When patients, and their families, are dealing with a difficult, serious illness, it’s natural to want the best chances for a full recovery. Many people consider complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments in hopes of healing and/or reducing symptoms and side effects. But are they safe and/or effective? This post provides information on the pros and cons of naturopathy, tai chi and dietary supplements. Read the first post for important information on CAM treatments.
Read my other posts to learn about the pros and cons of additional common CAM treatments:
- Acupuncture, Ayurveda & Reiki
- Chiropractic, Osteopathy and Homeopathy
- Pros and Cons of CBD for Medical Conditions
- The Pros and Cons of Yoga and Magnetic Therapy
Before starting any CAM treatment, realize that all treatments, including CAM treatments, involve some degree of risk. And some are safer and more effective than others. So do your research, talk to your doctor about your diagnosis and treatment options, and be realistic about the potential outcomes from CAM treatments. And don’t skip out on traditional treatments while pursuing CAM therapies.
Naturopathy, also called naturopathic medicine, centers around the notion that by enabling the body to heal itself, good health can be achieved without surgery or drugs. Practitioners focus intently on patients and rely on “natural” or “holistic” treatments, including herbal, vitamin and mineral supplements, dietary advice, massage therapy, homoeopathy, reflexology, osteopathy, and kinesiology.
Who provides naturopathic treatments?
There are 3 types of practitioners in the US:
- Naturopathic doctors who complete a 4-year, graduate level program at an accredited naturopathic medical school. These naturopathic doctors obtain licenses to practice.
- Traditional naturopaths, usually called “naturopaths” receive their training in a variety of ways. These programs vary in length and content and are not accredited. Consequently, these naturopaths often cannot obtain licenses to practice.
- Finally, other healthcare providers, such as doctors, nurses and chiropractors, sometimes offer naturopathic treatments. Training for these providers varies.
Does it help?
Hard to say. There are so many different types of therapy provided by a naturopath, it’s impossible to lump them all together and determine effectiveness. That being said, there is little or no scientific evidence of effectiveness for most of the treatments. For instance, naturopathic doctors sometimes provide dietary advice based on a patient’s blood type. But, according to a 2013 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there is no scientific evidence to back that approach.
Is it safe?
Some treatments are safer than others. But there are real dangers, even though practitioners claim their natural products are safer than traditional medicines because they are less toxic. But that is not always the case. For instance, some homeopathic remedies include toxic levels of heavy metals like mercury or iron.
And the treatments can be life threatening. In 2017, the FDA reported that a 30-year-old woman died after receiving an intravenous infusion of curcumin (an ingredient in the spice turmeric) from a naturopathic practitioner to treat eczema, a relatively benign skin condition. Medical authorities concluded that the curcumin caused her death.
Talk to your doctor and proceed with skepticism and caution.
One more caution.
Practitioners often encourage patients to exclusively use naturopathic remedies, instead of conventional treatments. If you are battling a serious illness, such as cancer or heart disease, talk to your doctor before switching to naturopathic treatments.
Dietary and Herbal Supplements
Products labeled as dietary supplements:
- Are intended to supplement the diet
- Contain one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and certain other substances) or their constituents
- Are intended to be taken by mouth (tablet, capsule, powder, softgel, gelcap, or liquid)
Herbal supplements are a type of dietary supplement containing one or more herbs. Sometimes called botanicals, they contain plants, algae, fungi, or a combination of these. Herbal supplements come in many forms, including teas, extracts, tablets, capsules and powders.
You can buy dietary and herbal supplements at a wide range of stores (including online) or directly from a practitioner, such as a naturopath or homeopathic provider.
Do they work?
Since there are so many supplements, it’s impossible to say that supplements work effectively across the board. The scientific evidence varies widely – for some supplements there is a lot of information, and for others, there is very little data available. However, there is some interesting research results:
- Researchers found that some dietary supplements may have some benefit, such as melatonin for jet lag. Conversely, researchers found that other supplements have little or no benefit, such as ginkgo for dementia.
- Importantly, most research shows that multivitamins don’t lead to longer life or a slower cognitive decline. Furthermore, researchers have not found that multivitamins lower the chance of getting cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.
Are they safe?
That depends on what you are taking and where you bought it. For instance, taking a multivitamin is unlikely to pose any health risk. On the other hand, taking supplements promoted for weight loss, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding can be dangerous as they may contain unsafe ingredients, some of which may not even be listed on the label.
A 2015 study estimates 23,000 emergency department visits every year in the US due to adverse events related to dietary supplements. These visits commonly involve cardiovascular issues relating to weight-loss or energy products among young adults. Also common? Older adults with swallowing problems, often associated with vitamins and minerals.
Additionally, a 2019 study found that supplements sold for muscle building, energy, and weight loss were linked to 3x the risk for severe medical events as compared to vitamins. And these severe medical events are nothing to sneeze at. They include “death, disability, life-threatening events, hospitalization, emergency room visit, and/or required intervention to prevent permanent disability”.
What else should you worry about?
It is possible for dietary supplements to interact negatively with your medications which can reduce the effectiveness of your medications and/or post danger. Also, these supplements can be dangerous for patients with certain medical problems and for those who undergoing surgical procedures.
Finally, it’s worth noting that what you buy in a store or from a practitioner may differ in important ways from similar products tested in studies.
Is anyone checking supplements?
Unfortunately, it can be hard for consumers to know if the supplements they buy are safe and/or contain the right amount of appropriate active ingredients. In order to combat this problem, CVS announced a new program in May 2019 called “Tested to be Trusted“. This program requires 3rd party testing for all vitamins and supplements sold in its stores to make sure they contain only the ingredients listed on their label and none of their list of specific, identified harmful contaminants such as lead, mercury, pesticides and industrial contaminants. Additionally, other contaminants must not exceed set standards. Their new labels not only identify the proven ingredients, but they also identify unconfirmed ingredients. Interestingly, of the 1,400 vitamins and supplements already tested as part of the program, 7% failed the testing. Those that failed either get new, accurate labels or are removed from the store.
How popular are they?
According to a 2012 survey, in the US almost 18% of adults and 5% of children used dietary supplements (other than vitamins and minerals).
What should you do?
Talk to your doctor and proceed with caution.
Tai Chi and Qi Gong
Tai chi and qi gong are both centuries-old mind and body practices. They each involve certain postures and gentle movements with mental focus, breathing, and relaxation.
Are they effective?
Research suggests that practicing tai chi can improve balance and stability in older people and those with Parkinson’s. Additionally, tai chi can reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis and help people cope with fibromyalgia and back pain. Lastly, research shows tai chi can improve the quality of life and mood in people with heart failure and cancer. Although there has been less research on qi gong, some studies show it may reduce chronic neck pain (although results are mixed) and pain from fibromyalgia. Qi gong may also improve general quality of life.
Are they safe?
Tai chi and qi gong appear to be safe practices. Practitioners may develop minor aches and pains, but serious injury is unlikely.
How many people participate?