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.”[ pagebreak ]

Check labels carefully

Herbs and dietary supplements are considered foods—not drugs—by the FDA, so theyre not held to the same standards for safety and effectiveness that prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications are held to.

“What the label says is in the bottle may not really be in the bottle. In fact, levels of active ingredients can vary by up to 100 percent,” warns Richard Nahin, PhD, senior advisor for scientific coordination and outreach at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

In addition, he adds, supplements can sometimes be contaminated with traces of pesticides and heavy metals or even pharmaceutical drugs.

To correct such potentially dangerous possibilities, the FDAs Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements has issued guidelines on both quality research and manufacturing. By June 2010, all supplement manufacturers must meet these new requirements.

What can you do in the meantime? First, look for the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) designation on the label, as well as seals from United States Pharmacopoeia (USP), The Public Health and Safety Company (NSF), or Consumer Lab (CL). Also check out Web sites for the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, and the NCCAM for safety news. You can also subscribe to Consumer Lab, an industry watchdog that tests supplements and then publishes the reports.