Top 5 Pros (and Cons) of Alternative Therapies for Maintaining Heart Health

Meditate on this: Alternative therapies can reduce stress, but they can also lead to serious problems. See more alternative medicine pictures.
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Americans spend billions of dollars on alternative medicine each year. Studies show that at least one-in-three people in the United States has used some form of alternative or complementary treatment (not including prayer for health reasons), whether it be dietary supplements for immune health, colonics for digestive health or yoga for heart health [source: AFP].

Since heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, it makes sense that people would seek out every possible therapy to support their heart health [source: CNN]. There are quite a few alternative therapies out there that claim to ward off heart problems like angina, clogged arteries and heart attacks. The coenzyme Q10 and the plant hawthorn, which contains strong flavonoids, are marketed as treatments for congestive heart failure. Garlic, soy, cholestin and various antioxidants, including beta-carotene, vitamins ­E, C, and B6, and polyphenols (like those in olive oil), have been touted as effective for lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol. There's the amino acid carnitine for general heart health, chelation therapy for atherosclerosis and yoga and meditation to lower blood pressure.

With so many people using these types of therapies in addition to traditional approaches like exercise, surgery and prescription drugs, there must be something to it. And in many cases, there is -- but like most things in life and medicine, there are pros and cons to stepping outside the box to promote heart health.

In this article, we'll look at some of the top reasons to include alternative therapies in your heart-health regimen, and we'll also see why and under what circumstances you might want to think twice.

One of the biggest benefits of certain alternative treatments is the way many of them focus on the mind-body connection, which can easily be neglected in a fast-paced life. So, up first, stress reduction.

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Pro: Stress Reduction

People in Miami Beach, Fl. take a yoga class on the beach to reduce stress.
People in Miami Beach, Fl. take a yoga class on the beach to reduce stress.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's hard to find a downside to practicing meditation, yoga or any other stress-relieving activity that doesn't involve taking a pill or risking overexertion. Stress may feel purely emotional, but it has real physical ramifications. One result that affects the heart has to do with hypertension, or high blood pressure.

When the brain releases cortisol (the "stress hormone"), the heart tenses up, reducing the amount of space available for blood flow. This raises blood pressure, which can ultimately damage the heart's arteries.

While science has yet to declare with utter certainty that alternative medical therapies like yoga and mediation support heart health, these activities definitely reduce stress levels. At the very least, this can't be bad for the heart, and it's most likely very good. Reducing the body's stress response can have a positive effect on blood pressure. It can also reduce the desire to overeat, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, all of which promote heart health when eliminated.

It's important, though, to make a distinction between something like yoga for stress reduction and a stress-reducer in pill form. Yoga is perfectly safe unless you have a medical condition that precludes exercise, while mood-altering supplements may have downsides, which we'll address later in the article. Before we get to the cons, let's talk about a couple more pros, like the way some heart-healthy alternative therapies -- not only yoga but also certain foods -- can also support general health and wellness if you use them properly.

Pro: General Wellness

Antioxidants may improve heart health, but vegetables definitely promote wellness.
Antioxidants may improve heart health, but vegetables definitely promote wellness.
Harrison Eastwood/Lifesize/Getty Images

An alternative treatment like yoga or dance (dance therapy is in the group of creative outlets for stress reduction) has the exercise component that we all need. Some alternative treatments work major muscle groups, an exertion that can help the body supply oxygen to tissue more effectively and keep your weight down. This is good for both the heart and overall health. Cells can do their jobs better when they've got all the oxygen they need. These types of therapies can also improve mood and energy level.

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But what about all the foods you're supposed to eat to help your heart stay healthy? There's plenty of evidence that soy, certain vitamins and antioxidants and various enzymes can benefit the heart. For instance, beta-carotene (found in carrots and other orange vegetables) is often recommended for heart health for its antioxidant effects. Some research shows that eating one cup of carrots every day can decrease the risk of developing heart disease by up to 60 percent [source: WHF].

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­While the scientific jury is still out on whether this effect should be attributed to antioxidants, especially when it comes to using supplements instead of natural antioxidant supplies, eating fresh vegetables has definite health benefits even if those benefits don't come from antioxidants. Vegetables help keep weight down and supply the body with essential nutrients. There's no downside. It's similar with olive oil -- even if the oil's antioxidants aren't the heart heroes, it's still healthy in a conventional way due to its monounsaturated fats, which lower LDL "bad" cholesterol and raise HDL "good" cholesterol.

