CAM Caution: Could Alternative Therapies Put You at Risk?

Complementary wellness has seen a surge in popularity over recent years, but how do you know if it’s right for you? Before you put your wellbeing in the hands of alternative therapies, it’s important to be aware of your underlying conditions and potential interactions with your prescription medication, as this could have a disastrous impact on your wellness. More often than not, herbal supplements or natural therapies won’t cause any damage, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and know what you’re getting into.


As one of the most popular supplements used to combat colds and flu, you may think that echinacea is pretty safe to use. However, this herbal remedy has been known to cause allergies. In fact, if you have a condition such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis or asthma, doctors recommend that you steer clear of echinacea. If not taken correctly, even a herbal multivitamin can cause nerve toxicity, so make sure you read the label carefully before you try any complementary wellness product, and consult a physician if you’re unsure. This is especially the case if you suffer from depression, stroke, heart disease or cancer, as a recent survey of cancer patients at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital has shown that more than half of the study participants using a mixture of complementary and alternative therapies. This is a cause for concern because – according to the hospital’s safe medicines specialist – these medicines can interfere with anti-cancer medications.


Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is more popular than ever before, thanks in no small part to a number of credible studies proving their benefits. From vitamin D for osteoporosis and glucosamine for osteoarthritis, to St John’s wort for depression and folic acid for birth defects, CAM has been shown to prevent or treat various medical conditions. In the US, omega-3 fatty acids not only reduced the country’s occurrence of coronary heart disease; it saved the hospital system almost a billion dollars in a year. The Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia also points out that CAM is also relatively harm-free. They note a 2002 survey in which it was found that 23% of Australians who were recently ill had suffered from a medical or pharmaceutical drug error in the past two years, while there were just 483 adverse reports regarding CAM in 2002.


That said, Dr Vicki Kotsirilos, chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ Australasian Integrative Medicine Association joint working party, warns that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise some caution. ‘The good news is that overall complementary medicine is relatively safe,’ she comments. ‘However we also know there is significant under-reporting [of adverse reactions]. We know that half of all patients who are taking complementary medicines don’t tell their GPs because they fear they’ll be dismissed or jumped on. This is a real concern because of the risk of interactions with pharmaceutical medicine and because if they’ve had side effects [from the complementary medicine], and their doctor is wondering why they’re unwell, that’s a problem.’


Moreover, not all CAM has sound scientific evidence behind it. Dr Kotsirilos says, ‘Some areas of complementary medicine have been proven to be helpful for cancer patients, for instance, such as music therapy, meditation, acupuncture and gentle reflexology. These therapies can improve quality of life and work alongside an orthodox approach. But if you Google “cancer therapy” you will come across hundreds of therapies, from shark cartilage to ozone therapy, which carry little evidence and are negative and risky, not just in terms of the side effects, but also [in terms of] the financial cost and the time wasted in not getting proper treatment.’

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