Complementary and natural medicines

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

How do you decide?

In a single day, 46% of participants in a recent NPS Medicinewise survey had used a complementary (natural, herbal or alternative) medicine.

But when people take natural, herbal or complementary medicines, they say they are less concerned about scientific evidence than about other factors. So, how do you decide whether to take them or not?

Far from wanting a 'pill for every ill', many people say they'd rather not take conventional medicines because of concerns about side effects, cost or suspicions about whether prescribed medicines are really necessary or effective. While others say "I’d rather not take them, but I don’t have a choice." Do you feel the same loss of control when it comes to complementary medicines?

Another NPS survey found that while 56% of complementary medicine users wanted to know about the medicines’ benefits, only 3% wanted to know about effectiveness. While people listed the advantages as being natural, gentler and helping general health and wellbeing, they also described disadvantages such as not knowing whether or not they work and the cost.

Because they are thought to have fewer side effects, people are often less concerned about the possible side effects of complementary medicines, and are more willing to 'give them a go'. If your symptoms are obvious — like a rash or pain — you should notice a change straight away. But as with any other medicine, if you’re taking something to prevent problems later, it’s much harder to know if the medicine is actually doing its job.

That’s where evidence comes in: and why in the last 20 years ‘evidence-based medicine’ has changed the way the efficacy of medicines are judged. While in the past theoretical benefits or test-tube studies were enough, nowadays prescription medicines have to meet higher standards of evidence — using clinical trials — before they can be sold. But while we expect that high standard for prescribed medicines, the same is not always true for natural products.

Here are some differences between complementary and conventional medicines.

  • Complementary medicines have to meet different standards than prescription medicines. For example, antidepressants must have clinical trial evidence that they reduce symptoms of depression before they can be prescribed. Complementary medicine labels on the other hand can claim that they support ‘mood’ or help with ‘stress’; but it’s your choice what you use them for.
  • There can be variation between complementary medicine products, depending on how the medicine is produced, and even whether its leaves, roots or flowers are used. This makes it harder to judge scientific studies when they are available — because they could be testing very different preparations.
  • Complementary medicines can be advertised directly to consumers — while prescription medicines can’t. You can choose what to take — with or without expert advice.

Whatever you choose, it’s worth looking for reliable information. Let your health professionals know about all your medicines, including natural, herbal and complementary medicines, in case they interact with each other or are not suitable for you.

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What people think about complementary medicines (NPS survey)

Top five advantages Top five disadvantages
‘Natural’ None
Better than taking drugs — fewer chemicals Expensive
Effective, seem to work Lack of research / not clinically tested / no warnings
Help general health and wellbeing Lack of efficacy / not sure it will work / less effective / placebo effect
Don’t have many side effects / are gentle for the body Not enough information / don't know what you are getting

Read more about complementary medicines, clinical trials and how medicines are approved in Australia.

Useful sources of complementary medicines information: