Alternative medicines

Which supplements should you take and which should you avoid?
 
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01 .Natural supplements

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Buying herbal supplements online or in-store is big business in Australia. But do weight-loss remedies and natural cancer cures really work or are they a waste of money?

Are they safe?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that herbal supplements are harmless, but “herbal” doesn’t always mean it’s safe to take. Meanwhile, “safe” products can also can also be dangerous when taken in combination with certain medications or other herbal supplements, or if taken by people with certain conditions.

Of the 10 most dangerous natural supplements, colloidal silver, kava and bitter orange are most widely available in Australia.

CHOICE is concerned that products considered unsafe are still being manufactured and sold here and overseas. While some have been banned or restricted (with labelling requirements, dosage specifications or import restrictions), some banned products have slipped through the net and others remain unrestricted. In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is charged with making sure the complementary medicine products for sale are safe. The TGA also maintains a list of relatively safe complementary medicines.

Do they work?

There are plenty of complementary medicines that may be safe but have no proven benefit, and consumers could be wasting their money and bypassing more effective treatment. The TGA requires companies to hold evidence of the effectiveness of products, but that evidence is rarely audited and products can be sold simply on the basis of historical precedent for use with certain conditions.

CHOICE wants a system introduced that allows a manufacturer to have the effectiveness of their product independently evaluated. If proven effective, a supplement would be awarded a Green Tick, similar to the Heart Foundation’s Red Tick.

The 10 best natural supplements have been shown to be probably safe for most people and possibly or probably effective in appropriate doses for certain conditions. One problem with the current regulatory system is that products with potentially useful ingredients, such as St John’s wort, contain active components that are known to be variable — or are not precisely known at all. So different products, supposedly containing the same ingredients at the same dose, are unlikely to be equally effective.

You should always talk to your doctor or pharmacist before starting any supplement. Also, most have not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women. The list of interactions and side effects in the lists below is not all-inclusive.

 
 

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The tables below lists potentially dangerous supplements and alternative medicines. Of these, the following are the most widely available:

Colloidal silver This is permitted for sale in Australia only as a water purifier. However, that hasn’t stopped enthusiastic retailing – especially online – of large quantities of this product for therapeutic use. Companies aren’t allowed to make therapeutic claims about colloidal silver products because they are not able to be listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG). Many attempt have been made to circumvent this restriction by pointing out that the TGA forbids them explaining all the alleged benefits of the product, and publishing “testimonials” from customers extolling its virtues. The TGA has taken several such companies to task, but our own research found more still flouting the regulations. One company was cheeky enough to insinuate the government is in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies to protect the antibiotics industry from this powerful competitor!

Kava is permitted for therapeutic use as an anti-anxiety supplement, provided the maximum daily dose is 250mg of the active constituent, kavalactones. It’s also a restricted import; these changes followed a voluntary recall of kava products in 2002 after an Australian fatality due to acute liver failure was reported.

Bitter orange Many weight-loss products contain bitter orange (Citrus aurantium). Alarmingly, these products also often contain caffeine and caffeine-like substances, which work with bitter orange to increase its cardiovascular effects. Bitter orange essential oils are also available.

Comfrey has been used as a healing herb for centuries. It was once known as “knit-bone” for its reputed bone healing properties. It’s easy to grow and these days is usually consumed as a tea made from homegrown plants, which can cause liver damage if taken in excessive amounts over long periods. The ointment form is not dangerous.

Top 10 dangerous supplements 

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03.Ten potentially effective supplements

 

Despite the huge complementary medicines market in Australia – estimated to be worth up to $3.5 billion annually – most supplements have not been proven to work. The TGA requires companies to hold evidence of the effectiveness of products, but that evidence is rarely audited and products can be sold simply on the basis of historical precedent for use with certain conditions.

The popular supplements listed in the table below have been shown to be probably safe for most people and possibly or probably effective in appropriate doses for certain conditions. One problem with the current regulatory system is that products with potentially useful ingredients, such as St John’s wort, contain active components that are known to be variable – or are not precisely known at all. So different products supposedly containing the same ingredients at the same dose are unlikely to be equally effective.

You should always talk to your doctor or pharmacist before starting any supplement; also, most have not been studied in pregnant or breastfeeding women. The list of interactions and side effects in the table is not all-inclusive.

10 potentially useful supplements

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