Is Alternative Medicine Really Safe?

Any time you try a new therapy or treatment or take a new medication, you want to be sure it’s safe—regardless of whether it’s being offered by your regular MD or an alternative medicine practitioner.


Any time you try a new therapy or treatment or take a new medication, you want to be sure its safe—regardless of whether its being offered by your regular MD or an alternative medicine practitioner.


With your regular doctor, you know she has a license to practice and that any prescription drug is monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And there are similar safeguards in alternative medicine, says Donald B. Levy, MD, medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston.



“Complementary and integrative therapies in responsible hands are as safe as, if not safer than, traditional medical care,” he says. In fact, many alternative medicine practitioners are MDs. And if theyre not, they are often licensed in their particular field. (For more info, read “How to Find a Good Alt Med Practi­tioner”).


Here are some other ways to stay safe:


Tell your doc what youre taking

Always inform all of your doctors about the supplements and herbs youre taking, especially if youre pregnant or nursing, if youre taking prescription medications, or if you expect to undergo surgery soon, Dr. Levy says.


Certain supplements may not mix well with prescription drugs. St. Johns wort, for example, has been shown to increase the effects of antidepressants and interfere with HIV and cancer drugs. Ginseng may lower blood sugar too far in people taking prescription diabetes medications. And taking ginkgo can increase the risk of bleeding for those taking anti-clotting drugs or interfere with some diabetes drugs and psychiatric medications.


“Few of these interactions or side effects turn out to be very significant,” Dr. Levy explains, “but it is best if we can try to avoid any problems up front.”

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Katy Koontz
Last Updated: March 15, 2009

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