Natural medicine's first prescription: education

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— This is an exciting age in medicine, when a great variety of natural therapeutic options are becoming available for the treatment and prevention of disease. Emphasis is moving away from treating symptoms and toward maintenance of optimal health.

The first and most crucial step in choosing an appropriate therapy -- whether natural or conventional -- is accurately identifying the problem you are trying to treat. For example, fatigue is not a diagnosis. It is a symptom. Fatigue is often secondary to an underlying condition or disease such as depression, sleep disorder, diabetes, heart disease or hormonal imbalance. Treatments vary greatly for these problems, and the consequences of mistreatment are great.

Often symptoms are functional, and not associated with an underlying illness or disease. Functional problems are usually related to diet, lifestyle, stress and mind-body interactions and should not receive the same treatment as organic illnesses. Functional problems can lead to future illness, however, and there is significant overlap in many treatment and prevention strategies.

The important point to remember is to know what you are treating. Consulting a health care professional with strong diagnostic skills is a good way to get started.

There are several cautions to keep in mind when venturing into the world of natural medicine. Natural medicines and nutritional supplements are largely unregulated in this country, which makes it difficult to know their quality, purity and efficacy. It can be challenging to find products that are reliable in their content and whose claims are backed, at least somewhat, by scientific evidence.

Standardized products have specific amounts of what is thought to be the "active ingredient." For example, one of the active ingredients in St. John's Wort is hypericin. It should be standardized to contain 0.3 percent hypericin as supported by most scientific literature. Products with anything less may have no activity at all, but can still be called St. John's Wort.

Look for companies that guarantee purity. This is best done with independent laboratory testing. While testing may produce a more expensive product, consumers will have fewer concerns about a product's safety and efficacy.

Additionally, know what to look for. Educate yourself through research and with the guidance of a health care provider who has knowledge in natural medicine.

A final note of caution: all medicines, whether natural or synthetic, have potential side effects and interactions. If you have any medical problems or if you take any prescription medications, be sure to consult with someone familiar with the potential for herb-drug interactions and contraindications.

To find out more about natural medicine, consult the following publications: Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Pizzorno Press), and PDR for Herbal Medicines. For American Botanical Catalog orders such as Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions, call 1-800-373-7105.


Lee A. Resnick, M.D., practices family medicine at Steamboat Medical Group in Steamboat Springs.

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