One of the reasons why it's difficult to answer with a simple 'yes' or 'no' is because there is such a great variety in natural therapies that are available. So-called miracle supplements and standardised herbal products that have successfully treated conditions in research trials are worlds apart in terms of their effectiveness, yet they are both lumped together in the same category as natural therapies.
It's often said that there's not enough evidence to support the use of natural therapies and that natural therapies are not evidence-based but some specific natural therapies are indeed supported by scientific research – it's just a question of knowing which therapies are more likely to be effective for you, or seeing a natural therapist who does.
A question of quality
When it comes to working out whether a natural therapy is effective, you must take into account the quality of natural therapy product, the ingredients it contains, and even the practitioner or health professional who might be prescribing it.
Practitioners of natural therapies often prescribe what are known as practitioner-only products. These products are not available for purchase by the general public and are prescribed following an appointment with a health practitioner such as a qualified naturopath.
Often (but not always) practitioner-only products are of better quality than the over-the-counter natural therapy products that might be available at your local chemist or supermarket. Practitioner-only products often contain higher amounts of specific ingredients and may be supported by scientific research.
Some practitioner-only companies also go as far as getting the ingredients for a particular product from the same region, for example sourcing herbs that are grown on the same farm year after year. Rather than switching between suppliers based on the cheapest price, this helps to ensure that each batch of products is as consistent and effective as possible.
While the same or similar ingredients may be found in some over-the-counter products, the doses of these ingredients may not be effective, they may be of poorer quality, not as well absorbed by the body or extracted or stored in a way that decreases their effectiveness.
The issue of evidence
Looking at the effectiveness of natural therapies always raises the issue of evidence. There are many different types of evidence that can support whether a therapy is effective or otherwise.
The World Health Organization recognises that scientific research is an important part of measuring the effectiveness of natural therapies, however they also takes into account traditional and historical use, for instance specific herbs used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine.
The gold standard when it comes to high quality scientific evidence is tightly controlled trials, called randomised controlled trials. In an ideal world we would have access to a great amount of research and clinical trials on natural therapies that are conducted well and without bias, but unfortunately because of the huge costs involved with research, this is unlikely to occur in the near future.
Don't go it alone
It's very common for people to self-prescribe natural therapies. Self-prescribing means you work out for yourself what you should use and manage it on your own without the help or supervision of a health professional.
There are many reasons why self-prescribing is not the best option, but one of them is that without the knowledge and support of a qualified natural therapist, you're more likely to use therapies that aren't effective or backed by research – wasting your money, effort and time.
Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella illustrates the drawbacks of going it alone with an example:
Recent research on menopause found that out of a large group of women in Australia, the second-most used natural therapy was self-prescribed evening primrose oil for the treatment of hot flushes. Unfortunately for these women, and completely unknown to them, another piece of research found that evening primrose oil is no better than taking a dummy pill for the treatment of hot flushes. There are natural therapies that are effective and evidence-based for the treatment of hot flushes, but evening primrose oil is not one of them.
Good questions to ask
Before taking a natural therapy, have a discussion with your natural therapist about the available evidence of effectiveness. Some good questions to ask are:
- Do clinical trials exist?
- Is the use of this medicine based on traditional knowledge or historical use?
- What is the most effective dose for me?
- What are the potential side effects?
- Are there interactions with any of the medications I am currently taking?
This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at June 2016.