Should You Try It?

How to evaluate Alt Med and other treatments before you try them

Before you start taking that supplement


If you’re thinking of starting to take omega 3 or any new supplement that you haven’t taken before or haven’t taken recently, take time to become an informed consumer.


Do your homework.

  1. Read as much as you can about the supplement – pro and con – before you try it.  Know what conventional medicine says about the supplement as well as what alternative medicine says. You’ll find information in loads of health and nutrition books and magazines, brochures, single-sheet supplement handouts about individual supplements (free at health stores), and similar sources.
  2. Check reputable websites.
  3. Ask staff at your health store. Some health stores make sure all the people who work in their stores, especially those who talk to customers, are well informed and able to answer questions. Many also have nutritionists and other experts available for consultation.
  4. Consult a pharmacist. If you don’t have a pharmacist, go to a large drug store or grocery with in-store pharmacy and ask to speak with a pharmacist.


Learn as much as you can about the supplement.

  • Find out what the risks may be.
  • Find out how much to take. You should know both the recommended dose and the “ceiling” or do-not-exceed maximum dose
  • Find out how to take it. Some work best when taken with food; some should not be taken with food. Some may interfere with absorption of other supplements you take (such as iron and calcium, for example); others help your body use the supplement more effectively (such as iron with vitamin C). Some are better at bedtime; others at morning. And so on.
  • If you take any medications, find out if the supplement


Write it down.

If you don’t already keep a supplement record start now.  Call it a journal or a diary or a log or give it whatever label you like – just do it. 


  • Reason?  Say why you are trying this supplement. What do you hope it will do for you?  Many supplements have multiple benefits. If that’s true of the one you’re going to try, list the primary reason first, then note any secondary goals that are important to you. For example, if you were going to start taking Cosamin DS, a glucosamine-chondroitin supplement for joint pain, your Reason entry might say: Reduce hip pain. Move easier. Walk longer.
  • Date?  Date you start taking the supplement. If time (of day) taken matters with this supplement, note both date and time.
  • Dose?  How much are you taking? How often?
  • With?  What other supplements and/or medicines do you take on the same day you take the new. If the supplement is one of those that should be taken with food or on an empty stomach, note “with meal” or “empty stomach” and if it should not be taken at the same time as something else you take, note the times (when you took this supplement and when you took the other supplement or medicine)
  • Changes? Make a note of any changes you notice. Include improvements, even if you are not sure they’re related to the supplement, such as “memory better” … “legs didn’t ache like they usually do after long walk” … “not out of breath now”…  Also note any problems or concerns, such as “1st bloody nose since 4th grade” … “bruise easily” … “rash won’t go away…” “very tired but getting plenty of rest". 


You don’t have to make notes in your supplement log every single day, but do update it whenever you make any change or notice anything new. Keep making notes for at least six months.


Why so long? Some changes are so gradual or so subtle that they go unnoticed. Some may not show up until you’ve been using the supplement for several weeks or more. Some are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the sense that one individual piece doesn’t show much but when added to other pieces (when you review your notes), patterns emerge or become more apparent.


Having a written record will cover any gaps that might creep into memory and also will make it easier to see “the big picture” to assess how this supplement is affecting you.



© 2012, all rights reserved

Omega 3 – Friend or Foe (part 2)


People take fish oil (omega 3) supplements for many reasons.  Most online and print sources I’ve seen including Fish oil, which is on the excellent MedlinePlus Herbs and Supplements website, that heart and cardiovascular health and prevention top the list. “The scientific evidence suggests that fish oil really does lower high triglycerides, and it also seems to help prevent heart disease and stroke when taken in the recommended amounts,” the report says. And that part about “in the recommended amounts” is important because the report also notes that taking too much can raise risk of stroke.