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­And speaking of olive oil -- a bottle of the good "extra virgin" stuff can cost as much as $15 at the grocery store. That's steep for a bottle of oil, but it's cheap compared to prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Pro: Reduced Cost

Alternative treatments like nutritional supplements are less expensive than most prescription drugs.
Alternative treatments like nutritional supplements are less expensive than most prescription drugs.
Nicholas Eveleigh/Photodisc/Getty Images

Pretty much across the board, alternative medical treatments like acupuncture and dietary supplements are less expensive than conventional treatments like surgery and prescription drugs. While the outcome might not be the same in terms of heart health, there are benefits to using lower-cost therapies to supplement conventional medical treatment.

Take, for example, carnitine, a dietary supplement that may (or may not) help control the symptoms of angina. You can buy a 240-count bottle of carnitine for about $20. The prescription angina drug Ranexa costs about $200 for the same number of pills. If you consider how stressed out people get about money problems, it can start to seem almost counterproductive to go into debt to pay for your heart medication -- almost, but not quite. Still, as an additional protective measure, a low cost and proven-safe supplement can be a good backup in case the Ranexa doesn't work as well as you'd hoped. Beyond heart health, it can be good for overall well-being to feel you're doing all you can while not going broke in the process.

But there's a problem. Because carnitine isn't proven to work, your insurance company won't cover it.

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Con: Insurance Hassles

It's unlikely that your insurance company will approve your acupuncture treatments.
It's unlikely that your insurance company will approve your acupuncture treatments.
Thomas Del Brase/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Most alternative therapies haven't been scientifically proven to the standards of the medical community, let alone to the insurance companies. Health insurance typically doesn't cover the cost of treatments like acupuncture and dietary supplements.

­There's one of two possible outcomes, then, if you choose to go the alternative treatment route: Either you fight the insurance company to get reimbursed, or you pay for it out of pocket. Some insurance companies might cover chiropractic, and some might give you something toward acupuncture if you bother them enough and cause your cortisol levels to skyrocket in the process. In terms of stress, fighting an insurance company is up there with negotiating a mortgage. But it's nearly impossible to get insurance to cover something like nutritional supplements, even if there's pretty good evidence that they work.

The result is that you might end up paying more for a visit to an acupuncturist than you would to see a cardiologist, since the doctor visit is covered by your health insurance. Getting deeply involved in alternative treatments can end up costing you an arm and a leg.

But that's not the biggest problem. By far the most significant con to alternative medicine in general is the potential risk to your health.

Con: Potential Health Risks

If you don't talk to your doctor about what you're taking and doing, it could result in serious health problems.
If you don't talk to your doctor about what you're taking and doing, it could result in serious health problems.
Thomas Barwick/Digital Vision/Getty Images

There's a reason why the FDA regulates drugs. Maintaining a certain standard of safeness minimizes the possibility that a drug will hurt instead of help. First, you may have noticed on every bottle of multivitamins proclaiming it contains, say, selenium for prostate health, it also says that the claim has not been approved by the FDA. Generally speaking, alternative treatments like nutritional supplements don't have to meet the same standards of clinical trials; they go through the approval process for foods, not for drugs. As a result, there are a couple of big issues with, say, a vitamin supplement.

First, there's not always a lot of good evidence proving it works. In most cases, there's plenty of evidence that it's safe to consume. But does coenzyme Q10 really help treat congestive heart failure? The studies have had mixed results. There's just no way to know if a supplement is going to do what it promises.

An ineffective treatment is definitely a problem. A harmful treatment, though, is an even bigger one. Some research has found that men who take too many multivitamins are actually more likely to develop prostate cancer [source: Medical News]. Beyond supplements, even something totally natural like soy can have health risks. While studies show that eating at least 25 grams of soy protein every day can lower LDL cholesterol by 13 percent -- a significant number -- many of those same studies also show that soy can increase the risk of breast cancer [source: AFP]. And just because you don't need a prescription to buy a bottle of pills doesn't mean those pills can't interact negatively with other drugs you're on. If you don't tell your doctor what you're taking, even if it's just a vitamin, you can't be sure you won't end up with a dangerous drug interaction.

Perhaps the most crucial issue to note, though, is the false sense of security that can occur with alternative treatments. Some people think they can stop taking conventional drugs or seeing their medical doctor because a particular alternative therapy is having a good effect. This can be deadly. If you plan on taking that step, talk to your doctor first. It may save your life.

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Sources

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  • Be Skeptical About Alternative Therapies - Lifestyle Changes To Protect Yourself: Heart
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  • Virgin Olive Oil Better for Heart. WebMD Health. Sept. 5, 2006. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/544178