Alternative medicine: General principles

Last updated: Friday, August 10, 2018

1. Herbal medicine

Aloe vera    Courtesy of Simon Wills
Herbalists use plant-derived medicines at doses where true pharmacological effects can occur and can be measured. (This is in contrast to homeopathic medicine.) For example, the herbal product guarana comes from a plant Paullinia cupana which naturally contains large amounts of caffeine so it is taken to produce wakefulness, but it can also produce the side effects of caffeine such as insomnia and anxiety. Conversely, valerian is from the flower Valeriana officinalis and its constituents have CNS depressant actions so it is taken as a sedative. This means it can generate unwanted sleepiness as a side effect and it has even been reported to cause a withdrawal-type reaction after long term use, similar to benzodiazepines.

Herbal products may be administered by various routes. Usually they are taken orally, but Aloe vera, is an example that is commonly applied topically, and mistletoe (Viscum album) is sometimes given by injection.

2. Homeopathic medicine

Homeopathic pharmacy in India      
Courtesy of Jorge Ryan, Wikimedia Commons
The two main principles of homeopathic medicine are that:

  • ‘Like cures like’ – a patient’s symptoms are treated with a substance that could cause the same symptoms but only a tiny dose is used.

  • The more dilute a preparation, the more potent it is.

Plants yield most of the original ingredients in homeopathic medicines, but the solutions used are very, very dilute. Two systems of dilution exist for homeopathic remedies – decimal ('x') and centesimal ('c') – but the strengths 6c and 30c are common. It is worth noting that dilutions of more than 12c or 24x are unlikely to contain any molecules of the active ingredients.

3. Dietary supplements

In the UK, dietary supplements are defined as ‘foods’ in unit dosage form (e.g. tablets, capsules, elixirs) taken to supplement the diet. Most are products containing nutrients normally present in foods. They are used by the body to develop cells, bone, muscle etc., to replace co-enzymes depleted by infection and illness, and to generally maintain good health. In addition to vitamins and minerals, this definition also includes supplements such as garlic and evening primrose oil. Other dietary supplements include: glucosamine which is taken for joint pain, creatine which bodybuilders take in the belief that it builds muscle, and coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) which some people claim treats heart disease and male infertility amongst many other conditions.