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Alternatives to prescription drugs

Michael Levine, MD, is a medical toxicologist at Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Phoenix.

Question: Are alternative therapies or herbal remedies safe to use as a substitute for traditional medications my doctor might prescribe?

Answer: Because some herbal remedies and alternative therapies may provide relief to patients with certain conditions, these options can have a role when used in conjunction with traditional, Western medicine. However, the use of herbal remedies or treatments exclusively does raise concern among many physicians because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), like prescription and over-the-counter medications are.

The concentration of active ingredients and the presence of inactive ingredients in many of these alternative or “natural” remedies may be unknown, which can cause dangerous interactions in patients taking other medications or undergoing physician-supervised treatments. Some herbal therapies can also negatively impact the function of key organs like the liver.

If a patient is experiencing a minor illness, such as a cold, herbal remedies may offer some relief, as long as the virus is not worsening. People who are battling more significant diseases, however, should follow their physician’s medication recommendations closely and avoid any alternative treatments unless specifically suggested by their doctor. And it is extremely important that all patients notify their health care providers of any supplements or natural remedies they are currently taking or intend to take, to ensure the alternative treatment will not react with prescribed medications or cause problems with pre-existing medical conditions.

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