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Alternative medicine: What's safe, what's not and what actually works

Posted January 1, 2019 5:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 2, 2019 2:26 p.m. EST

Americans spend billions each year trying alternative treatments for aches and pains, sleepless nights and more.

While some alternative medicine practices work, some don't. Some are even dangerous.

Sometimes mainstream medicine doesn't offer the best fix for chronic pain, stress and insomnia. Evidence shows alternative treatments including meditation, yoga and tai chi can help with chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia.

"A lot of people do yoga to relax or to promote flexibility or because they enjoy it," said Lauren Friedman, a health editor with Consumer Reports. "But there is actually evidence that regularly practicing yoga can help ease depression, can help with low back pain and can even reduce blood pressure."

For stress, mindfulness techniques, including yoga, certain forms of meditation and deep breathing, may help.

For those suffering from sleep problems, melatonin might not be the answer. There is evidence that the hormone, often used as a sleep supplement, can help with specific issues like jet lag and shift work but may have minimal effects for insomnia.

Before reaching for pill or vitamin bottles, try a more natural remedy.

"The first thing you do shouldn't be pills or something like melatonin," said Friedman. "But there is something you can try called cognitive behavioral therapy. And that's something that can help you disrupt poor sleeping habits and set you on a better course to healthier sleep."

Self-motivated cognitive behavioral therapy aims to improve mental health by improving emotions and developing personal coping strategies

While these alternative treatments can help, there are many others that have no proof of working.

Some, like kratom, can even be dangerous.

Promoted as a safe pain reliever, experts say the supplement, which comes from leaves that contain mind-altering compounds, could be as addictive as opioids and have been linked to at least 44 deaths.

Above all, do your research, be choosy about alternative health practitioners and consider how much they could cost you.

Experts say, with alternative treatments, the more serious the problem, the more cautious you should be. Before trying any new plan, talk to your doctor first.