August 14, 2013

A Skeptic Makes Peace with Alternative Medicine.

A lot of people who know me have labeled me as an earthy sort.

I guess it makes sense: in addition to being yoga practitioner/instructor, I am a self-proclaimed health food nut who gave birth at home with a midwife sans painkillers.

I also drive a hybrid and make many of own body care products, so on a scale of 1-10 I am pretty darn earthy.

However, there is one thing that shocks many: I’m a skeptic when it comes to alternative medicine.

In some ways, that is probably not surprising given my family history. I never met my paternal grandfather, who died at the very young age of 26. Despite being born and raised in Hong Kong which was at that time a British colony and with Westernized hospitals, my grandfather was a firm devotee of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Therefore, when he came down with a persistent cough that would not go away, he went to his TCM healer who prescribed herbs. Despite the assurances that he was recovering, the symptoms became worse. Finally, at my grandmother’s instance, he finally went to the British hospital and learned that he had tuberculosis.

By that time, it was too late for the doctors to do anything and he died shortly thereafter leaving behind my then-four year old father, two year old aunt and a pregnant wife.

While it’s possible he may have had a strain of tuberculosis which may not have been helped by Western medicine, I always felt sadden by the fact that he never even tried it. Perhaps if he had, I would have gotten to meet him and my father’s life would have been very different as a result.

Despite this, my father was and is a staunch proponent of TCM and other forms of alternative therapy. As a teenager, I heard endless lectures about the dangers of conventional medicine and big pharma.

Granted, he had a point, and he was far from alone in his opinions and faith in alternative therapies.

However, I always took this stuff with a grain of salt. When I came down with severe depression in my early 20s, I decided to take Prozac. It wasn’t a sudden decision by any means. I had been in therapy for months and tried  improving my diet and fitness regime, but I was not getting better. I was started on the lowest dose of Prozac possible—10 mg—and it made all the difference in the world. Granted, I still had to do the work and deal with the things that were triggering my depression, but the medication allowed me to be well enough to do that.

Still, the decision to go on medication was not without some controversy. Several people accused me of taking the easy way out. My then-boyfriend at the time, who ironically was a scientist with  a Ph.D. from Cambridge University- told me that I should I stop taking the medication cold-turkey. (He also suggested the same thing to his brother who struggled with depression as well.)

I was so appalled at his suggestion that I called him a danger to others.

Eventually, I did go off the medication, but it was under a doctor’s care and I was slowly weaned off of it. While I regularly took vitamins and tried to avoid the doctor’s office as much as I could, I always wondered how effective alternative therapies were. As someone who started out as biology major and later went on to major in psychology, I was familiar with the scientific method. I also knew a lot about statistics as well.

As a member of the mind/body community, I met many people who swore they had an ailment that was supposedly cured by acupuncture, herbal medicine, etc. I believed their sincerity, but I wondered how these methods would stand up in double-blind studies.

I also knew that “natural” did not automatically mean safer either. (After all, arsenic and lead are 100% natural and 100% harmful to boot.) Yet, part of me wanted to believe that many of these remedies worked if only because: 1. I had a problem with many of these big pharma corporations and would like an alternative to them. 2. So many people seemed to be getting genuine comfort from using these therapies.

I became even more interested in the efficacy of alternative medicine after my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

His oncologist, who like him is originally from Hong Kong, encouraged him to explore alternative/complementary medicine alongside conventional treatment while cautioning him about some possible drug interactions between him medications and certain herbs. However, she made it clear: this was something that was not going to be cured by alternative medicine.

He felt differently, though, and soon it seemed that each time we spoke he was telling me about some new herb, juice diet, etc. that was supposedly going to cure his cancer. At one point, he even decided to stop taking his prescription medication and only decided to go back on it when his next doctor’s visit showed he was actually getting worse even though he professed to be feeling much better.

I decided to see just what the science said about this and looked at various books and articles on the subject.

Alas, when put to the test, alternative remedies have not fared so well. In their book 2008 book, Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, science writer Simon Singh and medical doctor/professor of complementary medicine Edzard Ernst look at many types of alternative treatments including herbal medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture to name a few and find that the vast majority of them do not appear to work.

While some things do stand up to scientific studies like St. John’s Wort for mild to moderate depression and acupuncture for some types of pain and nausea, others like homeopathy appear to be totally unsupported and any effect tends to be that of a placebo.

Paul Offit’s Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, which was published in June of this year, echos many of these things and is in many ways even more sobering than Trick or Treatment. (It seems that some newer studies suggest than even St. John’s Wort may not work and acupuncture is by and large purely a placebo.)

However, there is a chapter in this book that I was not expecting that talks about the power of placebos.

In a nutshell, placebos are pretty powerful things. Their effect-especially on pain relief is real-and should not be dismissed. In fact, it seems that even many mainstream doctors are trying to harness to power of placebos. As Offit writes: “If people can learn to suppress their immune responses; they could also learn to enhance them. . . Why not use them?”

While many people—myself included—often play lip-service to the phrase that the mind and the body are connected and this truly illustrates how that is the case. The irony that this is coming from mainstream medicine—which is largely seem as the enemy of alternative medicine—is not lost on me.

As I read more about the power of placebos, it occurred to me that this was important: my father and others really believe that these things are working and and to an extent they are. While I think the powerful prescription drugs are what is primarily keeping him alive, I also believe that his strong Buddhist faith and belief in his alternative remedies are helping as well.

Perhaps they are just as important, if not more so, in keeping him alive.

Granted, I worry that he will meet a charlatan that will con him into spending money he does not have on some “miracle cure” or he’ll forget to tell his doctor about some new herb he is trying but overall, I feel that these are giving him something that is invaluable: hope and the feeling that he is taking some degree of control of his illness.

Now, when I hear him talk about his latest super juice, etc., I don’t feel the urge to tell him that there is no scientific evidence to back that up the claims that any of the ingredients can cure his cancer. Instead, I just remind him to inform his doctor in case there is any sort of potential for harmful drug interaction.

As someone who might one day be in the very same position he is in, I think it is doubtful I will ever embrace alternative medicine to the degree he has or even think it can take the place of conventional treatment, but I am at least more open to the possibility than I was before.

In the meantime, I have started taking evening primrose oil to help with my often-painful menstrual periods. I know the science on it is spotty, but I want to believe it will help.

Surprisingly or not surprisingly based on what I know, my last two periods have been practically pain-free. Placebo effect or not, maybe there is something after all to this alternative medicine stuff.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise






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