Is your good health worth the risk of DIY?

As a naturopath, I am frequently asked questions about this supplement or that diet for the benefit of a particular health condition. Or I will have a new naturopathic client who comes in with a bag full of potions and tablets they have bought from a website, perhaps tried, but still they are unwell.

In fact I had a conversation along these lines just this week. It went as follows:

This gentleman rang to ask if I carried a particular nutritional supplement in my naturopathic dispensary. I did. He said he wanted to come in to get some. I asked if he had a prescription from his health provider. He didn’t; so I politely informed him that I was not prepared to dispense said medicine without a consultation. He was a little taken aback.

You see, in his mind this was a natural supplement. He had read somewhere that it might be helpful for his (very serious!) condition and he wanted to give it a go. He didn’t know if he actually needed it (a plant may need water but not too much) and he didn’t know how to assess whether it was achieving the desired outcome.

I explained that, as a naturopath, if I dispense something to you I am ethically obliged to ensure that:

  • there is evidence that it is needed
  • that it is not going to conflict with anything else you might be taking and
  • that it is monitored to ensure there are no serious adverse reactions and that it actually achieves the desired result.

In other words, in order to ensure my clients get the best possible outcome for their circumstances I need to make a full assessment of their current health, medications, past health history and even family health. This will include extensive questioning and probably, assessments of pathology tests. I will be drawing on my qualifications, years of experience and ongoing training. If I don’t do this I am doing my clients a disservice.

How would you know what was needed, how much was needed and for how long?

Sure I could have taken the money for the supplement and sent him on his way but I was not prepared to do that. My duty of care far outways my desire for cash flow. So, he went off to find a health food shop so he could DIY his health.

Sir William Osler famously said

“The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient”

but could the same thing be said for the patient who treats himself?

If you really want to DIY your health, at least do this…

  • Don’t just blindly accept any information from any source. I encourage you to take an interest in your health and take ownership of it.
  • Find a trustworthy source (check their credentials) and ask LOTS of questions. This will help you understand why you might need to take some form of treatment (pharmaceutical or natural) and what to expect from taking it.
  • Be wary about following the advice of someone who has “cured themselves” of what you think might be your problem and then gone on to write a blog or book about it. They may well have successfully resolved their health issue and that’s great. But is it your health issue? It might sound similar or have similar symptoms but your issue might be very different or might have a different underlying cause. And even if it is your health issue do you have the exact same genes, history, diet and lifestyle to be able to replicate their results?
  • If someone tells you (or you read somewhere) that magnesium (for example) might be helpful for you, find out what form of magnesium, how much you need to take, when you need to take it (the timing of the dose) and whether you should be taking it alone or in conjunction with other nutrients. Don’t just go and buy any magnesium and expect to get the desired result. There are hundreds of different formulations and they potentially do slightly different things. The same applies to most natural supplements.
  • Seek out supplements of the highest quality. That means they have been manufactured in accordance with good manufacturing practices (GMP) and the ingredients are fresh and unadulterated. A recent study identified that 40% of fish oil on our retail shelves is oxidised (which basically means it’s rancid…yuk!) and that can do you more harm than good.
  • Beware of buying supplements from overseas. I am frequently seeing reports of products imported from overseas which have substitutions of key ingredients or other hidden ingredients. Quality standards may not meet the high standards of Australian products. You need to make sure you are getting exactly what you asked and paid for.
  • Be confident of the diagnosis. Don’t guess or assume a diagnosis just because your symptoms are similar to something you’ve read on the internet.

BUT when we live in a world of DIFM why would you DIY your most valuable asset?

These days there is someone ready to Do It For Me for just about every task you can imagine.

We can get a week’s worth of meals delivered so we don’t have to cook. We can get groceries delivered at the press of a button. We can get a driver to take us to our destination. We can get a bike-rider to deliver a meal. We have access to cleaners, dog-walkers, handymen (who actually own tools and know how to use them), women who’ll paint our nails, men with lawnmowers and flat-pack assemblers.

I have no great issue with this (although I do worry that we might be gradually losing some important life skills).

If you have the disposable income and you can make better use of the time it gives you, then by all means outsource these aspects of your life to the experts who can do a better job than you.

Your health is arguably your most valuable asset. (If you are unwell, or know someone who lives with illness, you’ve probably worked that out already). So, I would argue it is worth getting the help of someone who has the qualifications, experience and knowledge to help you get the result you’re looking for. I struggle to understand why some people think they can work out the problems with their health by playing Dr Google or taking advice from a well-meaning friend or family member.

Perhaps people DIY their health because they are disillusioned with their past experience of health professionals. I hear this a lot. If this is the case then I would encourage you to keep looking. You need to find the right person for the job and that means you need to like them and trust them which means you will probably need to feel listened to and respected. We all look for something different in our healthcare provider so what’s good for me may not be good for you but keep looking until you find the person with whom you click.

If the reason you DIY your health is money then I encourage you to have that conversation with your healthcare provider. There are often alternatives that can help reduce the cost. (Think of it as getting to the same destination via a different path). For starters, dietary and lifestyle changes can be very cost effective and reduce the need for expensive supplements.

Am I biased? Absolutely!

Of course I’m biased. No question. I’m a health care provider and it is no secret I make my living assisting my clients to achieve their health goals. I’m comfortable with being paid for my services, otherwise I couldn’t afford all the courses and conferences I attend to keep my knowledge current. (They’re expensive and I don’t have the luxury of an employer to pay for them on my behalf).

So, what about DIFM?

I don’t want you to DIFM your health either. I’m not a fan of you simply taking a passive role in your health and just doing what you’re told without question (although it would make my job easier).

Nobody knows your health story as well as you do. You will get the best outcomes when you are actively involved. (But sometimes fresh, trained eyes see things you might have overlooked. Even after numerous sessions and extensive questioning, I still learn new nuggets of information about you that help me put together your health jigsaw puzzle for you).

So I think the best approach is the Do It WITH Me strategy. This is one where you and your healthcare provider work together towards the common aim of improving your health.

I know that there will still be people who want to DIY their health but please think carefully about it and tread cautiously. Afterall, you are not some inexpensive flat pack that can be assembled with the help of a YouTube video and an allen key!

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