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10 alternative meds

These days, going natural isn't just for hippies and greenies. It's for anyone looking for gentler ways to improve their body and sustain good health.

So-called miracle cures abound. Just walk through a vitamin store or flip through a health magazine.

But what really works — and for what?

Here's a list of alternative treatments for 10 common ailments that have scientific proof to back up their claims. All are widely available at health food stores, vitamin shops, online or even in some grocery or drug stores. Keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for another. Side effects vary, so consult your doctor before starting any treatment.

Dandruff — tea tree oil

Tea tree oil can do the trick in wiping out dandruff's white flakes naturally. Derived from plant leaves native to Australia, it has been used for centuries as an antiseptic and antifungal agent. Aboriginals applied crushed leaves to skin cuts, burns and infections. Today, tea tree oil is found in shampoos, soaps and creams. While not many studies have been done on it, one found that tea tree oil shampoo significantly reduced dandruff. It also may work on athlete's foot, toenail fungus and acne.

Migraines — acupuncture

Anyone who's had migraine headaches knows you'd try almost anything to make them go away. For many, that includes the ancient Chinese practice of inserting thin needles into specific parts of the body. Studies have supported its use. The largest, published in the March 2006 The Lancet Neurology, found that acupuncture may be as effective as traditional medicines in treating migraines. Experts caution, however, that if you don't see an improvement after several treatments, acupuncture probably won't help.

Insomnia — yoga

Can't sleep? Relax, take a deep breath and stretch. Doing yoga at least three times a week might help you. Yoga's deep breathing and meditation techniques clear the body of stress, making it easier to fall asleep. And unlike some sleep pills, it won't leave you feeling groggy the next morning. Although yoga is widely recommended and used to treat insomnia, the scientific proof is sparse. A national study that is under way could change that.

Depression — St. John's wort

Sometimes referred to as herbal Prozac, small European studies have concluded that St. John's wort (hypericum perforatum) is useful in treating mild depression, but not severe depression. For that, more studies are needed. Be careful, though. The product interacts poorly with some medications and may reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills, which could be depressing to some.

Common cold — echinacea

Echinacea is the most-used natural product, and for good reason: It helps fight the common cold. Various studies have cheered and jeered the purple coneflower, which is native to North America. The latest study, in 2007, said echinacea boosts immunity and helps shorten and prevent colds. The millions of users probably tend to agree.

Sunburn — aloe vera

After a long day at the beach, many use aloe vera for relief. It dates to ancient Egypt, where the plant was given as a burial gift to pharaohs. Today, studies have shown that aloe gel can help burns as well as abrasions. The gel, which is squeezed from the leaves of the aloe plant, is antibacterial and stimulates the immune system. People also take aloe orally for conditions including diabetes and asthma, although scientific evidence doesn't support the use.

Back pain — chiropractic treatment

One in five U.S. adults have tried chiropractic treatment, according to a 2002 national survey. Most seek a chiropractor for back pain, neck pain or headaches. The idea is that when the spine, or another body part, is out of whack, the body can't heal itself. And here's the good part: Unlike most alternative medicine, many insurance policies cover chiropractic care. Just make sure to find a qualified practitioner. U.S. chiropractors must hold a doctor of chiropractic, or D.C., from properly accredited colleges.

Indigestion — peppermint

If a night of overeating and drinking gives you indigestion, you might think about grabbing some of those restaurant mints on the way out. They can help a stomach ache. Try chewing on peppermint leaves after a big meal or sipping on mint tea. Several studies suggest that peppermint oil, which comes in capsule or liquid form, may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. A few studies have found that, when combined with caraway oil, peppermint oil may help relieve indigestion, but evidence is preliminary.

Joint pain — glucosamine and chondroitin

Years of playing sports can do a number on the knees, resulting in osteoarthritis. To fight through the pain, many people turn to glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate supplements. Glucosamine is thought to promote the growth of cartilage and repair it, while chondroitin promotes elasticity and blocks enzymes that break down cartilage. While research conflicts on their effectiveness, a 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed some people with moderate to severe pain had significant relief when using both supplements. Those with mild pain had no such luck.

Premenstrual syndrome — chasteberry

Taking chasteberry can reduce symptoms of PMS, including breast tenderness, irritability, depressed mood and headache. Also known as monk's pepper, chasteberry has been used for more than 2,500 years for gynecological conditions. Recently, studies have suggested that the berry of the chaste tree can stimulate progesterone production, which, in turn, stabilizes hormone levels and makes you feel better. And even though celibate clergymen supposedly used it to reduce unwanted sexual desire during medieval times, studies say it doesn't dull libido.

Sources: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; American Academy of Family Physicians; U.S. News & World Report; altmedicine.about.com; quackwatch.com; headache.emedtv.com; buzzle.com

Most popular medical alternatives

Here are the top 10 most commonly used complementary and alternative medicine therapies, and the percent of U.S. adults using each.

Prayer for own health 43%

Prayer by others for health 24%

Natural products, such as herbs 19%

Deep breathing exercises 12%

Participation in prayer group for own health 10%

Meditation 8%

Chiropractic care 8%

Yoga 5%

Massage 5%

Diet-based therapies, such as Atkins and Zone diets 4%

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2002 National Health Interview Survey

10 alternative meds 05/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 9, 2008 11:31am]
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