The important role of complementary medicines for the health of Australians

14 February 2017

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The Australian Self Medication Industry (ASMI) reminds consumers that complementary medicines approved for supply in Australia are highly regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), a recognised world class regulatory authority. These medicines remain an important part of a self care approach for millions of Australians.

Complementary medicines, such as fish oil, vitamins and mineral supplements, are all regulated as medicines and must be manufactured to medicinal standards in TGA-approved sites. They must contain the ingredients listed on the label and no other active ingredients, and they must only be produced using ingredients approved as low risk by the TGA.

"Labelling of complementary medicines is highly regulated to ensure labels contain the right information to help consumers select and use these products appropriately," says Steve Scarff, ASMI Director of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs. "Unlike in some overseas markets, companies marketing complementary medicines in Australia can only make limited claims regarding their effectiveness and are required to hold evidence supporting those claims."

ASMI encourages further investment in the evidence surrounding complementary medicines and supports reforms that enable consumers to make informed decisions.

At least two out of three Australian adults use some form of complementary medicine.1  Vitamin and mineral supplements can also play an important role for the 52% of Australian adults who do not eat the recommended intake of fruit or the 92% who do not eat the recommended intake of vegetables each day.2 Additionally, the 2011-13 Australian Health Survey identified that:

  • calcium intake across the population is largely inadequate, with 73% of females and 51% of males consuming less than the estimated average requirements (EAR)
  • females are more likely to have inadequate iron intake than males (23% of females don't achieve the EAR compared with 3% of males)
  • 2% of males and 8% of females do not meet their iodine requirements.

Several specific dietary supplements with excellent safety and efficacy profiles also have also been identified as being able to reduce the relative risk of experiencing a medical event associated with common conditions.3 These include:

  • magnesium and calcium/Vitamin D combinations for osteoporosis
  • folic acid/B6 /B12 and Omega-3 (e.g. fish or krill oils) for cardiovascular disease
  • lutein & zeaxanthin for age-related macular degeneration
  • St John's Wort for major depression
  • folic acid supplements for women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy sometime in their future.4

In 2016, the Australian Consumer Association report in CHOICE also listed 10 'useful' supplements for use with targeted conditions, which included St John's Wort, cranberry and lactase.5

As with any medicine, ASMI urges consumers to consider whether a product is appropriate for you to use, and only take the recommended amount. The product label and your health professional can provide helpful information on the correct usage of medicines.

It is also important for consumers and health professionals, such as doctors and pharmacists, to have an open discussion about any medications and supplements to ensure that the risk of adverse drug interactions is reduced . This is especially important for those taking prescription medications, women who are breastfeeding or pregnant/trying to become pregnant, and anyone with serious kidney, liver or stomach issues. Purchasing complementary medicines from a pharmacy provides a good opportunity for consumers to discuss any products they are considering with the pharmacist, who can provide professional advice.

Any adverse reaction should be immediately reported to a healthcare professional, who are then require to report this to the TGA. The TGA has a rigorous system for recording, monitoring and responding to adverse events for all medicines, including complementary medicines.

"Consumers are reminded to only purchase regulated complementary medicines in Australia and not online from overseas, to follow label instructions and warning statements, to report any adverse reactions, and to consult with a healthcare professional about possible interactions with other medicines," says Steve Scarff.



  1. National Consumer Survey 2006,National Prescribing Service.
  2. Australian Health Survey: Usual Nutrient Intakes, 2011-12, ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.008. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  3. Targeted Use of Complementary Medicines: Potential Health Care Outcomes & Cost Savings in Australia -Frost & Sullivan, 2014.
  4. Folic Acid Supplementation for the Prevention of Neural Tube Defects-US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement, Jan. 10, 2017.
  5. Bray, K., Complementary Medicines and Supplements - are they safe?,CHOICE, 1 Mar. 2016