(WOMENSENEWS)–Does Evening Primrose relieve menopausal symptoms or premenstrual stress? Does Ginkgo biloba extract help prevent cognitive decline?

Forty percent of Americans–a majority of them women–spend 10 percent of their out-of-pocket health care dollars on complementary and alternative therapies.

Given the money and hopes pinned on these therapies, their proven benefits were discussed earlier this month as one of the topics at the Women’s Health 2012 conference in Washington, D.C.  The three-day meeting drew a thousand health professionals from around the country and around the world.

Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, based in Gaithersburg, Md., reported on findings from the agency’s large-scale double-blind trials for alternative therapies.  The center is the federal government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine.

Evening Primrose oil, it turns out, has not been any better than a placebo in these trials at relieving menopausal symptoms or PMS. On the benefits of gingko biloba, an extract from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, Briggs was likewise discouraging.

A six-year study of more than 3,000 individuals, found that compared with a placebo, Ginkgo biloba didn’t prevent or even reduce cognitive decline. In fact there were slightly (but statistically insignificant) more cases of dementia among participants who were taking the supplement than among those taking a placebo.

A similar study for the dietary supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, shows that these don’t appear to work any better than a placebo in slowing down the loss of knee cartilage for osteoarthritis patients.

Researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also found that few of the widely advertised dietary supplements live up to their promise.

Some can be harmful. NZU, marketed for morning sickness, should be avoided, especially by pregnant or nursing women. Ingredients are implicated in bladder cancers and fetal risks.

Briggs recommended that patients who use complementary and alternative practices discuss them with a health care provider.

Other findings from her agency’s research:

  • Echinacea is not effective in treating or preventing colds.
  • Black cohosh and red clover are not effective for menopausal hot flashes.
  • Saw palmetto doesn’t help with prostate problems.
  • Shark cartilage is not effective against cancer.
  • Cranberry juice doesn’t prevent recurrent urinary tract infection.

But the official research center also highlights remedies that do seem to be working.

With more than 10 years of scientific research to back her up, Briggs told her audience that, "Tai chi, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, massage and hypnosis can be effective in managing pain, anxiety and fatigue."

 Some of the therapies may work, she said, but not always in ways that were expected. Scientists found, for instance, that acupuncture has a positive effect whether the needles were placed on the correct meridians or merely nearby. How could this be?

"Acupuncture and hypnosis both involve a ritual that changes expectations, and in the process, they do dramatic things to brain chemistry," Briggs said, adding, "Expectation really will change how your body experiences pain."

She went on to say that for at least one-third of the population, hypnosis can be predicted to help substantially with pain.  "It’s underutilized," she pointed out, "partly because there aren’t a lot of people who have become doctors who also want to become hypnotists."

Briggs said that successful alternative therapies have a way of winning acceptance. "Breast feeding was not recommended in the 1950s, and even in the 1960s," she said, "Lamaze was considered an alternative medicine. Today these are mainstream."

Mitzi Perdue is a Maryland-based writer and former syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. She is the founder of Healthy U of Delmarva, an organization that works to encourage community-wide healthy lifestyles.

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