Alternative medicines are used by 38 percent of American adults and nearly 12 percent of children, according to a large national survey done in 2007 that was released last week by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Natural products were the most popular alternative treatment used by the nearly 24,000 adults and more than 9,400 children interviewed for the survey.
The survey included a general question asking participants whether they had used any herbs, supplements, and other natural products within the last 12 months. It also contained a specific question asking respondents to indicate which products, from a list of 45 possibilities, they had used within the last month.
Because the question was worded as usage within the last month, this could have influenced the final rankings of the top ten products. A remedy, such as echinacea has a seasonal usage, typically during the late fall and winter, and if you responded to the survey in the summer, you might not have used this cold-fighting product in the previous month.
Products, such as fish oil and glucosamine, have year-round uses -- factors that may have led to their respective number one and number two rankings.
Another NCCAM survey done in 2002 was equally large, but did not include children. A few natural remedies that appeared on the top ten list in 2002 but dropped off it in 2007 include St. John's wort, peppermint, ginger, and soy supplements.
A few products appeared on the 2007 top ten list for the first time. They included Coenzyme Q10, flaxseed, and combination herb pills.
Here are the most popular natural products from the NCCAM survey (in order of popularlity), along with advice from some of the leading experts in the field about their use and the research on them.
What it is: These oils, which come from cold water fish, such as sardines and salmon, supply omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil capsules, suggested Dr. Roberta Lee, medical director for the Continuum Center for Health & Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, offer a good way to get a nutritional oil without having to eat barrels of fish. "Omega-3 fats are notoriously under-represented in the diet because of our eating habits," she said.
What it's supposed to do: Fish oils are thought to help the heart and brain, as well as inflammatory conditions. The American Heart Association has recommended taking two to four grams of fish oil capsules a day to help bring down high triglyceride levels. One to three grams daily is the amount Lee advises for her patients with existing cardiovascular disease.
In her practice, she suggests fish oils to people with conditions that have an inflammatory component. This might include rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and lupus. Scientists are also experimenting with the use of fish oils for mental health concerns -- not as a replacement for drugs, but as an adjunct therapy.