We are fortunate to have so many effective — in some cases lifesaving — medications on the market today. An unfortunate side effect of this widespread availability is that we tend to be an overmedicated society.
As a result, natural remedies are gaining favor in the medical community as viable alternative treatments for some of the most common conditions. Vitamins, herbs and nutraceuticals (nutrition-based supplements) aren't just for the stereotypical "nature nut" anymore.
In fact, a 2007 study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes for Health, showed that 17.7 percent of American adults used some type of these products in the past 12 months.
I tell my patients all the time that a prescription is not always the best solution to problems like headaches, joint inflammation, acid reflux and fatigue. A traditional drug such as ibuprofen may treat only the symptom and not the source. I prefer to first address the issue from a nutritional perspective whenever possible, so I often recommend a dietary analysis and food sensitivity testing to identify triggers and possible deficiencies. For example, lack of sufficient magnesium in the body has the potential to cause migraine headaches.
A food sensitivity analysis is not the same as testing for food allergies. In the analysis, foods are identified that may be causing inflammation or fatigue, for example, and then are removed from the patient's diet. In many cases, simple dietary changes result in significant health and medical benefits, including the prevention and treatment of some chronic conditions.
Some of the most effective nutraceutical supplements for joint pain will include glucosamine and antioxidants, which have been shown to improve joint flexibility by lubricating joints and inhibiting the body's inflammatory processes associated with the normal aging process. These supplements also can support cartilage regeneration and retention.
Energy boosting supplements might include antioxidants such as oligometric proanthocyanidins found in red wine, pine tree bark and grape seeds, as well as vitamin B complex, vitamin C and rhodiola. Probiotics, L-glutamine and zinc are known to help heal the gut, stopping acid reflux at the source rather than simply putting a Band-aid on the symptoms, as many antacids and acid inhibitors do.
Natural supplements can be more easily absorbed by the bloodstream than traditional medications and, when used appropriately, have the potential to produce fewer side effects. Because nutraceutical and vitamin therapy addresses the whole person and the underlying source of his condition, the result is often better patient compliance with a treatment plan — leading to improved results.
It's important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does regulate natural supplements, but those regulations are different and less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter medications. Be sure to consult with a health care professional to create a plan for alternative, natural treatment rather than trying to go it alone. There are so many choices out there, it is easy to get confused.
Some supplements may interact with medications or pose risks if you have existing medical problems. Also, most natural supplements have not been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children. Make sure that all your health care providers are aware of any alternative or natural treatments you are using to ensure coordinated and safe care.
If you are interested in exploring a more holistic and natural approach to you health care, talk to your primary care provider or visit http://nccam.nih.gov/.
Dr. Caresse Wesley is with Saint Joseph Primary Care Associates, part of KentuckyOne Health.