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Non-drug and natural health remedies are back in fashion. Their efficacy may be debatable but there is no doubt about their rising popularity.
"Some 36% of adults in the US use some form of complementary and alternative medicine said a 2004 study."
How effective are so-called natural health supplements and remedies from both the East and the West?
Many Asians swear by ginseng, for instance, while exotic names like St John's wort and echinacea hail from the West.
Western-trained physicians and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners mayor may not see eye to eye on their health-giving claims.
However, confidence in the efficacy of these mostly plant-based remedies is rooted in folklore. After all, nature holds the secrets to good health, it is said.
Since their early discovery, the roots of the wild ginseng plant have been conferred extraordinary healing powers. The snow lotus, found on the remote slopes of the eastern Himalayas, has near mythical medicinal "powers".
In the West, long before the Europeans stepped onto the North American continent, Native Americans had acquired an extensive knowledge of healing herbs.
In modern times, with mass production and the marketing of synthetic drugs, pharmacognosy began to fall out of fashion. Pharmacognosy is the study of drugs that come from plants.
Ironically, helped by marketing, the herbal way to health is back in fashion and business appears to be booming. However, the US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, states that it is vital for consumers to know that just because an herbal supplement is labeled "natural" does not mean it is safe or without any harmful effects. For example, the herbs kava and comfrey have been linked to serious liver damage.
It is also important to consult one's doctor before using an herbal supplement, especially if one is taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Some herbal supplements are known to interact with medications in ways that cause health problems.
Health supplement dealers are, however, advised to comply with the guidelines for health supplements.
HSA's working definition of "health supplement" is that of a product that is used to supplement a diet, with benefits beyond those of normal nutrients, and/or to support or maintain the healthy functions of the human body.
A health supplement can contain substances derived from sources including non-human animal and botanical material. While their efficacy may be vehemently debated, their popularity is not in doubt. Some 36 per cent of adults in the US use some form of what is called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), said a 2004 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The US National Institutes of Health also advises those who wish to take a herbal or botanical product to first consult a doctor. Like drugs, such herbal or botanical preparations have chemical and biological activity and may cause side effects or interact with certain medications leading to problems.
In Singapore, pharmacies and health shops sell supplements from crushed pearl powder for the complexion to horny goat's weed capsules for male virility.
Many parents also make their children take natural supplements regularly - to boost their immune system brain power, or just to keep them in general good health.
Madam Agnes Fong, a 47-year-old housewife and a mother of two teenagers, regularly boils ginseng tonic for her family to keep them "in the pink of health".
She said: "Sometimes, I also buy royal jelly for the kids and my husband. However, I can't buy it too often because it's expensive."
Mr Wu Yue, a TCM physician at Raffles Chinese Medicine, said that Asian ginseng has "warming" qualities while the American variety is "cooling". He added that ginseng has many benefits, including the ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, strengthen one's immune system and improve one's mental agility.
However, he cautioned that people with certain medical conditions such as insomnia and high blood pressure should consult a TCM physician about consuming Asian ginseng as "an overdose may lead to serious side effects such as stroke".
Dr Phuah Huan Kee, a senior consultant at Singapore Baby and Child Clinic, said that children who have a healthy diet generally do not need to take vitamin or health supplements.
He said: "Supplements like spirulina and royal jelly are touted as,having the ability to improve one's health or build up the immune system but there is no convincing scientific evidence to support this yet."
Dr Phuah said that to boost a child's mental development, it is better for parents to spend quality time interacting with him. They should also cultivate healthy eating habits in their children.
He said: "Encouraging children to consume a variety of foods rich in vitamins, minerals and omega oils is better than relying on supplements."
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