Once considered fringe, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, such as herbal remedies and meditation, are gaining acceptance in Western medicine. Thanks to increasing research, doctors are better able to understand the role these therapies play in helping to treat and prevent illness.
As a result, doctors are starting to combine these techniques with conventional treatments. This approach — called integrative (in-tuh-GRAY-tiv) medicine — takes advantage of evidence-based conventional and alternative medicine practices to improve health and treat illness.
How to evaluate claims
While nonconventional approaches such as acupuncture, music therapy and animal-assisted therapy have been found to be effective, others haven't been studied well enough to determine whether they're safe and effective.
When considering any treatment, take time to learn about the risks and benefits. Gather information from a variety of sources and check credentials. Talk with your doctor before trying a new treatment — especially if you take medications, have chronic health problems, or you are pregnant or nursing.
Do your homework
When researching treatments, do what doctors do. Look for high-quality studies. These large, controlled and randomized trials are published in peer-reviewed journals — journals that only publish articles reviewed by independent experts.
The results of these studies are more likely to be reliable. You can find many of these studies online or by asking a reference librarian at your local library.
Be cautious about studies in animals and studies that include only a small number of people. Their results may not hold up when tested in larger trials or on people. Finally, remember that sound health advice is generally based on a body of research, not a single study.
Although scientific studies are the best way to evaluate whether a treatment is safe and effective, it isn't always possible to find good studies about nonconventional therapies. A lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean a treatment doesn't work — but it does make it harder to evaluate whether it's safe and effective. Don't hesitate to talk with your doctor if you have questions.
Weed out misinformation
The web and social media are full of information about integrative health techniques, but not all of it is accurate. To weed out the bad information from the good, use the three D's:
- Dates. Check the creation or update date. Older material may not include recent findings, such as new treatment advances or recently uncovered side effects.
- Documentation. Check sources. Are they reputable? Are health professionals creating or reviewing the information? Is advertising clearly identified?
- Double-check. Visit multiple sites and compare information. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) website is a trustworthy resource. Before you follow any advice, check with your doctor.
Watch for scams
Scammers have perfected ways to convince you that their products are the best. They often target people who have serious and chronic medical problems. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Be alert for these red flags:
- Big promises. Ads may call the product a "miracle cure," "scientific breakthrough," "secret ingredient" or "ancient remedy." Be skeptical of exaggerated claims.
- Cure-alls. The product claims to treat a wide range of symptoms or cure or prevent a number of diseases. No single product can do all of this.
- Testimonials. Stories from people who have used the product are not the same as scientific proof. If a product's claims were backed up by clinical studies, the manufacturer would say so.
- Limited-time offers and guarantees. These pitches are intended to get you to buy before you can evaluate the product's claims.
Don't assume 'natural' means 'safe'
Herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, and dietary supplements are often marketed as natural products, but that doesn't guarantee that they're safe. These products can have serious side effects. Even some vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in large amounts. Play it safe with these tips:
- Talk to your doctor before taking herbal remedies or dietary supplements. This is especially important if you are pregnant or nursing a baby or if you have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or heart disease.
- Ask about possible drug interactions. Prescription and over-the-counter medicines can interact with certain supplements. For example, ginkgo can interact with the blood-thinning medicine warfarin and increase the risk of serious bleeding complications.
- Before scheduling surgery, tell your doctor about supplements you take. Some supplements can cause problems during surgery, such as increased bleeding or changes in heart rate or blood pressure. You may need to stop taking these supplements at least two to three weeks before your procedure.
Choose practitioners wisely
Consider these tips from the NCCIH when looking for integrative health practitioners:
- Talk with your doctor. Ask your primary care doctor for recommendations. He or she can also be a sounding board for advice you get from integrative health practitioners.
- Ask questions. Ask practitioners about their education, training, licenses and certifications. Ask if they specialize in particular diseases or conditions and whether they frequently treat people with problems like yours. Also ask what treatment costs — and find out whether your health insurance will cover it.
- Call your local health department. Ask about state or local certifying, licensing or accreditation bodies for the practice you're considering.
- Contact a local hospital or medical school. They often keep lists of integrative medicine practitioners in the area. Some have their own practitioners on staff.
- Check the national association. Find the professional organization that represents the field you're considering. That group may have helpful information on training, licensing and certification requirements.
Continue conventional treatment
Following these tips should help you find integrative techniques that enhance your health and quality of life. Just remember that these are meant to assist, not replace, conventional medicine. Keep your doctor informed about all integrative therapies you're using.
Don't change your conventional treatment — such as the dose of a prescribed medicine — without first talking to your doctor. Continue to rely on your doctor to diagnose and treat health problems. Delaying treatment can be dangerous, particularly for chronic or serious conditions, such as diabetes or cancer.