Health is a major concern for everyone. After all, good health is a key measure for assessing one’s overall quality of life.

Prescriptions vs. Alternatives: How to Know What’s Best for Your Health

Perhaps you’ve suffered a recent health crisis or are experiencing more health problems as you age. Your doctor probably responded by prescribing medications and/or recommend some form of surgical or nonsurgical treatment. Meanwhile, family advice-givers and Facebook pop-up ads tout herbal remedies and other alternative treatments for whatever is ailing you.

How do you know which route to take?

As with anything else, begin by learning some basic facts. Let those facts guide your research and inform discussions with your doctor. Weigh the pros and cons. When all is said and done, only you can decide what you think will be best for your health.

First, Understand How a Medication Works and What Happens If You Stop Taking It

Prescription medications are chemical combinations designed to treat the symptoms of a disease or health condition. They have undergone rigorous clinical trials and studies to validate their efficacy before they garnered FDA approval. Still, many prescription meds can become addictive over time, cause serious side effects, or prove problematic when discontinued.

Take, for example, the antipsychotic medication Seroquel. Seroquel works to restrict overactivity by blocking receptors in the brain that dopamine acts upon. Seroquel is often prescribed to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, manic depression, and bipolar disorder.

Due to its serious side effects, many patients would rather stop taking Seroquel and find an effective alternative. However, it’s not that easy. Seroquel withdrawal can be as serious as the side effects. Withdrawal requires careful tapering, adjusting, and ongoing observation.

No one should ever stop taking a prescribed medication without speaking to their doctor first. That discussion should focus on the potential for alternative treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapies, dietary changes, and/or nutritional supplements.

It’s critical to understand how any prescription drug works to control symptoms. Only then can you better understand how some alternatives might be able to do the same.

Consider the Evidence Behind Prescription Medications and Alternatives

Doctors are, first and foremost, scientists. They rely on medications and treatments that have been researched and trialed successfully and have evidence-based documentation of results.

On the other hand, herbal supplements and remedies lack such rigorous research and FDA approval. Evidence of their efficacy in treating certain diseases is anecdotal. There is neither broad evidence that they work nor that they don’t.

This lack of scientific research for alternative medicines is precisely why physicians are largely skeptical of them. If you have a headache, your doctor won’t tell you to take two ginger supplements and call them in the morning. It’s two Tylenol instead.

Long before synthetic chemicals were used to treat symptoms of disease, people treated them with herbal and other natural remedies. These remedies have never stopped being used, and their popularity continues to rise. After all, herbal remedies are less expensive and come without any chemical stigma.

As alternatives become more popular with patients, doctors are confronted with the need to understand them better. They typically preface a conversation about alternative medications with the caveat that their efficacy lacks research. Nonetheless, some will acknowledge anecdotal evidence of results and potential side effects.

When you discuss alternative medicines with your doctor, remember their scientific bent. You can remind your doctor that you’re seeking a better way to treat your symptoms. If they refuse to have the conversation at all, you might need a new doctor.

Full Disclosure Is Required

More and more people are turning to alternative remedies, yet few of them will admit it to their doctor. Some may think those remedies are unrelated to the traditional drugs and treatments they’ve been prescribed. Others may be embarrassed by their desire for alternatives to actually work. Whatever the reason, failing to disclose alternative therapies is a bad idea.

There may be little research on the efficacy of an herbal remedy. However, there has been considerable research on how the properties of certain herbs react with prescription medications. Numerous herbals can render drugs ineffective.

Be warned that using herbal supplements in conjunction with traditional treatments can be deadly. For this reason, full disclosure with your doctor is critical. For example, ginseng, which may raise or lower blood pressure, can lower the efficacy of synthetic blood pressure medication. Ineffective blood pressure medication can lead to stroke.

Some doctors are ill-informed about potential herbal and prescription drug interactions. Be sure to ask your pharmacist to review a complete list of prescription medications, herbal supplements, and over-the-counter drugs you take. Discuss any potential interactions with your doctor.

Herbal supplements, prescription drugs, and OTC medications all interact with each other. The results of those interactions range from mild to deadly. Be sure you understand that combining any of them should be done with caution.

The Best of Both Worlds Might Be the Answer

An all-or-nothing approach to the alternative-versus-traditional medicine debate may not be the best solution. The answer instead may lie somewhere in between.

Integrative medicine is practiced by some licensed physicians who combine traditional medicine with alternative medicine to treat patients. It’s often used for patients with cancer, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia to reduce fatigue, pain, and anxiety.

Treatment may include acupuncture, dietary supplements, meditation, massage, music, and animal therapies. As the name implies, integrative medicine relies on a combination of traditional treatment and alternatives, not one or the other.

Holistic medicine is grounded in the belief that a patient’s mind, body, and spirit must all be addressed. It’s geared toward treating the cause of the disease rather than merely ameliorating the symptoms. It also relies on patients making concerted efforts to heal themselves.

Practitioners of holistic medicine include licensed physicians, doctors of medicine, and doctors of osteopathic medicine. Practitioners may also be chiropractors, naturopaths, and homeopaths. It’s wise to verify that, if a provider isn’t a physician, they are board-certified in holistic medicine. If you’re not sure, don’t be embarrassed to ask for credentials.

These professionals may combine traditional treatments with alternatives including acupuncture and massage therapy. They may also recommend adjustments to diet and nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits. Those who can prescribe drugs may add prescription medications to the mix.

Treating disease and its symptoms organically is attractive to many people. As the popularity of alternative treatments increases, so will the research. The resulting evidence may prompt more doctors to consider alternatives as part of a treatment protocol.

Making informed healthcare decisions is a team effort. It requires a willingness by you and your doctor to do some research and be open to trying new things. Although the anatomy of every illness and disease may be the same, every patient is different. What treatment combination works for you likely will require a little experimentation. But the journey may help you decide whether alternatives, prescriptions, or a combination of the two is right for you.