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Biologically Based Therapies

By Steven Rosenzweig, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Drexel University College of Medicine

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Biologically based therapies use naturally occurring substances and include individual biologic therapies (such as using shark cartilage to treat cancer and glucosamine to treat osteoarthritis), diet therapy, herbal medicine, orthomolecular medicine, and chelation therapy. Many biologically based therapies have not been shown to be effective (for example, shark cartilage for cancer).

Diet Therapy

Diet therapy uses specialized dietary regimens (such as Gerson therapy, a macrobiotic diet, and the Pritikin diet) to treat or prevent a specific disease (such as cancer or cardiovascular disorders) or generally to promote wellness. Some diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) are widely accepted and encouraged in traditional Western medicine. The Ornish diet, a very low-fat vegetarian diet, can help reverse arterial blockages that cause coronary artery disease and may help prevent or slow the progression of prostate and other cancers. Some people following a macrobiotic diet have reported cancer remission, but a well-controlled clinical research study has not been conducted.

Because benefits usually take months or years to be realized, diet therapy is more likely to be effective if started early. When beginning a therapeutic diet that involves a dramatically different way of eating, people should receive some expert supervision so that they can avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine or herbalism, the oldest known form of health care, uses plants and plant extracts to treat disease and promote wellness. Either a single herb or a mixture of different herbs can be used. Chinese herbal medicine mixtures can also contain minerals and animal parts. Unlike conventional drugs, in which a single, active chemical may be extracted and isolated, herbal medicine usually makes use of the medicinal plant in its whole form. Common herbal remedies include the following:

  • Garlic

  • Peppermint

  • Chamomile

  • St. John’s wort

  • Ginkgo biloba

  • Valerian

  • Ginseng

Herbal medicines (medicinal herbs—see see Medicinal Herbs and Nutraceuticals) are available as extracts (solutions obtained by steeping or soaking a substance, usually in water), tinctures (usually alcohol-based preparations, with the alcohol acting as a natural preservative), infusions (the most common method of internal herbal preparation, usually referred to as a tea), decoctions (similar to an infusion), pills, powders, and injectables. Some herbal medicines are spread on a moistened cloth and applied to the skin. Potential problems include the following:

  • Impurities: In the United States, the government has very little oversight of herbal products and places few regulations on the industry (see Overview of Medicinal Herbs and Nutraceuticals : Safety and Effectiveness). (In contrast, in the European Union and Australia, government agencies regulate plant medicines as drugs.)

  • Interactions: Some herbal medicines interact with drugs (for example, ginseng causes bleeding when used with warfarin—see see Table: Some Possible Medicinal Herb–Drug Interactions) or foods (for example, St. John’s wort causes dangerously high blood pressure when consumed with aged cheeses, Chianti wine, or other foods high in tyramine).

  • Side effects: Some herbal medicines have side effects (for example, ginseng increases blood pressure, and garlic reduces blood clotting and increases blood sugar) that can be harmful for certain people.

People should tell their doctors all of the herbal medicines that they take. Recent clinical studies of several herbal medicines have shown them to be effective in treating various disorders.

Did You Know...

  • There are many possible, potentially serious interactions between herbal medicines and drugs or foods.

Orthomolecular Medicine

Orthomolecular medicine uses combinations of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids normally found in the body to treat specific conditions and to maintain health. Nutrition comes first in diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes referred to as nutritional medicine, orthomolecular therapy emphasizes supplementing the diet with high-dose combinations of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, hormones (such as melatonin), and amino acids. Dosages often far exceed the amounts normally consumed in the diet.

A common form of orthomolecular medicine is megavitamin therapy, often with doses well above the recommended daily allowances (RDAs). Orthomolecular medicine practitioners contend these RDAs are inadequate to maintain health or to treat disease. While most treatments lack scientific evidence, conventional medicine does use some highly concentrated micronutrients. For example, high doses of antioxidant substances are a conventionally used treatment for delaying the progression of macular degeneration, but recent studies have shown they are not effective in preventing cancer.

Sometimes orthomolecular medicine involves reducing the amount of a natural substance in the body. In certain specific disorders (such as vitamin deficiencies and metabolic disorders), treatments that could be considered orthomolecular are scientifically proven. However, for many uses, orthomolecular methods have no proven benefit and in some cases are potentially toxic.

Chelation Therapy

In this therapy, a drug is used to bind with and remove excess or toxic amounts of a metal or mineral (such as lead, copper, iron, or calcium) from the bloodstream. In conventional Western medicine, chelation therapy is a widely accepted way to treat lead poisoning and other heavy metal poisonings. Copper chelation has been under investigation as a cancer treatment. Chelation therapy with ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is used as a complementary and alternative medicine therapy to remove calcium and thus treat atherosclerosis. The effectiveness and safety of this therapy are currently being evaluated scientifically. Side effects can be serious or rarely fatal.

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