June 8, 2009
Alternative Herbs and Medicines Grow in Popularity
Alternative medicine is growing increasingly more mainstream, and is now accepted by most doctors, insurers and hospitals.
People use unconventional methods and herbal therapy for many reasons. Often they do not trust big drug companies or the government, and they have more faith in the natural remedies.
Dietary supplements do not have to pass any safety tests before being sold. Some contain lead and arsenic, and some obstruct other medicines from working, like birth control pills.
"Herbals are medicines," and have both good and bad effects, noted Bruce Silverglade from the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Associated Press evaluated dozens of studies and interviews of 100 different sources and discovered that an entire underground medical system existed, with an entirely different standard to follow than the rest of the medical industry.
Fifteen years ago, Congress started allowing dietary and herbal supplements go to market without federal Food and Drug Administration consent. In these 15 years, the amount of products available has increased ten-fold, from 4,000 to 40,000.
Around this time, Congress formed a federal agency to review herbal supplements and unconventional treatments. However, after spending $2.5 billion on research, nothing monumental has been discovered, aside from the use of acupuncture and ginger for chemotherapy-associated nausea. Nevertheless, these unconventional therapies are being used more and more.
Several hospitals offer alternative methods of recovery, like meditation, yoga and massages. Other hospitals make profits from offering acupuncture, which insurance does not pay for if the reason is not explicitly stated.
Some medical schools have alternative medicine classes, sometimes paid for with federal grants. A University of Minnesota program allows the study of nontraditional healing therapies in Hawaii.
The silver lining to all these statistics is that very few herbal supplements can actually be bad to your health. However, a large number do not accomplish what their labels say they will, and have could have lead in them, or are tainted in other ways.
"In testing, one out of four supplements has a problem," said Dr. Tod Cooperman, head of ConsumerLab.com.
Even when the ingredients are healthy and safe, spending money on merchandise that has no proven advantage is risky when the economy is in poor shape and people cannot pay for health insurance.
It should be noted that mainstream medicines have issues, too. Drugs like Vioxx and Bextra were discontinued after deadly side effects emerged after they were on the market. The difference is that at least these medicines have rules, guidelines and watchdog groups that follow their usage.
Alternative medicines do not have that kind of safety net. People who accredit them are usually self-policing, with private schools and unknown accreditation groups.
Still, millions of Americans use supplements, like vitamins, minerals and herbs, said Steven Mister, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
"We bristle when people talk about us as if we're just fringe," he said. Supplements remain "an insurance policy" for a lot of people.
In actuality, doctors recommend a few: prenatal vitamins, calcium, and fish oil specifically. Several studies imply that vitamin deficiencies can increase the chance of disease. However, it is not proven that taking vitamins will change that, and research has touched on some harm, said Dr. Jeffrey White, alternative medicine chief at the National Cancer Institute.
White sees alternative medicine as "an area of opportunity" that should be studied more. Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, agrees.
"Most patients are not treated very satisfactorily," Briggs said. "If we had highly effective, satisfactory conventional treatment we probably wouldn't have as much need for these other strategies and as much public interest in them."
Even those who oppose the use of alternative medicines understand their allure.
"They give you a lot of time. They treat you like someone special," said R. Barker Bausell, a University of Maryland biostatistician.
This is the reason why Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, a cancer authority at the Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York, includes nutritional review, therapy, and meditation techniques in his cancer treatment, although he admits that some of his patients disagree.
"You do have people who will say 'chemotherapy is just poison,'" said Gaynor, who disagrees. "Cancer takes decades to develop, so you're not going to be able to think that all of a sudden you're going to change your diet or do meditation (and cure it). You need to treat it medically. You can still do things to make your diet better. You can still do meditation to reduce your stress."
The majority of his patients "will do the right thing, do everything they can to save their life," Gaynor told the AP.
The Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994 excused these herbal medicines from requiring FDA approval before they went on the market.
"That has resulted in consumers wasting billions of dollars on products of either no or dubious benefit," noted Silverglade.
Many want President Barack Obama's administration to take a closer look at the debate. In the meantime the industry has increased self-policing, and the Council for Responsible Nutrition hired an attorney to work with the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
"We certainly don't think this is a huge problem in the industry," Mister stated, but did admit seeing infomercials "that promise the world."
"The outliers were making the public feel that this entire industry was just snake oil and that there weren't any legitimate products," said Andrea Levine, ad division chief for the business bureaus.
People need to retain skepticism about the marketing term "natural," said Kathy Allen, a dietitian at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.
The bottom line is that natural medicines usually lack proof of safety or assistance. When asked to take an herb knowing this, "most of us would say 'no,'" Allen said. "When it says 'natural,' the perception is there is no harm. And that is just not true."
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