Complementary Health Approaches
Safety of Natural Products
As with any treatment, it is important to consider safety before using complementary health approaches. Safety depends on the specific approach, and each complementary product or practice should be considered on its own.
If You Have a Medical Condition
Complementary health approaches that are safe for healthy people may not be safe for people with some medical conditions. If you have any health problems, always talk with your health care provider before starting a new complementary approach. If the approach involves working with a practitioner or taking classes with an instructor, discuss your health condition with that person, too.
Taking a basic multivitamin/mineral supplement is unlikely to hurt you. But if you also consume fortified foods and drinks or take other dietary supplements, it’s possible that you could get too much of some vitamins or minerals. Your health care provider can advise you about whether you should take a multivitamin/mineral supplement
Information about the safety of herbal (botanical) supplements is limited. An herbal supplement may contain dozens of compounds and all of its ingredients may not be known. For most herbs, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to show whether they are safe.
Natural Doesn’t Always Mean Safe
Although many dietary supplements come from natural sources, “natural” does not always mean “safe.” Natural products may contain ingredients that have strong effects in your body. A supplement’s safety depends on many things, such as the chemicals that are in it, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the dose you take.
Two particularly important safety concerns about dietary supplements are contamination and drug interactions.
Contaminated Dietary Supplements
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has warned the public that some products marketed as dietary supplements contain illegal and potentially harmful ingredients, such as prescription drugs and related substances. Some of these products are promoted for sexual enhancement or treatment of erectile dysfunction; others are marketed for weight loss or bodybuilding. Although some tainted products have been taken off the market, new ones keep showing up. In fact, the number of tainted erectile dysfunction products available on the Internet seems to be increasing.
Some dietary supplements can interact with drugs. One of the best-known examples is the herbal supplement St. John’s wort, which interacts with a variety of drugs, making the drugs less effective. Many other herbs, including commonly used ones such as garlic, ginkgo, and valerian, may also interact with drugs
Drugs that can be affected by interactions with herbs include
- anticoagulants (blood thinners)
- drugs that prevent transplanted organs from being rejected
- drugs used to treat diabetes or cancer.
Herbs are not the only types of dietary supplements that may interact with drugs. For example, supplements containing vitamin K may reduce the effectiveness of anticoagulants. The contaminants sometimes found in supplements marketed for erectile dysfunction may interact with prescription drugs that contain nitrates, reducing blood pressure to an unsafe level. People with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease are often given drugs that contain nitrates, and men with these conditions commonly have erectile dysfunction as well.
Other Concerns About Dietary Supplements
Besides contamination and drug interactions, there are other safety concerns about some dietary supplements.
- Some supplements can be toxic. For example, the herbs kava and comfrey can cause liver damage. Colloidal silver supplements can cause a permanent grayish/bluish discoloration of the skin.
- Some supplements may cause problems if you have surgery. They may increase the risk of bleeding or affect your response to anesthesia.
- Some supplements may be unsafe for people who have particular medical conditions. For example, it’s not safe for people with the hereditary disease hemochromatosis to take iron supplements.
It’s important to tell all of your health care providers about all dietary supplements that you take. The health history form that you filled out on your first visit to the provider’s office probably included questions about dietary supplements, but you may have started or stopped using some supplements since then. Make sure to keep your health care providers up to date about your supplement use.
Cancer Treatment Frauds
The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have warned the public to be aware of fraudulent cancer treatments. Cancer treatment frauds are not new, but in recent years, it has become easier for the people who market them to reach the public using the Internet.
Some fraudulent cancer treatments are harmful by themselves. All of them—even the ones that seem harmless -- can be dangerous if people use them instead of getting proper medical care.
The companies that sell fraudulent cancer treatments often market them with claims such as “scientific breakthrough,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy.” The advertisements may include personal stories from people who have taken the product, but such stories aren’t reliable evidence that a product is effective. Also, a money-back guarantee is not proof that a product works.
If you’re considering using any cancer treatment that you’ve seen in an advertisement, talk to the health care provider who’s treating you for cancer first.
For More Information
You can learn more about the safety of complementary health approaches from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The FDA Page for Seniors and the FTC Health and Fitness Page also have information about the safety of complementary health approaches.