7 out of 10 AustralianS use complementary medicines. But what do we mean by natural medicine, how effective is it and how can I take it safely?
What are complementary medicines?
Alternative medicines, herbal remedies, supplements… Complementary medicines are known by many different names and include vitamins, minerals, nutritional supplements, herbal medicines, traditional medicines, homoeopathic medicines and certain aromatherapy products. In Australia, more than 75 per cent of the population uses one or more complementary medicines, with the most common being vitamin C, multivitamins, vitamin B, calcium, iron and zinc. And as they continue to grow in popularity, so too does the body of evidence on their effectiveness and safety.
How effective is the medicine and is it right for me?
The effectiveness of any treatment depends on the individual person and the specific condition – no medicine is a universal cure, so you need to find out if the medicine works for you. It is important to do your research before starting to take something new, including talking to your doctor as well as your complementary medicine practitioner.
To help you sift through all the information available, some good quality websites will tell you how likely it is that a medicine is an effective treatment for a particular condition. They do this by rating the ‘strength of the evidence’ for the medicine, for example, whether it is ‘effective’ for one condition, ‘possibly effective’ for another, and ‘ineffective’ for another depending on how conclusive the research is.
Do I need to tell my doctor what complementary medicines I take?
As the name suggests, complementary medicines often work well alongside conventional medicines. However, your doctor and pharmacist need to know about all your medicines – prescription or not – so they can consider any possible interactions when recommending medicines for you.
If you don’t disclose this information, it could result in you not getting the maximum benefit from one or both forms of medicine, or worse, you could be putting your health at risk.
St John’s wort, for example, is used to alleviate depression, but can interact with several commonly used prescription medicines, including the oral contraceptive pill, the heart medicine digoxin, the blood-thinning medicine warfarin, and some other antidepressant medicines.
And while Asian ginseng is used by many to boost the immune system or improve mental performance, it may change the effects of certain heart medications or increase the stimulant effect and side effects of some medications taken for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Are there any side effects?
No medicine, even natural and herbal medicine, is completely free of side effects. While many complementary medicines can be bought without prescription, they need to be given the same consideration as other medicines.
For example, valerian, a herb that is sometimes used to improve sleep, can cause headaches and vivid dreams, and echinacea, sometimes used to ward off infections and reduce the duration of colds, may worsen asthma.
Reading the labels, making sure you take the correct dose and seeking advice from your doctor and complementary medicine practitioner will help you get the best, and safest, outcomes.