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5 Tips on Being a Smart Consumer

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Updated September 22, 2011

Searching for alternative remedies usually leads to a confusing number of options. The clerk at the health food store recommends one thing, a friend swears by another remedy, and then you look online and learn about dozens of different remedies that appear to have worked for many people.

The most important thing you can do for your health is to use caution. It's tempting to just buy a product or try a therapy to see if it works, but while some may be harmless, other remedies can be downright dangerous and a waste of your money. Here are some basic tips to help you evaluate alternative remedies and therapies.

1) Does it claim to cure a disease?

If the article, website, or ad states that a remedy can completely "cure" a disease, you should question its credibility. Unfortunately, there are many products sold on the Internet that are fraudulently marketed and can keep people from getting the medical treatments they need. Other red flag words are: secret, exclusive, miracle, breakthrough, special, or proven.

The Federal Trade Commission started a campaign called Operation Cure-all to stop bogus claims for products and treatments touted as cures for disease.

2) Do you know about the side effects and safety concerns?

Another warning sign is if an article, website, or ad says that a remedy is all-natural and therefore completely safe. Even remedies we think of as "safe" like chamomile tea, can be harmful if used inappropriately. Information on side effects and safety concerns should be thorough and include references.

Research studies, patient reports, and safety alerts on alternative remedies are constantly being released, so you also want to make sure that your information source is current. Older articles may not include these recent developments. Look for a date on the information source.

3) What research has been done?

Even the most glowing, numerous testimonials aren't a substitute for scientific evidence that a product or therapy works and is safe.

But keep in mind that while it is possible to find studies that appear to back up claims, the quality of studies can vary greatly. Here are principles that can help you distinguish the higher-quality studies:
  • Have studies been conducted by independent sources? Do the researchers have a financial interest in the remedy? Although it wouldn't invalidate the research that has been done, it's preferable to have studies conducted by an independent source.

  • Was the study designed to eliminate bias? In a double-blind study, subjects aren't told if they are receiving the active treatment or a placebo (an inert look-alike). Researchers aren't aware either.

    Randomized controlled trials are double-blind studies in which subjects are randomized to receive either the active treatment or a placebo. It's considered the gold standard.

  • Are there human studies? Animal studies or test tube studies are good starting points, but they don’t prove that a product or therapy will work or be safe in humans.

  • Are studies published in peer-reviewed journals? Studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals have been reviewed by an independent group of experts in that area before being published. This review process can help detect problems and ensure a certain level of quality in the studies that are published.

  • How many people were in the study? A larger group of subjects provides better proof.
Keep in mind that just because there is little research of this quality, doesn’t mean it's ineffective. Research in alternative medicine is still in its infancy, and it can be difficult for researchers to obtain funding to conduct randomized controlled trials and then to be published in mainstream, peer-reviewed journals. However, until there is a good body of research, it's not possible to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or safety of a remedy.

If studies aren't available but you are thinking of trying a therapy, talk with your doctor, who may be able to help you make decisions.

4) Is your doctor aware of what you're doing?

Keep your doctor in the loop about any new product or therapy you're considering. There are many things that may not be appropriate for your condition.

If you haven't already, complete the supplement diary. It has step-by-step instructions and printable pages to help you keep your supplement regimen organized. After you complete it, keep the original for your records and bring a photocopy to your next doctors appointment and have the information added to your chart.

5) Do you choose your practitioners carefully?

Make sure that any alternative practitioners you see are licensed and/or certified to practice. Alternative practitioners should always take a complete medical history, be willing to communicate with your doctor about your treatment, and explain to you the potential side effects and risks before trying the therapy.
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