Cardiovascular disease is a threat to the health of Americans – it’s currently the leading cause of death in the United States. Although researchers continue to develop better and better conventional diagnostic tools and therapies, some patients also turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies for relief. Interestingly, one of the reasons for this is that patients today are living longer and falling victim to diseases and conditions that our ancestors never faced. While past generations mostly died from infectious diseases, injury, trauma, and so on, today’s patients may face degenerative diseases, heart disease, cancer, and the like.
Amongst patients with cardiovascular disease, most reported using CAM therapies for ailments not related to their heart problems. Out of a surveyed population of about 10,500 individuals, about 59% had used CAM therapies in addition to their conventional treatments. Ironically, when asked why they had chosen this route, most replied that they felt the combination of the two methods would be most likely to achieve good results. It was as if they were “covering all of their bases” to some extent, and relying upon both the most modern medical advice as well as traditional remedies. More surprising still, most of these patients had not disclosed their use of alternative therapies to their cardiologist or regular physician. Patients can be endangered if they consume products that interact with their regularly prescribed medications.
Because many patients do not disclose their use of alternative therapies to their physician, cardiologists and others who treat patients with cardiovascular disease should be aware that these remedies exist and make an effort to speak with patients about them. The data suggest that the most popular CAM therapies are herbal or other vitamin/mineral supplements taken as dietary additives. For instance, the majority (61%) of patients had used herbal remedies, while the minority had used other mind-body remedies such as meditation or acupuncture.
Most patients seem to believe that herbal or other CAM remedies are completely safe or that they are safer than conventional therapies. Commonly used products include vitamin E, vitamin C, multivitamins, calcium, coenzyme Q10, glucosamine, and vitamin D. Patients need to understand the potential for adverse reactions when their CAM treatments are mixed with conventional therapies, and physicians should also make an effort to discuss CAM therapies with their patients or at least ask about whether patients have tried them. Many consumers do not realize that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regular dietary supplements, and that these products are not rigorously tested for safety or efficacy before hitting the market.
At this time, it is advisable for cardiologists to inquire about their patients’ dietary habits, use of supplements, and overall approach to wellness. If it is discovered that patients will choose to use CAM therapies, the physician can then play an important role in providing advice about safety and efficacy. The most current advice is that patients should consume no more than the recommended dietary allowance of fish oil or a mineral supplement. Staying within the RDA is safest until studies can demonstrate safety at the high levels often used for CAM treatments.