Other conditions people take fish oil for, according to MedlinePlus, include:

  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that involve cognitive, or thinking, problems
  • Dry eyes
  • Glaucoma
  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
  • Menstrual pain
  • Breast pain
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

… and many others


With so many ways to use this product, it’s not surprising to read in a February 5, 2012, news release from that fish oil was the most popular supplement. Their survey of supplement users asked more than 10,000 supplement-savvy consumers what supplements they take every day. Fish oil topped the list – it was used by 80.8% of people who took 10 or more supplements daily. 


Does it work?


Yes, for some things. Research shows omega 3 is effective for reducing high triglycerides. It probably works to prevent heart disease or reduce your risk of dying from heart disease if you already have it. And it may do a better job of reducing heart disease death risk than statin drugs.


Maybe, for many things. There’s a long list of conditions that may be helped by omega 3 supplements, and an even longer list of things it may not help, but at this point there’s not enough evidence to give a firm yes or no answer. 


We do know that there are some risks, especially if daily intake is higher than 3 grams. Problems it can cause include:

  • Increase risk of bleeding (blood-thinner)
  • Increase risk of infection (inhibits immune system function)
  • Cause side effects affecting the digestive system (heartburn, nausea, loose stools), skin (rash), and others (nosebleeds, bad breath)
  • Interact with medicine and other supplements
  • Contamination risk


Bottom line


Articles about supplement use usually include a line that tells people they should check with their doctor or other health care professional to make sure it’s safe to take that supplement. We see that line so often that many of us have a tendency to think, “Yeah, yeah, same old, same old” and ignore the advice. But in this case, it’s not just a cover-yourself-against-lawsuit line; it really is important.


If someone I knew asked whether I thought he or she should try omega 3 supplements, I’d say “maybe.”  I’d tell that person there is good evidence showing omega 3s can be wonderful for some conditions but there’s also evidence showing they can be risky too, so I would not start taking them without informed guidance from a health professional who is knowledgeable in this field.


If the person asking this question doesn’t know a health professional who is informed enough to consult, or doesn’t trust them, I’d suggest that person invest some time in becoming informed himself or herself. 


See our guide to starting any new supplement, “Before You Start Taking That Supplement.” 


It’s coming up next.



© 2012, all rights reserved.

Omega 3 – Friend or Foe

Today’s plan was to focus on a different topic. But after seeing several email and online chat comments about omega-3 fatty acids, I’m shifting gears.

Too many intelligent, well read, supplement savvy people have misconceptions about omega 3 fatty acids or fish oils and need to know what to do to stay safe.

Overall, fish oils, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are great. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends fish oil, preferably from foods — at least two 3.5-ounce servings 6wice a week. Recommended fish include salmon, canned tuna, sardines, and others.

The AHA’s Fish 101 for tips on which fish to choose and how much omega-3 is in each. The site also provides information on how much mercury the listed fish contain so you can weight the balance between mercury (bad) and omega 3 (good) for fish you’re considering.


If you can’t do that – anyone who has priced salmon at the grocery store lately knows it’s a potential budget breaker – or you don’t like any of the fish they recommend, supplements are you next best choice. Check the info on omega-3 fatty acid supplements on the AHA’s Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.

The AHA site recommends omega 3 for high triglycerides (a type of blood fat that should not be high), tachycardia (rapid heart rate – more than 100 beats per minute), and other heart conditions.

As a friend says, “all good, right?”

Maybe. But there’s also a maybe hitch. They AHA doesn’t mention cautions and caveats.

If you recently upped your daily intake of omega 3 and you’re noticing any unusual problems that involve bleeding such as bruising more than normal or more easily than normal or subjunctival hemorrhage (a red blood spot in the white of the eye), check further or ask a qualified medical professional who knows you, knows your medical problems, knows what else you’re taking, and knows the risks and benefits of this supplement.

More to come…


© 2012, all rights reserved. 

More good news about Tai Chi

It seems there’s a new report almost every day telling about another new reason why tai chi helps people feel better.  One that I just came across in a health journal described a study that was actually published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine medical journal.


Doctors recommend exercise for people with chronic heart failure but they know how difficult it is for people with chronic heart failure to exercise. The goal of this study was to find out whether tai chi would be a safe and beneficial form of exercise for these patients, instead of putting them through the standard exercise program.


