Magazine article Drug Topics

Alternative Medicines: Is Natural Really Better?

Magazine article Drug Topics

Alternative Medicines: Is Natural Really Better?

Article excerpt

Ask different types of experts what they think of alternative therapies and you're likely to get a pretty broad array of opinions. Some feel that they're the wave of the future, and that they can offer both considerable health benefits to consumers and a financial boon to pharmacists.

Others warn that, because they're not regulated and standardized as are prescription drugs, they may be, at best, ineffective and, at worst, actually harmful. However, on two points, both sides agree: An increasing number of consumers are embracing these products, and, therefore, pharmacists had better learn as much as they can about them, in order to offer sound counsel.

The spring 1997 edition of The Source: A Newsletter of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists reported that "botanical sales in the U.S. increased by an impressive 37% last year, with the total herbal products marketplace reaching nearly $2.5 billion." This rapid growth, noted Constance Grauds, R.Ph., editor of The Source and founder and president of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists, is in large part due to a "huge consumer-driven belief that natural is better." Grauds went on to say that, "The consumers became aware of this whole [natural product phenomenon] long before we did. So now, what we used to see sold only in health food stores has become so mainstream that independent pharmacies, chain pharmacies, and mass-merchandisers throughout America are picking up on this major trend."

A milestone in the alternative medicine movement occurred as a result of a 1990 Harvard School of Public Health study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. According to the study, 34% of the U.S. population was using alternative treatments, although, unfortunately, seven out of 10 people using them didn't tell their healthcare providers. Noted Jim LaValle, R.Ph., D.H.M., D.H.Ph., "That study helped catalyze many health-care professionals into action. More dollars were being spent on alternative therapies than there were on visits to the pediatrician, the internist, and the general practitioner combined-and three-fourths of it was out-of-pocket money." LaValle is a member of the adjunct faculty at University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy and of the faculty at Central State College, Naturopathic Medicine, and is also director of pharmacologic studies for the British Institute of Homeopathy.

If consumers are moving toward alternative therapies, then what's motivating them? Grauds surmised that, besides the growing perception that natural is better, two of the other key factors are a shift in demographics toward a graying population and perhaps a bit of disenchantment with traditional health care.

David B. Roll, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry, University of Utah College of Pharmacy, agreed that "in some cases, [people are moving toward alternative medicines] because they're unhappy with traditional medicines." However, he feels that is not a valid justification for using and promoting them. Noted Roll, "I don't understand why people seem so willing to take herbs, which to me consist of unknown amounts of uncharacterized chemicals of questionable safety and dubious efficacy for really self-limiting conditions, for which we have, by and large, well-tested, safe alternatives." He went on to say that people seem to believe that "natural is good and synthetic is bad." However, he pointed out, "there are a lot of dangerous natural things out there, like strychnine and rattlesnake venom, and botulism toxin."

Yet, because many people are already taking natural products and will be "asking a lot of questions," he believes that pharmacists should be prepared to offer effective counsel about them. He conceded that "there probably is a place for some herbs in the treatment of mild illnesses." However, he feels that much more investigation into their effects and standardization of manufacturing is required before he would feel comfortable recommending such products. …

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