Doctors: Some supplements can undermine medical treatments

WASHINGTON – Patients suffering from multiple chronic conditions are relying more and more on alternative medicine, but doctors say some so-called nutraceuticals could interfere with their medical treatment.

Researchers reporting to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention crunched numbers from the government’s 2012 National Health Interview Survey and found it has become common for these patients to engage in self-care by adding on treatments ranging from acupuncture to mind-body therapies and even the use of dietary supplements.

But it is the use of all those supplements — from herbal remedies to mega-vitamins — that has doctors concerned.

“Definitely, in the area of nutraceuticals there is a lot more interest and use of them,” says Dr. Linda Lee, a gastroenterologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center.

These supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And Lee says they are heavily advertised even though there might not be evidence to demonstrate that they are actually beneficial.

Even worse, some supplements have the potential for worrisome interactions with prescription medications. And for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, they can be especially dangerous.

“There are a lot of concerns that supplements could interfere with the effectiveness of those therapies,” cautions Lee.

That doesn’t mean all alternative therapies are harmful for people with multiple chronic conditions. Therapeutic massage, for example, can help adults suffering from arthritis. And dietary changes are beneficial for those with gastric reflux.

Lee says yoga and mind-body therapy have been shown to be especially effective in helping patients manage their symptoms, according to recent studies. She notes acupuncture, despite its popularity in other parts of the world, is probably the least common form of alternative medicine used by Americans.

All the same, anyone with chronic medical conditions should confer with his or her doctor before trying any form of alternative treatment, and that goes double for supplements.

“I think people tend to use these therapies because they perceive of them as being natural,” Lee explains. “As a physician, I want to understand why they are interested in these therapies, and I also want to make sure that whatever they decide to do, that they are safe.”

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