Glenn Ellis

*In response to a recent series of radio health tips I did, I have been receiving a number of “unfavorable” comments from friends and fans alike.

It seems that (due in large part to my background in Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy), some folks see me the tips, which speak about seeing medical doctors and taking prescription drugs, as a form of “betrayal”.

People have used herbal medicines throughout history and they are currently the most commonly used medicines worldwide.

Many Americans use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in pursuit of health and well-being. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey of CAM use by Americans, showed that approximately 38 percent of adults use CAM.

Defining CAM is difficult, because the field is very broad and constantly changing. NCCAM defines CAM as a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. Conventional medicine (also called Western or allopathic medicine) is medicine as practiced by holders of M.D. (medical doctor) and D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine;) degrees and by allied health professionals, such as physical therapists, psychologists, and registered nurses. The boundaries between CAM and conventional medicine are not absolute, and specific CAM practices may, over time, become widely accepted.

“Complementary medicine” refers to use of CAM together with conventional medicine, such as using acupuncture in addition to usual care to help lessen pain. Most use of CAM by Americans is complementary. “Alternative medicine” refers to use of CAM in place of conventional medicine. “Integrative medicine” (also called integrated medicine) refers to a practice that combines both conventional and CAM treatments for which there is evidence of safety and effectiveness.

We’ve all heard about herbal supplements that have worked for someone we know. People swear by them: echinacea for a cold, ginkgo biloba for memory or the peppermint in the salve your aunt believes can ease chest congestion. Over the past decade, use of herbal supplements has jumped

While many of those users may be skeptical, they figure, “Hey, these things are natural; what harm could they do?”

As it turns out, in some cases they can do a lot of harm, and a surprising number of people are putting themselves at risk by using herbal supplements without being informed about their actual benefits and potential dangers.

Though some herbs such as ginkgo, Echinacea and chamomile have been studied and seem to be mildly effective in treating certain symptoms or disorders, the same can’t be said of all herbs. Herbs are better used as a complementary treatment, alongside traditional drugs, and under the guidance of a medical practitioner. Herbs alone might not be enough to help you fight a serious problem, but false advertisement and lack of regulations might trick you into thinking otherwise. This can be a dangerous assumption and might lead to serious problems.

Herbs might interact with prescription drugs in serious ways, but many people discount these effects. Many people don’t inform their doctors about supplements they’re taking and might risk their health in the process. Also, some interactions are well known, but it’s difficult to say what happens with less-known herbs. Certain herbs can cancel the effects of prescription drugs. For example, St. John’s Wort, a popular over-the-counter treatment for depression, can interfere with a large number of drugs — including blood certain blood thinners, cardiac drugs, antidepressants and HIV and cancer medications.

A patient might believe that taking a certain supplement will relieve pain, or boost immunity. In fact, it may conflict with a drug the doctor prescribed, or it may simply negate the benefit of the drug (or vice versa.) An example of this is the use of drugs for gastro-reflux disease (GERD), called proton pump inhibitors (like Prilosec, Nexium, Previcid, and others), combined with some forms of calcium supplements taken to strengthen bones and teeth. The drug cancels out the benefits of the calcium.

To avoid such complications, ask your doctor before you decide to try an herbal supplement, and be sure to disclose any supplements you’re taking even if you’re not asked. That can be particularly important when you’re being prescribed a new medication. The message here is not to avoid all herbal supplements. Increasingly, Western medicine is improving because of discoveries about these alternative treatments. However, it’s important to remember that they are essentially drugs, and the best way to use them is to separate fact from fiction first.

As I stated earlier in this column, I do have an extensive background and knowledge in the area of Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy, so I have a respectful knowledge of their benefits to health. So don’t take my thoughts as a blanket condemnation.

Despite the criticism of herbal medicine among mainstream medical professionals, it is wise to remember that many common drugs we use today were derived from plant-based sources. Scientists originally derived aspirin from willow bark; herbalists prescribe white willow for headaches and pain control. Digitalis, a drug prescribed for certain heart conditions, comes from an extract of potentially toxic foxglove flowers. While it’s true that herbal supplement manufacturers often make bold or outrageous claims, critics shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss herbal medicine as quackery.

And, I would be remiss to add another key point:

Distrust in physicians often leads many people to place strong confidence in herbs and natural supplements. From my days behind the counter at my own “Herb Store”, I saw all too often, how many people came there looking for a “therapeutic relationship” with someone who seemed to care about them. Not finding this caring relationship with many medical doctors, folks are willing to about their to forgo care form their own doctor by refusing surgery or other treatment. In some cases, they will withdraw from care all together, or worse, not seeking it in the first place. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster

Based on more years of experience that I care to admit, here are some of my golden rules:

  • ALWAYS keep in mind that qualified herbalists know when a condition is best seen by a doctor or another health professional.
  • Avoid anyone who tells you its not necessary to tell your medical doctor that you are taking herbs or natural supplements.
  • If your medical doctor ever prescribes you a drug, immediately make him/her aware of all herbs or supplements you are taking.
  • If your doctor “doesn’t believe in herbs”, then that’s not your doctor. Find a medical doctor who will respect your viewpoint, and support your efforts to use herbs or supplements responsibly.
  • If you are around and I should have a medical “crisis”, take me to the hospital, not the Herb Store!
  • There is no “alternative” for the proper medical care of a serious medical condition. You should be under the supervision of a medical doctor.

Remember, I’m not a doctor just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis,  is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and is  a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine”, is due out in Fall, 2011.

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