Navigating Alternative Therapies

Post by Megan McDonald, CNM

As a midwife, I come into contact with a lot of patients who, for a variety of reasons, are seeking natural therapies over conventional therapies. Some people have had negative experiences with conventional therapies (side effects from a drug, recurrence of an infection, etc.). Others feel led to choose a more natural approach because it seems to be more in line with the way they have chosen to live their life (eating organic, whole foods; practicing yoga/meditation; avoiding chemicals and plastics). This can especially be an issue for pregnant women who cannot take certain medications while they are pregnant, and wish to find a more natural alternative.  Whatever the reason for seeking alternative therapy, it is important to be educated about the choices you are making. It can be hard to navigate the healthcare system as well as the Whole Foods supplement section. It is hard to know what supplements work and which ones are trying to sell you magic beans. Here are some resources and tips as you try to navigate the alternative therapy world.

1.  Choose a healthcare provider who is supportive of your choices. 

Today’s healthcare system has evolved and has become more consumer-driven. Sometimes when I leave a patient room, I am tempted to quote the flight attendants who remark to embarking passengers, “We know you have many choices when you are pregnant. Thank you for choosing HealthNet!” 

While there are moments when I wish I could just walk into 20 rooms a day of patients who will hang on my every word and take my advice without question, I know that it is a good thing that I have patients who are skeptical.  They keep me on my toes and make me do my homework.  This is a positive change in our system.  People are beginning to take charge of their health and can ask their providers to help them navigate their options.

When talking to your provider it is okay to ask them questions! Your provider can give you recommendations and their opinions which you can use to help you make your decision. Some great questions to ask are:

  •             What are the side effects?
  •             Why do I keep getting this diagnosis?
  •             What is your opinion on different types of treatments?

Providers do not and cannot have all the answers every time, but we are willing to help you find the right answer or give you a good reason why we think the prescribed treatment is best for you.  We typically start with what is referred to as the “gold standard” treatment based on clinical trials.  While this is considered to be the “best” treatment for the diagnosis, it is not necessarily going to be right in each situation, and it is okay for you to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to your care.

2.  Do some of your own research.

There is a lot of information out there—some good and some not so good. The key is learning to differentiate between evidence-based information and opinion. Here is a good place to start: if you find it on a message board…keep looking!  Message boards can point you in the right direction.  For example, does the poster provide a link to research or a more reputable site?  Do they list the name of a practitioner who has a lot of experience with the presented issue?  Mostly, however, message boards provide opinions.

When looking through your search results, try to find information from a government source, a medical institution or an expert in the field.  Look up information about the author.  Do they have training or expertise in this field?  Bring some of the information you find to your clinic appointment. If you think a treatment or therapy might be beneficial for you, see what your provider thinks. Your provider is more likely to consider the alternative therapy and discuss it with you if you have evidence-based information with you.

3.  Don’t assume that a product is safe or right for you just because it is labeled “natural.” 

Herbs have been used for thousands of years. In fact, different cultures have made similar uses of the same herbs without consulting each other or conducting clinical trials. That isn’t to say that modern science and clinical trials are unnecessary, but rather that these therapies can be beneficial when used appropriately.  However, you should get the help of a trained practitioner when using herbs or natural supplements. You should always tell your provider what herbs and supplements you are taking before starting any other medication because herbs can interact with some medications and potentially cause a problem. There might be times when the best thing to do is to stop one medication or supplement while you take the other to ensure safety.  Your provider can help you make this decision, but she can’t help you if she doesn’t know what you’re taking.

Another point to consider is that herbs and supplements are regulated differently than pharmaceutical drugs by the FDA.  Some people are under the impression that the FDA has no control over these products, but that is not true. Herb and supplement manufacturers cannot make claims about their products that are untrue or misleading. Also, manufacturers must comply with certain quality assurance measures and report any adverse effects that their product is reported to have.  It is up to the manufacturer to monitor the safety and effectiveness of the product, but once it is on the market, the FDA can remove a product that proves to be unsafe. So as a consumer, make sure you check out the product as well as the manufacturer. You can also check with your provider to see if she has any recommendations on reputable brands.

There is still a lot to learn about how herbs work and how we can incorporate them into healthcare.  I am excited to see what we will find as we continue to study integrative medicine.

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