The Risks of Self-Medicating

Acupuncture, Addiction, Chinese Medicine, Drugs, Health & Fitness, Herbs

A few months ago, I received samples of an herbal supplement called kratom in the mail. Apparently, the company was hoping I would carry their product in my office and sell it to patients for pain-related conditions. I had never heard of this herbal remedy and I contacted the company and requested literature and research about it on two separate occasions. They never sent me anything, so when I did my homework, I learned that kratom interacts with the brain’s opioid receptors, is not approved by the FDA, and is quite controversial because of its potentially addictive qualities and other side effects (including nausea, itching, constipation, seizures, hallucinations and so on). Without even passing judgment on the herb itself, the fact that this company targets practitioners like me and expects us to dispense it without any background information is absurd, irresponsible, and completely unethical. It violates the established methodology of clinical trials and centuries of empirical research through which all accepted supplements and medications are investigated and approved. This reckless marketing approach made me think about how alluring the promise of a cure can be to suffering patients or gullible practitioners who desperately want to find a solution.

Herbal supplements and vitamins are not regulated. Because of this, no definitive claims may be made on their medical use or effectiveness. While some of these products are well researched, time tested, and extremely safe, it is still always best to consult with a trusted healthcare professional. Everything has side effects. This goes for any medication or supplement- including Chinese herbs. A good example of this is ephedra, or ma huang. This herb has been used successfully for centuries in very small doses for the purposes of releasing the exterior, dispersing cold and promoting lung qi in Chinese medicine. It opens nasal and bronchial passageways and stimulates the central nervous system, and for centuries has given asthmatics great relief. But misuse has lead to its ban in the US by the FDA. A few decades ago, people began taking it in high doses for sports performance enhancement and weight loss, which caused awful cardiovascular and nervous system side effects, and even some deaths. Consequently, this herb is no longer available to those for whom it might benefit, but products containing ephedra extracts (those that do not contain ephedrine) are still on the market.

In the past, I have had patients confess that they used a Chinese formula a friend gave to them for a self-diagnosed problem. I have also had patients who altered their prescribed dosage of a formula against my advice. This is a mistake: Chinese herbal formulas are created based on specific diagnostic patterns. The only person qualified to ascertain such a qualifying syndrome is a Chinese medical practitioner who understands the nuances of the formula, its appropriate dosage, and the patient’s condition. Otherwise, through self-medicating you might completely miss the mark, causing at best a waste of time and money, and at worst, aggravate whatever condition you may have and cause more harm. This goes for any medication or supplement: be safe and cautious and always consult a trusted healthcare professional and follow the advised dosage.

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