Some Americans feel that a visit to the doctor and a prescription doesn’t suffice in their ongoing quest to improve their overall health. An increasing number of people are turning to alternative forms of medicine to reduce stress, relieve chronic pain, and treat other ailments, according to two studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Researchers at NIH surveyed more than 89,000 adults and more than 17,000 children between the ages of 4 and 17 about their health habits. Their findings, released in the National Health Statistics Report earlier this month, showed that nearly one out of three people in the United States seek alternative forms of medicine, including fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, chiropractic medicine and yoga. For five percent of respondents in that group, the nontraditional methods — primarily fish oil and melatonin — served as their sole form of medication.
“While the National Center for Health Statistics study does not assess why shifts in use occur, some of the trends are in line with published research on the efficacy of natural products,” Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, said in a press statement. ”For example, the use of melatonin, shown in studies to have some benefits for sleep issues, has risen dramatically. Conversely, the use of Echinacea has fallen, which may reflect conflicting results from studies on whether it’s helpful for colds. This reaffirms why it is important for NIH to study these products and to provide that information to the public.”
The increasing popularity of alternative medicine — defined as methods of treatment that are not a part of conventional medical training — has taken place amid growing skepticism about the medical industry. Recent surveys have shown that Americans are increasingly distrustful of doctors, which falls in line with the public’s general distrust of institutions.
In response to the growing demand for alternative forms of treatment among patients, hundreds of hospitals across the country have supplemented their medical care with Eastern-based treatments and therapies — including acupuncture, massage therapy, and herbal medicine. Some medical schools have also integrated these techniques into their curricula, creating the field of medicine known as complementary medicine, which enables practitioners to infuse the best practices of conventional and alternative medicine to the liking of their patients.
“I think that people are aware that the results are showing that alternative medicine is beneficial,” Ashley Flores, a Chicago-based acupuncturist and herbalist, told ThinkProgress. Flores said that turning to holistic treatment options that originated in East Asia helped her manage her own ailments better.
Flores, who has practiced acupuncture and herbal medicine for more than four years, said her journey started shortly after a doctor diagnosed her with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts on the outer edges. Even with a cocktail of medications, Flores said she still experienced great pain and her chances of childbirth remained futile. That compelled her to research different treatment options, and eventually led her to study acupuncture at Pacifica College of Oriental Medicine in Illinois.
“I have talked to other Western doctors about my choices and they have been supportive,” said Flores, who founded Four Flower Wellness in the Chicago metropolitan area. “When it comes to my health, I don’t take Western medicine so I don’t need it. I have a lot of herbs that I take for the cold and flu. In Chinese herbal medicine we use formula that includes a blend of at least 10 herbs. For the cold or flu, we would use ginger, green onion, cinnamon and other herbs that are effective. I can always count on my condition changing within 24 hours.”
Even with anecdotal evidence of alternative medicine’s benefits, questions remain about whether the unorthodox methods of treatment really work. NIH has tried to get to the bottom of this issue for more than 10 years and has mostly come up empty.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — housed under NIH — spends about $120 million annually to research complementary and alternative medicine, and hasn’t yet found much evidence to support the alternative treatments being studied there. In the early 2000s, for instance, the federal research agency conducted studies to determine the efficacy of a host of natural remedies including gingko — a popular memory-enhancing plant — and palmetto, which proponents said could treat prostate cancer. Clinical trials during which some subjects used the plant and other subjects used placebos found that the natural treatments did little to improve participants’ health.
Proponents of alternative medicine speculate that the low potential for profits by the pharmaceutical industry, stemming from herbal medicines and homeopathic medicines’ inability to be patented, has discouraged public funding for research centered on complementary alternative medicine. Critics, meanwhile, say it’s not worth investing federal money in programs that have a track record of being ineffective.
The unanswered questions about the efficacy of complementary medicine have made their way to our pharmacy shelves, where herbal treatments are sold alongside prescription drugs. Earlier this month, the New York attorney general’s office threatened legal action against large drug and retail stores for selling what it described as “deliberately misleading” herbal supplements. According to official documents, four of out five products, all of which contained insignificant amounts of the herb outlined on the labeling, had allergy-causing ingredients deemed harmful to consumers.
The shakedown was welcome news to food safety advocates, who have long lamented the vitamin supplement industry’s ability to circumvent Food and Drug Administration regulations because of their products’ classification.
“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: The old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a press statement.