Researchers followed 100 people with heart failure as half participated in heart health classes twice a week while the others went were in tai chi exercise programs twice a week. 


After 12 weeks, they saw both groups had improved exercise capacity, which showed tai chi worked as well as the conventional program. But, even better, the tai chi group gained bonus benefits such as better quality of life, improved mood, and feeling more confident about their ability to exercise.


If you’d like to read the study, see: Tai Chi Exercise in Patients with Chronic Heart Failure.


© 2012, all rights reserved

Saw Palmetto Study Disappoints


Men who take saw palmetto to relieve symptoms of an enlarged prostate may be disappointed by the results of a recent study.


Enlarged prostate is a problem many men cope with as they get older. Doctors call it benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH for short. In plain language, that means the prostate gland is larger than normal size and its size is not due to a malignancy such as cancer.


Symptoms of BPH can include increased frequency of urination (translation: you need to pee more often) and urgency (you can’t wait) but even when the urge to go is very strong, it may be hard to get the flow started because the oversized prostate surrounds and squishes the urethra, the tube urine flows through, which slows the flow, and then the flow can be difficult to stop, so dribbling may be a problem. [Learn more about BPH from the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases information clearinghouse at Prostate Enlargement: Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia and the American Urological Association Foundation’s brochure, Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH).]


BPH is not only uncomfortable–it also disrupts men’s lives. Bathroom breaks become more frequent. Planning daily activities means making sure there’s a nearby restroom wherever you go. Long drives are risky, unless you carry a portable urinal. And sleep is disrupted by frequent, frustrating, and can’t-wait need to empty the bladder.


No wonder men want a simple and effective remedy. Those who prefer not to use prescription drugs or who’ve had problem side-effects from medications, may turn to herbs and supplements like saw palmetto.


And now we learn that when researchers compared the herb to a placebo, their tests showed that saw palmetto did not work better than the dummy pill. To quote the authors of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study, saw palmetto berry extract “did not reduce lower urinary tract symptoms more than placebo.”


Is the study believable?

When people who use alternative medicine read about a study that says a long-trusted remedy doesn’t work or doesn’t do as much as we thought it did, we can’t help but question quality of the research. And doubters have found some “doesn’t work” studies were flawed in one way or another. 

How could that happen? 

  • The dose given in the study may have been lower than the recommended dose, too low to show any positive results


  • They researchers may have tested the wrong form of the herb – for the findings to be useful, they should have tested the same form that herb experts recommend


  • The test may not have lasted long enough – measurable improvement may take more time than the study allowed


  • There may gave been “confounding factors” such as testing in an inappropriate group, testing people who already have multiple other conditions that could muddy the findings, relying on memory and patient recollection of how much and what type of substance they tried in the past, failure to exclude factors that could alter the test results, and so on. Confounding factors may cloud even well-intended studies so much that we have no way of knowing whether the tested product or herb actually worked or not.


But that didn’t happen this time. Holistic health experts agreed that this JAMA study was well designed and was well executed, according to NUTRAingredients-USA’s report Saw palmetto no better than placebo for urinary tract symptoms?


On the plus side, other research has shown that saw palmetto did help and the herb is generally recognized as safe, according to, a highly a highly respected organization that tests and reviews herbs, vitamins, minerals and other supplements.


Men who are interested in supplements for BPH may be interested Prostate Supplements, a ConsumerLab review that includes the results of their lab tests of brand name prostate supplements. (They measure how much of each ingredient was actually in a particular supplement, whether it was the correct form, and whether the supplement contained anything it shouldn’t.) Full access requires joining the site at a cost of $2.25 to $2.75 per month, but Member benefits make it well worth the investment for anyone who is interested in supplements.


So what should men with BPH do now? 


First, remember this is only one study.


Second, remember that the study did not say saw palmetto does not work. What it did say was that  in this trial, saw palmetto did not work better than the placebo.


