By Pam McGaffin

Darin Bunch encounters it all the time when he sits down with new patients. While assessing their health histories, he will find out they’re taking unnecessary or even potentially harmful dietary supplements.

"I’ve seen people who are on ten to 15 different supplements that are all self-prescribed," said Bunch, an acupuncturist and master of Chinese medicine at Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center.

"They get their information from books, off the Internet or from health-store clerks," he said. "They do not want to spend the money to see a naturopath, Chinese herbalist or other trained professional, but they’re probably spending more in the long run."

Bunch’s advice is to consult with a professional trained in the use of vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements before you buy.

"I think a lot of people will say, ‘It’s from a plant. It’s natural. It can’t hurt me,’" he said. “But herbal medicine is very potent and quickly gaining recognition in Western culture. What’s right for one person may not be right for another. In fact, some prescription medicines and supplements can be harmful when mixed together or misused.”

Lay people can’t possibly learn about all the herbs and their synergistic effects, Bunch added. Naturopathic physicians and Chinese herbalists spend years studying them.

Naturopathic medicine, which is older than modern Western medicine, uses herbs, food and dietary supplements to improve health and help the body’s natural ability to fight illness and disease. Chinese medicine is based on thousands of years of practice and experience.

At Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, Bunch works alongside naturopathic physicians, mind-body social workers and oncologists. "We have team huddles every morning to discuss treatment regimens and to decide which integrated therapies and strategies will work best for the patient," says Bunch.

Before prescribing an herbal formula, Bunch will do an extensive assessment of the patient, asking questions, observing and gently pressing on tender areas of the body. Prescriptions are reassessed in follow-up visits and changed if needed to ensure continued results.

In addition to consulting with a professional, Bunch suggests people who are looking into supplements consider the following:

  • Too much of a good thing can be harmful if you’re not deficient. Many people take multiple Chinese or Western supplements containing many of the same herbs. As a student looking for an energy boost, Bunch once tried Korean ginseng on the advice of supplements salesperson. He didn’t sleep for a week.

  • Your body may not need that fistful of supplements for memory, sleep, pain and colon cleansing, Bunch says. Even a single multiple vitamin may give you more than you need. Pills, much as we love them, are not one-size-fits-all.
    Be sure to tell your health care providers about everything you are taking to avoid dangerous drug interactions.
    If your general practitioner seems skeptical about herbal supplements, remember that he or she didn’t receive extensive training in herbal medicine. There is, in fact, a tremendous body of supporting research out of Europe and Asia, Bunch says.

  • Ask questions and seek advice from a qualified naturopathic physician, Chinese herbalist or other professional trained in Western herbal medicine or Chinese medicine.

  • Know what you’re buying. Supplements, which don’t require approval by the Federal Drug Administration, vary in quality and potency. The herbal medicines Bunch uses are standardized and batch tested to make sure they contain no fillers or mercury, lead, herbicides, pesticides and other potentially harmful contaminants.

  • Try to eat a varied diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables to get most of the nutrients you need.

"It’s wonderful that people have an interest in natural remedies and supplements," Bunch says. "CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) is serious medicine and it is here to stay, but people should be sensible about it and entrust a qualified professional."

Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center is an affiliate of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a network of hospitals that integrate oncology with complementary and natural therapies. For more information, call (206) FOR HOPE (367-4673) or visit www.seattlecancerwellness.com.

Pam McGaffin of Moore Ink. PR, writes articles about important health, family and community issues for non-profit organizations.