Should I tell my doctor about my use of non-Western* medicine?

Updated: Sep 15


A close friend recently went to a national convention for DoTerra—a giant company that sells essential oils and other related products—in Salt Lake City, Utah. She uses essential oils for literally everything. Need to feel relaxed?Use lavender. Feeling nauseous? Use peppermint. On the last day of the convention, she shared that DoTerra is planning to enter the healthcare marketplace by opening its own clinics. These clinics will be staffed by licensed MDs (Doctors of Medicine), DOs (Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine), and other healthcare professionals who are interested in integrating complementary modalities into mainstream care.


This made me wonder about the communication we have with our providers and our views on non-Western, traditional, and complementary approaches to health and wellbeing.


Personally, I use essential oils because I think it makes my room and office smell nice; I drink echinacea tea when I feel a cold coming on; and I apply aloe vera and apple cider on my skin for sunburns. But I’ve never thought about discussing my use of essential oils with my providers.


I know I’m not the only one considering these choices. In fact, at the health clinic where I work, I’ve been asked by my pregnant and nursing patients about non-pharmaceutical treatments. Their inquiries have ranged from whether topically applying cabbage on breasts or drinking ginger tea will treat mastitis (breast infections common in nursing mothers) to whether eating spicy foods or chocolate soufflé will help initiate labor.

Hawaii—where I currently live completing my MSW (Master of Social Work)—is known for its slower pace of life and can be behind the times compared to the mainland. However, this may not be the case when it comes to natural approaches to health. At the health clinic where I work, we have a Native Hawaiian Traditional Healing Center. The center practices Lomilomi (Hawaiian massage therapy), Laau Lapaau (herbal medicine), Laau Kahea (spiritual healing) and Ho’oponopono (conflict resolution). The center is open to all patients who are interested in receiving services. The primary care physician will work alongside the healing center for the patient’s well-being.


There are other clinics outside of Hawaii who are also integrating traditional healing practices. In Alaska, there are Tribal doctors at the Anchorage Native Primary Care Center who specialize in healing hands massage, cleansing and healing touch, talking circles, prayer, songs, dances, and consultations with elders. That center also has a traditional healing garden.


What have I learned from working alongside a healing center?

First, I realized that it was possible to find providers who are open to traditional medicine approaches even if it isn’t their specialty or part of their original training.  There are providers willing and interested in partnering with colleagues offering traditional or non-Western approaches.  They’ve encouraged me not to be afraid to be open and honest about my needs and goals for achieving health and wellbeing using a variety of approaches. They stressed that importance of frank communication with all of my providers about use of essential oils, herbals, and other practices that I incorporate into my health care.


On the other hand, this center is unique, and there may be resistance from your provider when discussing traditional, non-Western approaches to medicine. One issue that is commonly a point of contention is whether or not a treatment strategy has been properly studied and shown to be helpful or effective, or at least not harmful.


How being open with my provider about my love of grapefruits helped me better understand my health

I love grapefruits. I used to eat a few each week and never thought anything of it. In fact, I always thought that since grapefruits were full of vitamin C, they were only good for me. After reading a few labels on birth control packages, I realized that grapefruit juice may be a problem.  The package insert noted that consuming grapefruit juice may increase women’s level of the hormone ethinyl estradiol and that this increase could make the birth control method less effective. Worried about what this might mean and how it might impact the effectiveness of my birth control method, I talked with my provider.

My provider explained that not only is grapefruit juice a potential problem for birth control effectiveness, but it can also be a problem when used with other medications (e.g. cholesterol drugs, blood pressure meds, pain medications, antihistamines, antidepressants, etc).  In fact, for some medications, grapefruit consumption can even lead to a drug overdose.


It turns out that in my case, my grapefruit consumption won’t reduce the effectiveness of my birth control.  However, it might increase possible side effects like more headaches and cramping. So while I still eat grapefruit, being open about my grapefruit consumption helped me understand my medication and options better.


There are medicines and herbal treatments that might make my birth control less effective, so it was really important that I was open and honest and shared this important information with my doctor. Of course, it helped that I trusted that my doctor would be open, honest, and respectful in return. I expected she would be open to learning and exploring options and alternatives that they previously hadn’t considered.


If I hadn’t felt comfortable talking freely and openly with my provider, maybe she wouldn’t have been the ‘right’ provider for me.  I encourage everyone to think about the communication relationship they have with their providers. If you haven’t discussed with your provider about your use of essential oils, herbals, or anything else, now might be the time.


Leave a comment below about what you think! Have you ever talked to your healthcare provider about your views and/or use of  non-Western medicine, essential oils, herbs and other non-pharmaceutical approaches for health and well being? What was your experience?


* Traditional medicine is one of many terms used to describe non-Western medicine.  You may have heard it referred to as Integrative medicine, Complementary medicine, Holistic medicine, or Alternative medicine, among others.  It might include centuries-old approaches like Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic/Indian medicine, or Indigenous or Folk medicines or traditions.  Some common techniques include acupuncture, chiropractic massage, herbal medicine, exercise, meditation, and nutrition.

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Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, a women's health initiative, is an an ongoing, open forum to explore health issues of particular relevance to Black women and their families. 

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