August 12, 2010

Thinking About Natural Supplements for Your Symptoms?

When you go into your local health food store or grocery store, are you overwhelmed by the sheer number of herbal remedies and nutritional supplements on the shelves? If you answered yes, you are in good company. It is apparent that many people are taking supplements these days for psychological symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and insomnia to name a few. But how are they getting their information?

I will start with an important disclaimer. I am a clinical psychologist, trained in using psychological techniques and therapies to help people with a variety of mental health symptoms. I am not trained in the use of herbal or nutritional supplements. I do however, often get asked about supplements to help with anxiety, depression, sleep problems, etc. I have heard many anecdotal accounts in my office of some relief using a host of herbs and supplements. But when asked, I typically will discuss and recommend several of the following resources to get the answers my clients seek:

First stop should be your medical provider, such as your physician or psychiatrist.

Ask your doctor what herbs and nutritional supplements s/he recommends for your particular symptoms. Discuss precautions and potential harmful interactions with the medications you are currently taking. Perhaps your physician will be able to make some recommendations. Perhaps not. Then what?

You can ask your doctor to recommend another health care provider who may know more about herbs and nutritional supplements. Physicians who specialize in homeopathic and alternative medicine, for example, may be available in your community. Clinical nutritionists are another type of professional who have been trained in understanding herbal and nutritional remedies. Some pharmacists have a clinical nutritionist on staff. Getting a recommendation from a professional you trust is probably the safest and most reliable direction to take.

Many people rely on the internet for information, however. They try to figure out which supplements to take for what problem by winding through a maze of internet sites.

But many (if not most) internet sites are designed to sell products for profit rather than educate. They often do not contain safety guidelines, contraindications, or disruptive medication interactions. Again, it is wise to talk to your physician or health care provider before you take any nutritional supplement.
My local healthy grocery store has a large vitamin and supplement reference book on hand and staff ready to answer patrons' questions. While this can be helpful, I prefer to also look for research based advice when it comes to understanding which supplement is good for which symptom. After talking to my medical doctor, I want to know what supplements have been researched in controlled outcome studies and what the research says.
The University of Maryland Medical Center's Complementary and Alternative Medicine Index is a great resource that covers several of the essential bases. Here you can browse specific supplements and herbs and find out how to take them, for what purpose, at what recommended dose, and what the research says.
The UMM site offers an easy to use cross reference tool. For example, you can start with a particular condition, such as depression, and read about various physician prescribed medications as well as herbal and nutritional strategies that have been found to be therapeutic.

Hypericum perforatum, commonly known as St. John's Wort flower
The herb known as St. John's Wort, for example, has been prescribed for mild depression at clinics in Europe for many years now. According to the UMM website:
"Most studies show that St. John's wort may be an effective treatment for mild-to-moderate depression, and has fewer side effects than most other prescription antidepressants. But the herb interacts with a wide variety of medications, so it is important to take it only under the guidance of a health care provider."
You can also use the cross reference tool by clicking on a particular herb or nutritional supplement. What does the UMM site have to say about the omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oils and flax seed oils)?

"Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation."
UMM's alternative medicine site offers supporting research references from peer reviewed journals. It discusses potential complications and interactions with medications. It's a great place to start. But, again, check with your doctor after you do your research and before you take a new supplement.
So what are your preferred sites for researching vitamins, herbs and nutritional supplements?

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