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Health & Balance

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Be Smart About Integrative Medicine

Integrative therapies can open up new doors for treating ailments, but make sure you know what you are truly getting.

Herbs, Vitamins, and Botanicals continued...

Fortunately, many reliable and informative resources exist to help.

Just because an herbal remedy is labeled "natural" doesn't necessarily mean that it's safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't require herbs or other botanicals, vitamins, and minerals to be tested and approved before they're marketed, as the agency does with mainstream medicines.

The Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center maintains a web site, "Information Resource: About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products, that is constantly updated to inform the public about claims and scientific research. An oncology-trained pharmacist and botanicals expert manages the site.

A cardinal rule: although you may feel reluctant, always tell your doctor about all CAM therapies that you're using so that he or she can monitor your condition. Some herbs and supplements can interact with medications or make other drugs less effective. As one example, the popular St. John's wort can reduce levels of the HIV protease inhibitor indinavir.

Some herbs can also interfere with cancer treatment, or they may hamper the blood's ability to clot. "People have [bled excessively] on the operating table because they took a lot of herbs before surgery," Cassileth says.

Researching Various Therapies

Don't try a CAM therapy just because you read a glowing testimonial or because a friend or co-worker swears by it. Find out for yourself whether any scientific studies have been done on the particular therapy. That way, you can make an informed decision based on your understanding of the potential benefits and risks.

Not every CAM therapy has been studied, but many have. Here are some tips from the federal government's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) on how to get reliable information:

  • Ask your doctor if he or she knows about the therapy you're considering. For example, is it safe and effective? Will it interact with your prescription or over-the-counter medications or other medical treatments? Your doctor may be able to help you interpret scientific studies that you've found on your own. If your doctor isn't able to answer your questions, ask if he or she can refer you to someone who is knowledgeable.
  • Do an Internet search -- but pay close attention to the source of information. Sites that are operated by the government, a reputable university, or a well-regarded medical or health-related association are more reliable than sites that are sponsored by product manufacturers. Check the purpose of the site. Is it to educate the public or to sell a product or service? Also look at the origins of information. Does it come from scientific evidence with clear references, or from advice, personal stories, and opinions? To make sure that you're getting current information, check whether the site is reviewed and updated frequently.
  • For the results of scientific studies on CAM therapies, visit the database "CAM on PubMed," developed jointly by NCCAM and the National Library of Medicine.
  • If you don't have Internet access, call the NCCAM Clearinghouse toll-free at (888) 644-6226. Staff members can help you search the medical and scientific literature for information on various CAM therapies.
  • Go to your local library or medical library to see if books or scientific articles have been published about the CAM therapy. A reference librarian may be able to help you find reliable sources.

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