Complementary Health Approaches

Natural Products

Most complementary health approaches fall into one of two categories: natural products or mind and body practices. This section addresses natural products.

What Are Natural Products?

Natural products used in complementary health include herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and a variety of other substances such a glucosamine and fish oil. Natural products are widely marketed and often sold as dietary supplements.

Not all uses of dietary supplements are considered to be complementary. For example, the use of multivitamin/mineral supplements to make sure that people get enough vitamins and minerals is part of conventional medicine.

Research has been done on a variety of dietary supplements, but in many instances there isn’t enough scientific evidence to show whether they are effective and safe. More needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body.

You can find dietary supplements in supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores. They are often shelved in the same area as over-the-counter drugs, but there are important differences between the two kinds of products. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates both dietary supplements and drugs, the regulations for dietary supplements are less strict.

There have been problems with contamination of some dietary supplements. In particular, some products marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss, or bodybuilding have been found to contain potentially harmful ingredients not listed on the label. Another concern about supplements is that some of them can interact with drugs.

Use of Natural Products in the United States

Use of natural products has grown in the past few decades. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, 17.7 percent of American adults had used a natural product other than a vitamin or mineral supplements in the past year. The most commonly used product was fish oil/omega-3s (reported by 37.4 percent of all adults who said they used natural products). Other popular products included glucosamine, echinacea, and or flaxseed oil, each of which was reported by 15 percent or more of adults who said that they used natural products.

For More Information

You can find more information about dietary supplements on the NCCAM Web site at www.nccam.nih.gov and on the Web site of the Office of Dietary Supplements of the National Institutes of Health at www.ods.od.nih.gov