The American Heart Association has issued a statement outlining research on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for heart failure. They found some SCAMs that work, some that don’t work, and some that are harmful.
Alternative therapies that may benefit people with heart failure include:
- Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA, fish oil) have the strongest evidence among complementary and alternative agents for clinical benefit in people with heart failure and may be used safely, in moderation, in consultation with their health care team. Omega-3 PUFA is associated with a lower risk of developing heart failure and, for those who already have heart failure, improvements in the heart’s pumping ability. There appears to be a dose-related increase in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rhythm), so doses of 4 grams or more should be avoided.
- Yoga and Tai Chi, in addition to standard treatment, may help improve exercise tolerance and quality of life and decrease blood pressure.
Meanwhile, some therapies were found to have harmful effects, such as interactions with common heart failure medications and changes in heart contraction, blood pressure, electrolytes and fluid levels:
- While low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with worse heart failure outcomes, supplementation hasn’t shown benefit and may be harmful when taken with heart failure medications such as digoxin, calcium channel blockers and diuretics.
- The herbal supplement blue cohosh, from the root of a flowering plant found in hardwood forests, might cause a fast heart rate called tachycardia, high blood pressure, chest pain and may increase blood glucose. It may also decrease the effect of medications taken to treat high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
- Lily of the valley, the root, stems and flower of which are used in supplements, has long been used in mild heart failure because it contains active chemicals similar to, but less potent than, the heart failure medicine digoxin. It may be harmful when taken with digoxin by causing very low potassium levels, a condition known as hypokalemia. Lily of the valley also may cause irregular heartbeat, confusion and tiredness.
Other therapies have been shown as ineffective based on current data, or have mixed findings, highlighting the importance of patients having a discussion with a health care professional about any non-prescribed treatments:
- Routine thiamine supplementation isn’t shown to be effective for heart failure treatment unless someone has this specific nutrient deficiency.
- Research on alcohol varies, with some data showing that drinking low-to-moderate amounts (1 to 2 drinks per day) is associated with preventing heart failure, while habitual drinking or intake of higher amounts is toxic to the heart muscle and known to contribute to heart failure.
- There are mixed findings about vitamin E. It may have some benefit in reducing the risk of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, a type of heart failure in which the left ventricle is unable to properly fill with blood between heartbeats. However, it has also been associated with an increased risk of hospitalization in people with heart failure.
- Co-Q10, or coenzyme Q10, is an antioxidant found in small amounts in organ meats, oily fish and soybean oil, and commonly taken as a dietary supplement. Small studies show it may help improve heart failure class, symptoms and quality of life, however, it may interact with blood pressure lowering and anti-clotting medicines. Larger trials are needed to better understand its effects.
- Hawthorn, a flowering shrub, has been shown in some studies to increase exercise tolerance and improve heart failure symptoms such as fatigue. Yet it also has the potential to worsen heart failure, and there is conflicting research about whether it interacts with digoxin.
“Overall, more quality research and well-powered randomized controlled trials are needed to better understand the risks and benefits of complementary and alternative medicine therapies for people with heart failure,” said Chow. “This scientific statement provides critical information to health care professionals who treat people with heart failure and may be used as a resource for consumers about the potential benefit and harm associated with complementary and alternative medicine products.”
No doubt, this assessment is a laudable attempt to inform patients responsibly. Personally, I am always a bit skeptical about such broad statements. SCAM encompasses some 400 different therapies, and I doubt that these can all be assessed in one single overview.
It is not difficult to find SCAMs that seem to have not been considered. Take this systematic review, for instance. It included 24 RCTs (n = 1314 participants) of 9 different mind-body interventions (MBI) types: Tai Chi (n = 7), yoga (n = 4), relaxation (n = 4), meditation (n = 2), acupuncture (n = 2), biofeedback (n = 2), stress management (n = 1), Pilates (n = 1), and reflexology (n = 1). Most (n = 22, 95.8%) reported small-to-moderate improvements in quality of life (14/14 studies), exercise capacity (8/9 studies), depression (5/5 studies), anxiety and fatigue (4/4 studies), blood pressure (3/5 studies), heart rate (5/6 studies), heart rate variability (7/9 studies), and B-type natriuretic peptide (3/4 studies). Studies ranged from 4 minutes to 26 weeks and group sizes ranged from 8 to 65 patients per study arm.
The authors concluded that, although wide variability exists in the types and delivery, RCTs of MBIs have demonstrated small-to-moderate positive effects on HF patients’ objective and subjective outcomes. Future research should examine the mechanisms by which different MBIs exert their effects.
Or take this systematic review of 38 RCTs of oral TCM remedies. The majority of the included trials were assessed to be of high clinical heterogeneity and poor methodological quality. The main results of the meta-analysis showed improvement in total MLHFQ score when oral Chinese herbal medicine plus conventional medical treatment (CMT) compared with CMT with or without placebo [MD = -5.71 (-7.07, -4.36), p < 0.01].
The authors concluded that there is some encouraging evidence of oral Chinese herbal medicine combined with CMT for the improvement of QoL in CHF patients. However, the evidence remains weak due to the small sample size, high clinical heterogeneity, and poor methodological quality of the included trials. Further, large sample size and well-designed trials are needed.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that TCM remedies are a viable option – in fact, I very much doubt it – but I am saying that attempts to provide comprehensive overviews of all SCAMs are problematic, and that incomplete overviews are just that: incomplete.