Integrative medicine and its cousin, alternative therapies, offer a wealth of new and often unfamiliar treatment choices. But before you sign up, you should know where to look, who to contact, and what kind of information you can trust.
"You want to avoid literally the thousands of bogus claims out there," says Barrie Cassileth, PhD, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Sometimes I think my memory is actually too good. Like when I realize I still know the lyrics to nearly every song released in the '80s. Or that I can recite, verbatim, lines from at least half a dozen episodes of Seinfeld and Sex and the City. But then I'll go to transfer a load of laundry into the dryer and discover that it's already dry; seems I forgot to ever turn on the washer. Or I'll forget my neighbor's name — again. Could it be that sitcom dialogue and song lyrics are taking...
For instance, does cholesterol spinach, a plant touted as a "miracle cure" in Hawaii, really lower cholesterol? Can supplying high levels of oxygen to the body kill cancer cells? Can taking bee pollen boost athletic performance?
Scientists haven't found proof that any of the above treatments work. So when it comes to choosing a good integrative medicine center, or alternative or complementary therapies, it really pays to do your homework.
Finding a Reputable Integrative Medicine Center
Integrative medicine is gaining acceptance among more doctors and more hospitals around the country, but the movement is still just starting to build momentum.
Susan Folkman, PhD, director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says if you're interested in finding a reputable integrative medicine center near you, visit the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, which is a group of 42 academic health centers -- including the Osher Center and others at Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Folkman, who is the chairwoman of the consortium, says you can find an academic center in your region and call for recommendations.
You can also get a listing of integrative medicine clinics through the Bravewell Clinical Network, a philanthropic organization dedicated to furthering the philosophy and implementation of integrative medicine.
Herbs, Vitamins, and Botanicals
It also pays to know how to properly evaluate some of the therapies that you may encounter.
Some complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) therapies have been shown in clinical trials to be useful; for example, acupuncture to relieve nausea after chemotherapy. But how can the bewildered consumer tell the possibly beneficial therapies from the useless or downright dangerous? And how does one find a trustworthy practitioner instead of a quack?
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.