Alternative Remedies

Many people use medicines or remedies that are not part of the prescription medications prescribed by their healthcare provider. Alternative medicine refers to remedies used in place of conventional medicine. Using alternative therapy together with prescribed treatments is called complementary medicine. Alternative remedies can include herbal medicines, vitamins, supplements, 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 products can affect the body just like prescription drugs. This means that they can either add to or work against the effects of medications prescribed by a healthcare provider. Even when used by themselves, herbal products can be dangerous, causing complications or side effects. When people are using herbal products along with other medications, side effects can be difficult to predict. 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, minerals or supplements is safe. This is not always true. For example, large doses of vitamin A can worsen bone health. Large doses of vitamin B6 can cause nerve pain called peripheral neuropathy. Taking extra vitamins is not helpful for most older adults, except in certain cases under the care of a healthcare provider.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal products, vitamins or supplements the same way it does prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. FDA regulations only assure that a natural product meets good production practices and can be removed from the market if it is unsafe.  These rules do not ensure that herbal remedies are safe for everyone to use. In addition, the companies that make herbal products in the US are not regulated. 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 products, but others may have poor quality control or unclean conditions. Therefore, the amount and quality of herbal products are not reliable. This also increases the chances of side effects.

Lastly, it is important to know that supplements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Tell Your HealthCare Provider

Always tell your healthcare provider about all medications you are using, including any OTC medications and alternative therapies. Again, this is because many OTC products and alternative therapies can interact with many prescription medications and cause side effects, even when used alone. Some of these interactions or side effects can be serious and even life-threatening.

Using Alternative Therapies Safely

If you choose to try alternative therapies, your healthcare provider can help you incorporate them safely, and can provide information on safer or better forms (such as liquid, tea, or cream). Your pharmacist can help ensure you are buying a product from a reputable company and check on drug interactions for you. For example, Ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort, and fish oil all interact with blood thinning (anticoagulant) medications. Echinacea interacts 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, very few studies include older adults. An example of an alternative therapy that has been found to help some patients is medical marijuana. Active ingredients in medical marijuana are approved by the FDA as prescription medication to treat nausea and vomiting in patients receiving chemotherapy. However, medical marijuana does not have any FDA approved uses and comes with many dangerous side effects. Frail older adults are especially at risk for 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.


Last Updated August 2020