Ask your doctor? Maybe not

The most common recommendation given to people when they are offered information on an herb, a food, or a novel therapy, is “ask your doctor.”

If we are interested in trying out a new antioxidant superfood, acupuncture for pain, or an herb to induce a night’s sleep, we believe we should first make an appointment with a medical doctor and seek their opinion on the matter. Because we accept the conventional medical model of health care, that advice sounds sensible. But is it really?

The answer to this is neither a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ A diabetic interested in changing their eating habits to incorporate healthier foods is probably wise to consult a diabetic specialist who has understanding of how foods may affect blood sugar or may alter the patient’s intake of insulin. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy may find that taking immune-enhancing herbs can actually counteract the activity of their drugs. A good oncologist can offer helpful advice on this.

But beyond a few special needs, most doctors do not know where to start when it comes to recommendations on foods, complementary therapies and herbs. They can’t be blamed- it’s simply not part of their training. Unless a physician elects to study these topics on their own, a patient’s questions regarding a new food, an herbal remedy, or a novel therapy will often be met with a lack of knowledge. The default response by the physician is often “I wouldn’t risk it.”

According to the World Health Organization, plant-based medicines remain the largest category of medicines in use today, exceeding the use of over the counter and prescription drugs globally. Many physicians express safety concerns about the use of herbal remedies, but these concerns appear largely baseless. In 2010, the American Association of Poison Control Centers found not one single death attributed to an herb.  Whereas deaths due to the use of legal prescription analgesic opioids, tranquilizers and sedatives increased by 65% between 1999 and 2006, according to a 2010 study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In a survey of 164 physicians and pharmacists conducted by the Drug and Health Care Bulletin in 2012, respondents described themselves as “very poor” in their knowledge of herbal medicines. The primary reason - confusion over where to go for valid information.

Another survey of physician knowledge of nutrition reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that out of 126 US medical schools, only 32 required a separate nutrition course, out of four years of study. This renders physicians largely incapable of addressing nutritional issues with patients.

Approximately 38 percent of US adults use complementary and alternative medicines, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This means that while a growing number of Americans are embracing acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and other therapies, most physicians remain largely unaware of what these are, how they function, and their benefits.

So when you are given the recommendation to seek the counsel of your doctor regarding the use of various foods, natural therapies and herbs, what makes sense? Going to doctors for valid information remains largely a dead end. But you can find excellent information at:

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

World Health Organization - Traditional Medicine

The American Botanical Council

Alternative Medicine

The Directory Of Alternative and Complementary Practitioners

The times are changing. Physicians are being bombarded by patients with questions about health therapies they do not know. A number of programs are underway to help bring doctors more up to speed on the emerging science of complementary medicine. Even better, some medical doctors have taken the time to become educated about the approach to medicine, and promote themselves as holistic physicians.

But ultimately, when you have a question about food, herbs or other natural therapies, seek the advice of somebody who can actually provide educated answers.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide.  Chris is the author of 14 books, including Hot Plants, Tales from the Medicine Trail, Kava: Medicine Hunting in Paradise, The Whole Food Bible, Psyche Delicacies, and the international best-selling yoga book, The Five Tibetans. Richard Branson features Chris in his new book, Screw Business as Usual. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at