Alternative Medicine: What to Know About the Growing Industry


Business is booming if you’re in the alternative medicine industry. While it once was a small operation focused on homemade remedies, the practice has changed. “This is not just Mom and Pop selling herbs at the farmer’s market,” says Josephine Briggs, a physician and director of the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

In fact, 50 percent of Americans are purchasing and using some form of alternative medicine, which is defined as a range of medical therapies that aren’t regarded as orthodox by the medical profession, such as herbalism, homeopathy and acupuncture.

When alternative medicine first began, it was viewed as homemade remedies passed down through families or recommended by family doctors. But, today it is an aggressive $34 billion a year industry. According to Leah Binder, “the biggest misconception is that it’s not big business. Many people think of alternative medicine as the incense-filled office next to the yoga studio, where the soft-spoken, sandal-clad practitioner is there not to make a profit, but for a higher purpose — the good of humanity or healing.”

Less Scrutiny

As more and more corporations jump on the alternative business bandwagon, there are fewer that go through the Food and Drug Administration. Only about one-third of alternative therapies have safety and efficacy data behind them. Not only that, but a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office found supplements were being sold with deceptive marketing practices.

This bears “truth to the adage that ‘capsules don’t grow on trees‘ – we have to ask ourselves if the real contamination comes from nature or from the nature of man,” said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor at Duke University Medical Center. Alternative remedies no longer have to be natural — they just need to appear natural. A study by the journal BMC Medicine used DNA analysis to provide the most definitive evidence to date that herbal supplements are not what they seem. Researchers randomly selected 44 supplements and found most were “of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination, and use of fillers.”

Take this example for instance. Recently, the FDA tested two bottles of St. John’s wort used to treat depression. One contained pills that had no evidence of the advertised herb, while the other substituted another plant that happened to be a known laxative. The FDA also recently tested 21 “all-natural” dietary supplements and found that nine of them contained unlabeled amphetamine-like compounds.

What Are You Paying For?

According to Kevin Pho, a primary care physician, some pills use things called “fillers” such as rice, black walnut, and unlabeled toxic ingredients. It’s gotten so bad that “up to 70 percent of herbal drug producers violated manufacturing guidelines to prevent adulteration of their pills.” One of the problems is that consumers rarely hold them to the same scrutiny as they do in mainstream medicine. Many of these companies aren’t even holding themselves to the same scrutiny as mainstream medicine.

Yet, consumers continue to purchase the products, and companies continue to find ways to make more money. There is a growing lobbyist group called Complementary and Alternative Medicine providers, who are fighting for a way to increase business even more. The group want the government to force insurance providers to pay for alternative treatments, without having to provide any evidence that the treatments work.

According to Steven Salzberg, a Forbes contributor covering pseudoscience and medicine, “homeopaths, naturopaths, acupuncturists, reiki practitioners, energy healers, and other CAM practitioners don’t want to subject their methods to rigorous tests of effectiveness. They know that their methods have failed scientific scrutiny, time and time again.” However, the industry will continue to grow as long as consumers continue to spend countless dollars on alternative treatments each year.

What Can You Do?

Research the product you’re buying. Don’t believe everything packages say. Instead, gather information from a variety of sources and check the credentials of the company producing the medicine. Always talk to your doctors. Let them know what you’re considering taking and listen to their comments, thoughts, and reviews on the product.

According to Mayo Clinic’s Consumer Health, “look for high-quality clinical studies. These large, controlled and randomized trials are published in peer-reviewed journals — journals that only publish articles reviewed by independent experts. The results of these studies are more likely to be solid.”

To weed out false information, remember the three Ds: dates, documentation, and double-check.

1. Dates: when looking at articles regarding alternative medicine, don’t assume the article is recent. Check the creation or update date for each article.

2. Documentation: Check sources. Look at whether qualified health professionals are reviewing the information and is the advertising clearly identified? Look for the logo from the Health on the Net Foundation.

3. Double Check: Gather as much information as you can. Visit several health site and compare information. If there’s not much information on the product you’re looking at, be skeptical.

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