Aging & Health A to Z
Basic Facts & Information
Many people use medicines or remedies that are not part of the traditional medical treatment prescribed by their healthcare professional. Using this type of alternative therapy along with traditional treatments is called complementary medicine. Alternative remedies can include herbal medicines, vitamins, and folk remedies.
Safety and Side Effects
People often feel more comfortable taking herbal remedies, thinking that because these products are "natural," they are safe. But, herbal remedies can affect the body just like traditional drugs. This means that they can either add to or work against the effects of traditional drugs prescribed by a healthcare professional. Even when used by themselves, herbal preparations can also be unsafe and cause complications or toxic effects. When people are taking herbal products along with other medications, possible side effects can be difficult to anticipate. This is especially serious for older people, because of how our body changes with age.
Another common misconception is that taking large doses of vitamins or minerals is safe. This is not always the case. For example, large doses of vitamin A can influence bone health. Large doses of vitamin B6 can affect nerves and cause a painful condition called peripheral neuropathy. Taking extra vitamins has not been found to be helpful for most older adults, except in certain cases under the care of a healthcare professional.
The US Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal products, which means that they can be sold with no proof of their safety, purity, or even whether they work as claimed. In addition, the herbal manufacturing industry in the US is not uniform or standardized. This means that products with the same name may not have the same amount of ingredients, or even the exact same ingredients. Some companies produce high-quality preparations, but others have poor quality control or unsanitary conditions. Therefore, the dosing and purity of herbal products is not straightforward. This also increases the possibility of side effects.
Tell Your Health Care Provider
Unfortunately, well over half of the people who use alternative therapies do not tell their primary-care physician. They may be afraid that their health care provider will disapprove or react negatively. However, it is very important to tell your health care provider about all medications you are taking, including any over-the-counter (OTC) remedies and alternative therapies. Again, this is because many OTC products and alternative therapies can interact with or alter the effects of many prescription medications. Some of these interactions or side effects can be serious and even life threatening.
Updated: March 2012
Posted: March 2012