Are Supplements Safe to Take With Medications?

Welcome to the weekend!

The topic of this blog is not a simple one, so I have set myself a challenge to simplify it enough to help you make safe assessments as to what you can or cannot do with supplementation when you are also taking a prescribed medication.

Today approximately 50% of the Australian population are on a prescribed medicine and at least 80% are also experimenting with natural medicine based on coffee table suggestions, Dr Google or well meaning friends.  Whilst the two can co-exist quite safely (many research papers available to support this) , there are a few rules to follow if you are going to head off to the super market shelf or health food store, save yourself a few bucks, skip the professional advice on your history, and start self prescribing.  Essentially, understanding what you are taking and how it affects your body is the starting point - it is surprising to know that many patients have no idea on what they are taking, why they are taking it or how it could be creating side effects in their OWN bodies.  The second rule to follow is that before you co prescribe, get the right advice and use high quality ingredients - even the stuff that fills a tablet or is bound to a well meaning nutrient can be the culprit!

Poly pharmacy is common - this is where a person is taking a number of medicines prescribed to counter the side effects of other medicines.  Essentially the 'rules' for medical practitioners is to limit the poly pharmacy of a given patient to no more than 25 medicines!  Whilst that may shock some of you, it is not uncommon to see patients who are commonly and routinely taking at least 8 different medications.

As a Naturopath, this can be a challenging situation to be presented with.  We know (and have solid application in that knowledge) that active ingredients in certain vitamins and minerals, herbs and nutrients can interact with the same pathways that medicines do.  For example, a herb that can support a detoxification pathway can also alter the way the body uses a medicine - it could help clear it faster, increase its activity thereby requiring lower than usual doses or distribute it differently to give a more enhanced outcome.  We are also aware that given that knowledge - the advice to request that the prescribing doctor monitors the dosage and to alter it where necessary along with relative testing is wise.  Essentially as the patient - you are always able to decide when or if you are weaned off medications in order to achieve a better balance to your health, but it should generally always be done with guidance and with a transition program in place.

Often botanical medicines not only offer solutions to your original health concern, but also a wider scope of protection. Herbs like St Mary's Thistle, Turmeric and Passionflower are not only safe to use concurrently with medicines, they can offer a number of supportive benefits with most conditions and medications.

There are many lifestyle circumstances however that can also affect the absorption and utilization of your medicines:

1.  Stomach hydrochloric acid levels - if low (or lowered by medicines), this can greatly effect the way your body absorbs and uses medicines.  Often this overlooked when expected results are not achieved.  Herbs like Gentian, Ginger and even a little apple cider vinegar could be useful here.

2.  Fibre - food based fibres can bind to active ingredients and slow transport which can result in lowered availability of the active ingredients.

3.  Tannins - in tea and red wine predominantly (or anything dark red, blue or purple) - can bind alkaloid drugs commonly used in cardiac medicine.

4.  Dysbiosis - the bacteria in the gut can convert drugs into their active form - a poor balance in gut flora will affect this and many medicines will create or contribute to  dysbiosis.

5.  Transit time - this relates to the time it takes for a substance to move through your digestive system - if it is slow - the drug clearance may be delayed and side effects could increase, if fast - the effects of the drug may be minimized.

To truly know if your medicine is effective, these 5 points do need to be addressed, from there you can better assess if a medicine is working with you or against you.

Remember - it is always recommended to seek medical advice when considering co-prescribing for your condition.  Get the advice from someone who can take both your medical history and your lifestyle history into account and get the best of both worlds!

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