. If you are interested in utilizing integrative healthcare, visit the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program's website. References - Journal of Applied Microbiology; Antifungal Activity of the Components of Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil; K.A. Hammer, C.F. Carson and T.V. Riley; June 2003 - British Journal of Cancer 90(2): 408-413; Potential health risks of complementary medicines in cancer patients; U Werneke et al.; 2004 - The New England Journal of Medicine 339(12) 839-41; Alternative medicine--the risks of untested and unregulated remedies; Angell M. Kassirer JP; 1998


Rose K.

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