Complementary and alternative therapies | CATIE - Canada's source for HIV and hepatitis C information

Hepatitis C: An In-Depth Guide

Complementary and alternative therapies

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) covers a number of practices that people use in addition to the care they get from their doctor or healthcare worker.

Complementary and alternative therapies look at health from all aspects of a human being.

Different types of CAM look at the whole person and see if there are ways to improve general well-being. People can often feel better about their health, even if CAM cannot cure them of a disease.

Some examples of CAM are:

  • massage therapy
  • aromatherapy
  • acupuncture
  • traditional Chinese medicine
  • North American Aboriginal healing traditions
  • naturopathic  medicine
  • homeopathy
  • vitamin and mineral supplements
  • herbs and medicinal teas

Two herbal supplements popular among people with hepatitis C are milk thistle (silymarin) and licorice root. Studies of how well these supplements work are ongoing.  At present, no scientific evidence has clearly proven that these remedies affect the course of liver disease.

Some people with Hep C consider CAM because they think it will help them manage side effects from treatment or because treatment isn't working for them. Some believe that CAM might help cure the hepatitis C infection. Currently, there is no scientific proof that this is true.

In any case, it is important to be careful when taking herbal or “natural” therapies and to talk to a healthcare provider before starting  CAM.  Herbal remedies, vitamins and mineral supplements should be used with care and only with the go-ahead from a doctor. People can also consider visiting a doctor who specializes in naturopathic medicine. Naturopathic doctors are trained in herbs, vitamins and mineral supplements, medicinal teas and homeopathy. The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND) has information on regulated naturopathic doctors across Canada. Call the CAND at 1-800-551-4381 or go to www.cand.ca.

Some benefits of CAM

CAM certainly has some benefits. Most complementary and alternative therapies look at health from all aspects of a human being—physical, spiritual and emotional health. They provide options and opportunities for people to explore new meaning of health. Because hepatitis C is often a chronic infection, having the ability to make decisions about complementary medicine can give people some control over their infection.

CAM: What to be careful about

The main limitation with CAM is that not all of its therapies are very well researched.

Always check with a healthcare provider before taking any herbal or “natural” medicine.

Some of the herbal remedies that are available may be dangerous to the liver and other organs and should be avoided. Here is a list of some herbal preparations that can seriously damage the liver when a person has Hep C:

  • Artemesia
  • Atractylis gummifera
  • Bush tea
  • Callipsis laureola
  • Chapparal leaf (Larrez, tridentate, Larrea)
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinalis)
  • Crotalaria
  • Germander
  • Gordolobo herbal tea
  • Heliotropium
  • Jin-Bu-Huang
  • Kava (Piper methyoticum; not legal for over-the-counter use in Canada)
  • Kombucha (tea)
  • Ma-Huang (Ephedra sinicz; ephedra)
  • Margosa oil
  • Mate (Ilex paraguayensis; Paraguay) tea
  • Mistletoe (Viscum)
  • Pennyroyal
  • Sassafras
  • Senecio aureus
  • Skullcap (Scaletaria baicalensis)

Some CAM therapies can also interact with Hep C medications. This is especially true for several herbs. For example, St. John’s wort, an herb used to treat depression, may cause problems with boceprevir and telaprevir.  Herbal medications can also interact with other medications, both over the counter and prescription.

In Canada, natural products, such as herbs, vitamins and traditional medicines, have to be assessed and licensed by Health Canada before being marketed for sale. The natural products that are determined to be safe and effective, when taken in the recommended way, and of high quality are given a licence. Licensed natural health products can be identified by an eight-digit Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on the label.

For more information of the regulation of natural health products in Canada, see Regulation of Natural Health Products.

People may offer to get herbal or “natural” medicines from other countries—be very careful. It may be difficult to know the quality of the herb, as there may be no regulations in place to monitor their production and sale in the originating country. Also, not taking the right dosage or amount could make someone really sick.

Acupuncture is used by some people to help stimulate the flow of energy or chi/Qi and has been used to treat issues like fatigue or aches and pains. One caution with acupuncture is that sharing acupuncture needles can be a risk for transmission of Hep C and other infections such as HIV or Hep B. All acupuncture needles should be used only once and disposed of safely in a sharps container. So make sure that the acupuncturist has a good reputation and follows infection control procedures before receiving any treatment. 

Revised 2014.

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