the alternative fix

Before You Try It: Safety Precautions Checklist
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Factors to consider when choosing an alternative treatment or practitioner, plus links to resources for current information on safety reports and alerts.

The consumer resources presented on FRONTLINE's website are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. If you are thinking about taking an herbal supplement or seeking an alternative treatment for a medical condition, consult your physician first. Your doctor can help you weigh the options and decide which treatments are best-suited for you. Reading through this simple safety checklist may also help you to identify any additional red flags:

  • Look for reputable labels. Dietary supplement manufacturers are not required to do quality assurance testing, so what appears on the label may not be what is found in the pill. A recent ConsumerLab study of cholesterol-reducing supplements containing guggulsterones, policosanol or sterols found that half of the brands tested (8 out of 16) did not contain the ingredients listed on the label.

    For more information, see the results of the study (a full report is available only to ConsumerLab subscribers) and a guide on how to read supplement labels from the Consumer League.

  • Check to see if there have been any adverse health claims reported or if any FTC actions have been filed against the product in question. Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission have websites with updates and news about safety issues with dietary supplements.

  • Ask yourself how you heard about the product. Does the person or practitioner stand to reap financial benefits for recommending or prescribing it to you? If so, be wary of possible conflicts of interest.

  • If you are seeking treatment from an alternative healer such as an acupuncturist or biofeedback specialist, check to make sure that they are accredited in their field. Ask to see their license.

Anyone considering using alternative therapy or products such as supplements should consult a doctor first. You should use extra caution if:

  • You are taking any medications. Some herbal supplements have been shown to interfere with conventional medications and could worsen your condition.

  • You have a serious medical condition, such as high blood pressure, heart problems, or cancer.

  • You have a family history or a genetic predisposition to certain diseases (such as breast cancer).

  • You are pregnant, nursing, or planning a pregnancy.

  • You are a senior citizen and suffer from a serious medical condition such as severe allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Parkinson's, etc. For more information, see this 2001 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office. It includes a table of common herbal supplements aimed at seniors and their known contraindications and interactions, and lists recent FDA actions against health products determined to be making illegal claims.

  • You have HIV/AIDS. Certain herbs, such as St. Johns Wort, have been shown to reduce the efficacy of AIDS medications. For more details, see the CDC's fact sheet on HIV and alternative therapies.

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posted november 4, 2003

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