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Report co-author Richard Nahin of the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine offered cautionary advice on the topic.
People taking herbal and other supplements should let their doctor know what they're using, said Nahin, acting director of the center's branch that oversees outside research the agency funds.
Supplements and other alternative treatments don't require rigorous testing and government approval. They also can interfere with prescription drugs, and combined, can be life-threatening in rare cases, Nahin said.
His agency also conducts its own research on alternative medicine and offers information about some of the most popular products at its Web site, http://www.nccam.nih.gov/.
For example, echinacea is sometimes used for colds and flu. The agency Web site says evidence is mixed on whether it is effective, although one rigorous federally funded study found the herb worked no better against colds than placebo treatment. Echinacea can cause gastrointestinal upsets and allergic symptoms in people with ragweed allergies, the NIH site notes.
Valerian, the herb the Birleffis have used for insomnia, has been shown in some studies to help people sleep better, but evidence from well-designed research is lacking, the agency says. Using it for several weeks is generally thought to be safe, but long-term effects are unknown.
There's scant Western research on fritillary bulb remedies, the ancient Chinese herbal medicine that the Kemp family uses for colds. A test sample examined in a recent Chinese study found elevated amounts of cadmium, a heavy metal linked with cancer.
In December, an American Academy of Pediatrics task force report unrelated to the economic downturn noted that increasing numbers of children are using alternative remedies. It advised pediatricians to get more familiar with some of these treatments and to talk to parents about them.
On the Net:
National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine: http://www.nccam.nih.gov/
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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