Third, remember that this study showed both saw palmetto and the placebo did work to some degree.


What we need to know now is why? How? What else could have affected the findings?  And that means more research before anyone knows for sure whether saw palmetto is a keeper or not. 


Until then, as one long-time user of saw palmetto said, “I’ve done my own tests to see if it really was helping me. When I stopped taking it, my symptoms got worse – fast. When I started taking it again, they got better. That’s good enough for me.”


© 2012, all rights reserved

Heart Flutter Help

One of the health issues I’m interested in is atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes the upper chambers (atria) of the heart to beat irregularly. The normal rhythm of the top parts of their hearts turn into more of a quiver, or fibrillation, than heartbeat. That’s bad because when the heart doesn’t beat in normal rhythm, it can’t pump blood through the body the way it’s supposed to, which may leave people feeling woozy or out of breath.


Brief episodes. or “palpitations,” may be blamed on stress or too much caffeine and might be harmless.

But for more than two million people, atrial fibrillation is serious and needs medical evaluation and care which may include prescription medications or other treatments.

There’s a wealth of information online about this condition and the medications and treatment options that are available to help people with atrial fibrillation, but I haven’t seen credible information about natural approaches until I came across a question-and-answer column titled Alternatives for Atrial Fibrillation? by Andrew Weil, MD.

For those who don’t already know that name, Dr. Weil is a medical doctor and integrative medicine (blending of conventional, or Western, medicine with alternative, or holistic, natural, or Eastern, medicine) expert and is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine.

(Disclosure:  I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Weil several years ago when one of his new natural health books was released.)

In his column, Dr. Weil suggests steps people can try – in addition to taking medications prescribed by their physicians – that may have a positive effect on atrial fibrillation and overall heart health. 

If you’re interested in this condition or in heart health, this column is worth reading.

© 2011, all rights reserved

Who uses Alternative Medicine? Some answers from a University of Michigan Health System Study


Ever wonder who is using alternative medicine?  A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan Health System, found that a third of people who have chronic pain seek relief from complementary and alternative medicine therapies such as acupuncture, biofeedback, chiropractic, and physical therapy.

In fact, a U-M news release about the study says: “Chronic pain has been found to double the odds of seeking alternative services.”

Race and age also played a role. The U-M study showed that elderly people and whites used AltMed more than younger people or blacks and AltMed users have higher levels of education and income.

The income part of that finding makes sense when you think about how much herbs, supplements, a nutritious diet, and treatments such as acupuncture and chiropractic can cost if they’re not covered by health insurance. 

As evidence from scientific studies supporting the use of alternative therapies grows, coverage may improve and cost may become a less important factor in deciding whether AltMed is right for you.

The U-M study was published in Vol. 11, No.1, of  the January 2010 journal Pain Medicine.

To read the U-M news release about the study, click on this link:

  U-M study: Alternative medicine use for pain increases with age and wealth

To read another News report about the study from Alternative Therapies in Health And Medicine – A Peer-Reviewed Journal, click this link: 

Study: Use of Alternative Therapy for Pain Treatment Increases With Age and Wealth

(c) 2010, all rights reserved.

The Vitamin D Solution

Vitamin D info coming soon…. There’s been a surge of new information from studies exploring the benefits of vitamin D and you’ll be hearing more about that research on this site soon.

In the meantime, you may enjoy reading a new book from vitamin D expert Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D., who has been studying vitamin D for more than 30 years:

THE VITAMIN D SOLUTION: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem

Prevent and treat:

* Osteoporosis

* Heart Disease

* Cancer

* Autoimmune Diseases

* Depression

* Insomnia

* Arthritis

* Diabetes

* Chronic Pain

* Psoriasis

* Fibromyalgia

* Autism

…as well as other diseases, chronic conditions, and mild ailments


The book includes a Foreword by Andrew Weil, M.D.

Publisher:  Hudson Street Press

ISBN:  978-1-59463-067-5

Ask for it at your favorite bookstore or order it from your favorite online book seller, such as Books.

(c) 2010, all rights reserved.

