My wife of 33 years reminds me almost daily of all the things I do not do. Not the housework, shopping, temple visits or social life; I'm talking about her advice about my health.
I do not drink enough water. I do not take enough antioxidants. I find excuses not to go to yoga classes. I do not eat enough organic stuff.
Never mind that I went through rigorous medical training for 13 years and have been practicing medicine for another 27 years and have received national awards for preaching prevention. She has all the answers for all my problems: tiredness, aches and pains, allergies and losing hair. I can imagine the pressures other people must be under from friends, families, claims and commercials to lead a "natural, safe and organic life."
Complementary and alternative medicine has a definite and important role in the prevention and treatment of many diseases when utilized appropriately and is being gradually integrated into mainstream medicine. It is especially attractive for patients suffering from chronic diseases, because of the frustration from inadequate relief of symptoms in spite of multiple prescription medications.
Over-the-counter natural products are one common form of complementary and alternative medicine. Patients tend to take them without informing their physicians, fearing they will offend their respected doctor, think it is irrelevant or the physician does not ask.
It is a common misconception that all the natural products sold in the stores or on the Internet are safe and healthy. Compounds like nicotine, opium, lead, mercury and arsenic are natural but definitely not safe. Many of the natural products sold for health benefits are not strictly controlled by government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.
Different brands of the same compound manufactured by different companies are not calibrated to the same dose or strength. They usually do not undergo rigorous clinical trials to assess their efficacy nor safety.
There may not be adequate quality control to safeguard against contaminants. Many of the times their advertisements are not screened for accountability or accuracy and their claims may not be substantiated. The companies that manufacture health or natural supplements can be driven by the same greed as the pharmaceuticals manufacturing the prescription medications.
Some of these natural compounds have similar chemicals as their prescription counterparts, for example the natural Red Yeast Rice and the prescription statin drug for control of elevated cholesterol. Patients most of the time do not inform their physicians about the use of these competing, complimentary, maybe even contradicting chemicals. So the patients are not monitored for the total dosage or side effects.
Weight control products are among the commonly marketed natural compounds. Unless a person has one of the rare specific medical conditions contributing to obesity, overweight is simply the result of excess calorie intake in relation to energy expenditure. The body stores excess calories as fat whether consumed in the form of carbohydrate, fat or protein. Healthy lifestyle changes like controlled eating and regular exercise should be the main strategy for weight control.
Also there is no end to the marketing of antiaging products. Aging is a normal and natural process of human development. One has to count his or her blessings for the good fortune of aging. The only definitive antiaging intervention is death. The goal should be pro-positive aging with healthy lifestyle changes, concentrating on the prevention of all the known risk factors that promote the ill effects of aging.
You can get your own body to produce natural chemicals, some useful and some harmful. A regular exercise program produces good chemicals that are conducive to good health. Physical and mental stress produce chemicals that are destructive and detrimental. Being overweight produces harmful chemicals causing inflammation, for example, heart attack and some cancers — for example, breast cancer. Fat around the belly is like a chemical factory and is particularly harmful.
Too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. Mega quantities of even natural vitamins and supplements may not be doing any good other than producing expensive urine and some may even harm the organs that are trying to get rid of them, like liver and kidneys.
Consult with your physicians before taking any of the natural products or remedies, including herbal supplements, to evaluate their necessity, efficacy and safety including the interactions.
The secret to success is finding the right balance, naturally.
Dr. Rao Musunuru, a cardiologist practicing at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point in Hudson, is a member of Advisory Council for National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.