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 provider. 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 treatments 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 dangerous 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 people’s bodies change with age.
Another common mistaken belief 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 impact 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 (FDA) 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, more than half of the people who use alternative therapies do not tell their primary-care provider. They may be afraid that their healthcare provider will disapprove or react negatively - or it may not even occur to them to mention them.
However, it is very important to tell your healthcare 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 change the effects of many prescription medications. Some of these interactions or side effects can be serious and even life threatening.
If you choose to try alternative therapies, your healthcare provider can help you incorporate them safely, and can provide information on safer or more effective preparations (such as liquid, tea, or capsule forms). For example, prolonged-release melatonin is more likely to improve sleep quality than short-acting melatonin.
Your healthcare provider will also be able to advise you about whether the alternative therapy may be a problem for you in particular. For example, Ginkgo biloba, melatonin, St. John’s wort, and omega-3 fatty acids all interact with blood thinning (anticoagulant) medications. Melatonin and Echinacea interact with medications that suppress the immune system.
Research continues on the role of many alternative therapies, and some have been found to be effective in certain settings. It is important to keep in mind that so far most studies have included very few older adults. An example of an alternative therapy that has been found to be effective for some patients is medical marijuana. Medical marijuana is approved by the FDA for treatment of nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy, and there is some evidence that medical marijuana can help with pain and stiffness in patients who have multiple sclerosis. But frail older adults are especially vulnerable to common side effects of medical marijuana, such as dizziness, disorientation, confusion, loss of balance, fatigue, drowsiness, and hallucinations.
No matter what alternative therapy you are considering, your healthcare provider can help you sort through the many issues and help you decide which treatments are best for you.
Updated: October 2016
Posted: March 2012