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A third of Americans use alternative medicine

Story highlights

  • Complementary medicine includes fish oil, yoga and deep breathing
  • Most use alternative medicine to help with sleep problems, upset stomach or chronic pain

(CNN)About a third of Americans seek help for their health in a place that is outside their doctor's office.

That's according to two new studies from the National Institutes of Health.
    Fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, deep breathing, chiropractors and yoga were among some of the alternatives Americans use to feel better.
    Most Americans who use these nontraditional approaches do so as a complement to conventional care. Only about 5% of Americans use alternative medicine solely.
    The data comes from the National Health Statistics Report. This is a survey the government does to look at the health habits of a representative sample of the United States. They talked to over 89,000 American adults and over 17,000 children between the ages of 4 and 17 years old.
    People seek this extra help to relieve pain from chronic conditions, to improve their health overall, and to relieve stress.
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    Something's fishy

    Fish oil is the most common natural product taken by children and adults. Some 7.8% of adults used it in 2012. That's an increase from 4.8% in 2007.
    Fish oil is thought to lower the risk of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans.
    In a nonscientific study of this reporter's Facebook page, friends and colleagues said they took fish oil supplements to avoid having to take cholesterol medication or because their father who had heart problems did or because they had read that it could help.
    Some scientists started to look at the impact of fish oil on the heart after Danish scientists in the 1970s noticed that few Greenland Eskimos had heart disease.
    Their diet was high in fat and cholesterol, but rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
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    It is believed the omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects and decrease risk of arrhythmia that can lead to sudden death.
    The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least two times a week. Studies indicate the supplement version of fish oil -- at least in the short-term -- did not prevent irregular heart rhythm after surgery. However, the study said fish oil didn't have any "health-related drawbacks either."
    The American Heart Association said studies show fish oil can lower triglycerides, but recommends fish oil not be used instead of statins.
    Some people also take fish oil supplements to ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, to ease problems with allergies, asthma, anxiety, cancer, depression and other issues; the science is still out on its effectiveness with these medical issues.
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    'Good' bacteria

    Probiotic and prebiotic use was four times as high in 2012 as it was in 2007.
    Often, people take those to help with digestion or to protect themselves or their children from so-called "bad" bacteria.
    Probiotics can be found in food like yogurt. Prebiotics, the nondigestible carbohydrates that the probiotics eat, are in bananas, onions, garlic and honey.
    Experts say more research needs to be done on their effectiveness, but some studies show they help people who have stomach issues.
    Randomized double-blind studies have shown evidence that they help treat and prevent regular diarrhea, travelers' diarrhea and diarrhea people often get after taking antibiotics. Also, some people with inflammatory bowl disease and irritable bowel syndrome see some relief after using them, although more research is recommended.
    Again, the unscientific chatter among this reporter's Facebook friends suggests people feel like they can digest their food better if they use probiotics and prebiotics.
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    ZZZZ aid

    The adult use of melatonin more than doubled from 2007 to 2012. For children it was the second-most used natural product.
    The body naturally creates melatonin to help regulate the sleep cycle.
    People who have trouble falling asleep use it, as do people who struggle with jet lag. Some people also report using it to fight cancer.
    The research is still underway, but some studies have shown melatonin can help children who have trouble falling asleep. It may also help older people, which is good news, because sleep problems do seem to grow with age.
    Melatonin supplements may prevent jet lag. For healthy people who don't struggle with sleep problems, the research is mixed.
    Studies involving melatonin and cancer are inconclusive, or there is not enough evidence to suggest taking it can help cancer therapy.
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    Take a deep breath

    Some 21 million adults and 1.7 million children practice yoga. Adult interest in yoga more than doubled since 2002.
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    Some 10.9% of adults did deep breathing exercises.
    Nearly 20 million adults and 1.9 million children went to a chiropractor or an osteopath.

    The alternative losers

    There were downward trends for some alternative medicines.
    Fewer American adults took the herb echinacea. It has been thought to shorten the duration of a cold, help cure urinary tract infections or yeast infections or help with cold sores.
    Study results are mixed. An NIH study found it didn't help with a cold. Other studies showed it helped with some respiratory infections.
    The use of garlic pills and glucosamine was also down.
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    There was also bad news for traditional healers. The study found the number of parents taking their children to traditional healers fell from 1.1% in 2007 to 0.1% in 2012.

    What's trending

    The NIH doesn't track why there are changes in the use of particular complementary medicines, but the trends may be in line with new research about them, in addition to their availability. Yoga may also be used more frequently because there are more studios in the United States than in years past.
    "The use of melatonin, shown in studies to have some benefits for sleep issues, has risen dramatically," said Dr. Josephine P. Briggs in a press release. Briggs is the director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. "Conversely, the use of echinacea has fallen, which may reflect conflicting results from studies on whether it's helpful for colds. This reaffirms why it is important for NIH to study these products and to provide that information to the public."