Herb Combats Pancreatic Cancer


Cancer News

April 21, 2009 

There’s new hope for pancreatic cancer thanks to new studies on an herb whose seed and oil have been used in Middle Eastern and Asian traditional medicine for thousands of years. 

Research reported at the American Association for Cancer Research’s (AACR) 100th Annual Meeting 2009 in Denver, Colorado, showed an extract of the herb, Nigella sativa, appears to inhibit the development of pancreatic cancer cells. Previous research found the same extract kills pancreatic cancer cells.  Thymoquinone, the major component in oil extracted from Nigella sativa, is the key.


If further studies prove the initial findings, this herb could offer preventive and therapeutic benefits for people who have chronic pancreatitis, people at high risk for pancreatic cancer, and pancreatic cancer patients who have had surgery for the condition,           according to researcher Hwyda Arafat, MD, PhD, associate professor of surgery at the Jefferson Medical College and Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Dr. Hwyda Arafat photo courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University)

“These are very exciting and novel results,” Dr. Arafat said.   “More importantly, the herb and oil are safe when used moderately, and have been used for thousands of years without reported toxic effects.”

The study abstract (#494) is posted on the AACR site (linked above) and the research will be published in the Oxford journal HPB: The Official Journal of the International Hepato Pancreato Biliary Association 



Deaths:  Annual number of pancreatic cancer deaths (USA):  32,000

Survival:  Average 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer:  5.5%


For more information:

* Middle eastern herb shows potential against pancreatic cancer, by Stephen Daniels, 21 April 2009,

* An herbal extract inhibits the development of pancreatic cancer, News Release from Thomas Jefferson University, 19 April 2009,

* Nigella sativa, Cancer Information / Integrative Medicine, Sloan-Kettering Memorial Medical Center. Includes sketch of the herb and information about its uses. Last updated July 28, 2008.

* A Snapshot of Pancreatic Cancer, National Cancer Institute, last updated September 2008  (NOTE: This is a PDF document that requires the Adobe Acrobat Reader – choose the version that fits your computer here)


© 2009, all rights reserved





(c) 2009, all rights reserved.

Flip-Flop Whiplash

Confused about alternative medicine?  Join the club.

Anyone who reads newspapers or magazines, or catches the news on TV or radio, has seen all too many flip-flops and reversals. 

One week, the experts tell us that glucosamine and chondroitin work wonders to relieve joint pain.  Then, whoops, the next report tells us a different study found g&c didn’t have any measurable effect.

One report tells us how beneficial to health a daily glass of wine can be – especially red wine because it contains the powerful antioxidant resveratrol.  Then the next report says, whoa,  put down that glass – drinking any alcoholic beverage, even red wine, may actually increase some health risks.

One week we read that vitamin E is the greatest thing since sliced bread. (Wait a minute! How did Grandma get in here with that “sliced bread” bit?  Let’s update that to something a little more contemporary… how about ‘the greatest thing since Blu-Ray’ or maybe Kindle2 or iPhones? Okay, moving right along…)  Then, uh-oh, next they tell us vitamin E might not be good for us at all and instead we should be taking vitamin D because the “sunshine vitamin” is the Next Big Thing that cures or prevents practically everything.

All that flipping and flopping would confuse anybody!

>>>>>Tip from a veteran health reporter:  Many health writers are very diligent and careful to report accurately – kudos to them! – but not every person who writes a health article, including articles about alternative medicine, knows how to interpret studies and make sense of science. That’s why it’s important to know how to judge for yourself. <<<<<

So what’s a conscientious health consumer to believe?  How can you tell which reports are premature, or based on insufficient data, or so narrow in scope that their conclusions don’t apply to you?

At this point, most articles would say, “check with your doctor.”  And that is a good idea – IF your doctor is open-minded about alternative medicine and is also up to speed on recent research findings.  Not sure if yours is?  Ask. (More about this in a future post.)

Meanwhile, stay tuned… there’s more to come.

(c) 2009, all rights reserved.