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Some Herbals Aren't Worth Beans for Treating Parkinson's

Popular alternatives can be dangerous or ineffective, say doctors

MONDAY, Sept. 10 (HealthDayNews)-- Young Parkinson's patients searching for ways to help stay active are more likely to turn to alternative treatments than older Parkinson's patients, new research shows.

But doctors say experimenting with unproven remedies could mean trouble.

For instance, one dietary supplement, made from fava beans and popular among Parkinson's patients, can lead to an overdose problem if combined with a prescribed Parkinson's medication, says Dr. Robert G. Feldman, a professor of neurology, pharmacology and environmental health at Boston University.

Fava bean supplements contain levodopa or L-dopa, a substance that's converted in the brain to dopamine, a potent brain chemical that controls motor movement.

Parkinson's patients' brains don't produce enough dopamine, and that leads to the muscle stiffness and tremors associated with the disease.

Doctors commonly prescribe L-dopa, but each person needs a precise amount. Too much can lead to side effects and overdosing, Feldman says.

"Anybody who tries alternative medicine should discuss it with their treating neurologist, because sometimes the alternative medications are going to interfere with other drugs being taken. A lot of people try supplements secretly because they think their treating physicians will not approve," Feldman says.

Johns Hopkins University researchers found 40 percent of the 201 people with Parkinson's they interviewed used alternative treatments, about the same as in the population at large.

Sixty percent of people under age 45 with Parkinson's -- considered young for the disease, which mainly strikes the elderly -- used alternative treatments, the study found.

College graduates were twice as likely to use alternative treatments as those who didn't graduate from college, and married people were 2.7 times as likely to use alternative treatments as single people.

"We found the use of alternative treatments is not related to the severity of the disease. The patients turning to alternative treatments tend to be younger, married and better educated," says lead study author Dr. Stephen Reich, associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Of those who used alternative treatments, 58 percent did not talk to their doctor beforehand. The findings appear in the Sept. 11 issue of Neurology: the journal of the American Academy of Neurology. .

"While the public generally assumes that vitamins and herbs are safe, a rapidly growing number of studies shows that they can have potentially harmful effects and interactions with other drugs," Reich says.

About 26 percent reported using two treatments, 33 percent reported using more than two and 12 percent said they used five or more. The most common alternative treatments included massage therapy, relaxation techniques and magnets.

Among vitamins and herbs, vitamin E was most commonly used, despite rigorous tests that have shown it doesn't help Parkinson's symptoms or retard the progression of the disease, Reich says. Parkinson's is a progressive disease of the central nervous system that affects more than 1 million people in the United States.

"What this study tells us is we need to learn more about the alternative therapies people are trying. Are they effective? If not, we need to discourage their use. We know people are throwing away a lot of money on things that don't work," Reich says.

What To Do

If you're tempted to take herbals and other treatments for your disease, talk with your doctor first.

To read more about Parkinson's disease or to find local support groups, check Harvard's set of links at Parkinson's Web or the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

SOURCES: Interviews with Robert G. Feldman, M.D., professor of neurology, pharmacology and environmental health, Boston University, Mass. and Stephen Reich, associate professor of neurology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore; Sept. 11, 2001 Neurology
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