Using complementary medicines

Complementary medicines are used by many people, but they still need to be used with care. Read how you can use complementary medicines safely.

Many people like to use complementary medicines, which include:

  • natural and herbal medicines
  • alternative or holistic remedies
  • traditional remedies
  • homeopathy
  • aromatherapy oils
  • vitamins and minerals (although these can be part of medical treatment too).

Like all medicines, complementary medicines can have benefits, side effects, cause allergic reactions, and may interact with prescription medicines, so they still need to be used with care.

Be open with your health professional

As with all medicines, tell your health professional about any complementary medicines you are taking — that way you can avoid potentially harmful interactions with your prescription or pharmacy medicines.

Health professionals know many people use complementary therapies. They may not be convinced that all of them are effective, but they will appreciate knowing about any you are taking.

Keeping a Medicines list will help you remember all the medicines you are taking.

Effectiveness of complementary medicines

Most complementary medicines do not have to go through testing in the same way that prescription and pharmacy medicines do before they can be sold in Australia. Compared with prescription and pharmacy medicines, complementary medicines undergo less testing in general, so less is known about their effectiveness, side effects and interactions.

Manufacturers of complementary medicines sold in Australia still have to comply with quality and safety standards for their products and have some evidence to back up their claims. For more information on the Government rules for complementary medicines sold in Australia, see the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s The regulation of complementary medicines in Australia – an overview webpage.

Some complementary medicines have been tested in good quality scientific trials to show that they are effective, but most have not.

One complementary medicine that has been tested is fish oil: scientific trials have shown that fish oils high in EPA and DHA lower triglycerides and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (i.e. the good cholesterol) and they are recommended for people with high triglyceride levels.

Get more information on fish oil (one source of omega 3 oils) from the Australian National Heart Foundation.

Sometimes complementary and prescription medicines don’t mix well

St John’s Wort is an example of a complementary medicine that can interact with many prescription medicines. Make sure you tell your health professional if you are taking St John’s Wort so you can avoid interactions with your other medicines.

In most of its interactions, St John’s Wort makes the other medicine less effective. This is the case with:
  • birth control pills
  • warfarin and other medicines used to thin the blood
  • epilepsy medicines
  • digoxin, a medicine used for heart conditions
  • HIV medicines
  • chemotherapy medicines
  • medicines used to prevent rejection after an organ transplant.

St John’s Wort may interact with some antidepressants and increase the risk of side effects.

St John’s Wort has shown some benefit in clinical trials for mild depression, but not for more severe depression. Make sure you talk to your health professional if you think you are depressed so you get the best treatment for your situation.

Like all medicines, St John’s Wort can also have side effects. The most common side effects of St John’s Wort include dry mouth, dizziness, diarrhoea, nausea, increased sensitivity to sunlight, and fatigue.

Know the dose you are taking

Many complementary medicines are available in a variety of strengths and they may often contain several active ingredients. It can be difficult to work out what is the best option or to compare alternative brands.

If you are choosing a medicine, obtain as much information about the medicine and its use as you can, and read the label so you know the active ingredients it contains and the amount of each.

Also keep in mind that if you change from one brand of a complementary medicine to another, it may contain a higher dose of the active ingredients. This may mean it has a stronger effect on your prescription medicines and may trigger an interaction that you did not have before.

Seek advice

It is best to seek advice from a qualified person when choosing a complementary medicine. Seek advice about suitable brands or formulations, how much to take, how often to take the medicine, and what side effects and interactions to look out for. Ask if there will be any effect on your other prescription or pharmacy medicines.

Where to find good information on the internet

There are thousands of websites providing information about complementary medicines. However, many of these are designed to sell products and the information they provide is often not reliable.

Some good websites with information about complementary medicines include:

For more information