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Safe Use of Alternative Remedies

Some of them have household names: garlic, soy, vitamin E. Others are less familiar: feverfew, echinacea, pycnogenol. You can find them lining the shelves of natural food stores, where they promise a wholesome way to boost your memory, ease depression, prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, extend your life, or just plain heal you. They’re known as alternative remedies.

In some cases, the feel-good aura is merited, even well-supported by research. But using any herb, vitamin, or natural hormone without knowing what you’re getting into—and without a health care provider’s advice—carries a real risk of damaging your health.

Consider the herb Saint-John’s-wort. Although many people have found it helpful in treating depression and anxiety, the herb caused rejection in some heart transplant patients. That’s because Saint-John’s-wort changes how the body processes many common medications and can make those drugs ineffective.

Other alternative remedies are known to raise or lower blood pressure or thin the blood. This isn't a big deal for some people, but it can be life-threatening for others. Some remedies can cause liver problems or serious cardiovascular effects. Still others contain poisonous contaminants, and some—such as chaparral and ephedra—can be fatal in larger doses.

Clearly there’s reason to be wary. How can you protect your safety while getting the best out of alternative remedies?

Begin with the basics of good health: Make sure you get daily exercise, eat a healthy diet, and don't smoke. If your lifestyle habits put you at high risk for diabetes or cancer, for example, you won’t get much overall benefit from popping a couple of ginkgo pills.

Become well-informed. Learn all you can in advance about a remedy. You can’t just go to the Web and plug in “Kava” and necessarily end up at a good, authoritative site. A good starting point is the site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Talk with your health care provider before taking an alternative remedy. For instance, ask your provider: “Is there any reason why I should or shouldn’t try garlic pills for my high cholesterol?”

Ask your provider for advice on the proper amount to take. Even some antioxidants, such as beta carotene, that were thought to help prevent cancer were later found to raise the risk for it at higher doses in some people.

Look on the label for a seal of approval from organizations such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia.