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Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Alternative Medicine

© Michael Alan Morton PhD, Mary Morton

That is not to say conventional medicine does not have a place in health care. Conventional medical interventions such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and antibiotics can be real blessings in their ability to stop, slow, and, at times, heal horrible illnesses. Such medicines are important weapons in the arsenal to fight illness and disease. But alternative practitioners believe these forms of intervention should not be the medicine of first choice, given the devastating side effects that can erode a person's quality of life. They should be the medicine of last resort. However, such treatments have been the medicine of first choice for conventional doctors for years.

In their book, Take Care of Yourself, James F. Fries, M.D., and Donald M. Vickery, M.D., state: "Drugs interact with other drugs, causing hazardous chemical reactions. They have direct toxic reactions on the stomach lining and elsewhere in the body. They cause allergic rashes and shock. They are foreign chemicals and have severe side effects . . . . Under some circumstances, they probably cause cancer."10 Though many conventional doctors would agree with this statement, they continue to practice medicine that in many cases is not really founded on the edict of "do no harm." As a result, approximately forty-five thousand patients die each year in hospitals as a result of the conventional medical treatment they received.11

In contrast, an alternative health care provider such as a naturopathic doctor (N.D.), would use a whole array of "less drastic" treatments first in order to help the patient to heal (unless, of course, the patient was in a life-threatening condition). The N.D. refers his or her patient to a conventional doctor for more drastic treatments only after finding that all the appropriate alternative treatments at his or her disposal could not heal the patient's condition.

4. Results generally take longer
One primary goal of alternative medicine is to stimulate the body's natural healing response and to let nature take its course. From this process, a true healing can occur, increasing the chances that the symptoms will not return. Some people find the slower rate of recovery frustrating if they are accustomed to immediate results from conventional medical treatments.

Here's an example of how this slower healing can occur: At four months, our daughter Deana had a severe case of eczema — front and back, head to toe. She was miserable. Her pediatrician prescribed a lotion that contained cortisone. We knew some of the strong side effects of cortisone (including compromised vision) and decided not to put that drug on her young skin, even though her doctor was certain it would make her eczema disappear. Instead, we decided to seek a naturopathic doctor's recommendations and made an appointment to see Rena Bloom, a licensed naturopathic physician we knew was well trained and had a special interest in infants and children.

After examining Deana and asking us many questions, Dr. Bloom suggested that Deana might be allergic to her formula. The formula she was taking was advertised as hypoallergenic for colicky babies — which Deana was. However, this hypoallergenic formula was fifty-two percent corn product, a common allergen in adults as well as children. Dr. Bloom gave us a recipe for a goat milk formula and suggested we try it on Deana. We felt very comfortable giving our daughter this formula because we had learned that goat milk's nutrient makeup is very close to human mother's milk.

After two weeks of an exclusive diet of goat milk formula, we noticed some improvement in our daughter's condition. But because we assumed that Deana's eczema should have cleared by then, we called Dr. Bloom to report our results. Dr. Bloom reminded us that she thought Deana would take a full four to six weeks to recover from the toxicity of her previous formula. She explained that Deana's system was clearing out the toxins as quickly as possible and she needed the time to heal herself. In other words, we needed to be patient.

It took Deana the full six weeks to recover. When she did, she was noticeably more alert and happy. Not only that, her skin and complexion returned to "peaches and cream."

5. Use of natural and whole substances
Many alternative treatments use natural substances such as herbs, botanicals, homeopathics, nutritional supplements, and whole foods. There is a general belief among naturopathic doctors that the use of whole or natural products to treat maladies adds more to the healing process than their synthesized counterparts. While many synthesized pharmaceuticals may be more potent and fast-acting, they also often come with unpleasant side effects. According to John R. Lee, M.D., coauthor of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause, "Most over-the-counter and almost all prescribed drug treatments merely mask symptoms. . . . Drugs almost never deal with the reasons why these problems exist, while they frequently create new health problems as side effects of their activities."12 On the other hand, natural substances are believed to produce fewer side effects, though they may take longer to work. The American public appears to be aware of this. In 1993, consumers spent approximately $1.5 billion on herbal remedies.13 As a result, more and more drugstores and shopping store chains now stock a full line of herbal supplements for their patrons.

6. Higher standard of health
For many years, health was seen as "the absence of disease" by conventional medical doctors. The common philosophy was: If you are not sick and you do not need to go to the doctor's office or the hospital, then you must be healthy. In years past, people would go to their conventional doctors for an annual check up and be given a clean bill of health. An individual's health was assessed by the results of the physical examination. Little, if any, consideration was given to lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, or personal or psychological issues. Minimal concern was generally given to the emotional, mental, spiritual, and social aspects of the person.

In contrast, alternative medical systems have long been founded on the premise that health is a dynamic process that most consider more than just the absence of illness. Other factors ranging from the strength of a person's "vital energy" to how happy the person is in his or her personal and professional life are also considered. The "whole person" is evaluated when determining one's state of health and well-being. In most alternative systems of healing, a person's physical, emotional, mental, and psychosocial health, his or her diet and lifestyle, as well as the person's religious and spiritual concerns are all carefully addressed when assessing health and well-being.

Fortunately, with the advent of the holistic health movement over the last two decades, a growing number of conventional doctors are now recognizing that health is more than the absence of disease.

3. My friends and family are skeptical about the merits of alternative medicine. How do I help them feel confident in my decision to use alternative medicine?
To many people, alternative medicine is still suspect. Some of this is warranted. Not all of what is labeled alternative medicine can be assumed to be good medicine. So the concern and skepticism of your friends and family is only natural. The problem is that most people who are skeptical of alternative medicine base their caution on outdated information, facts that are only partially true, or complete misconceptions. Of course, there are those who would never even consider that alternative medicine has merit, regardless of what the facts are. ("Don't confuse me with facts, my mind is made up!")

Let's look at the roots of the bias against alternative medicine: A great deal of this distrust can be traced directly to the beliefs and opinions of the conventional medical community. Since conventional medicine enjoyed an unquestioned confidence from the public for almost five decades, the public accepted the critical views about any treatments not part of conventional biomedicine. As a result, in time conventional medicine's beliefs became the public's beliefs.

According to the "Chantilly Report" to the NIH on alternative medicine, one conclusion the public reached regarding conventional medicine is that it is the "one true medical profession." This originated through the "long-standing belief held by many conventional medical practitioners that they should be the only one representative voice for the whole of medicine."14

Another result is the public now places an unrealistically high level of confidence in conventional medicine's high-tech diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Many presume that if procedures are "high-tech," they must be very effective. However, evidence points to the opposite conclusion: High-tech is not always effective.

A case in point: A young woman checked into a major New York hospital to treat a tumor on her chest. The hospital had a new experimental group and was researching the effects of microwave hypothermia on cancer. The woman was one of the first participants in their research group. Unfortunately, the researchers didn't have adequate thermal control and miscalculated the amount of hypothermia they gave this young woman. Within moments they had burned a hole right through her sternum. She also had burns from her chin down her entire neck and halfway down her trunk. After she recovered, she exclaimed that with such high technology in a major hospital in a large city, she had been very optimistic that she would be cured. She realized, however, that she should have been less optimistic, asked more questions, and been more cautious.

In contrast, many alternative treatments are not "high-tech" and are actually seen as "low-tech." Consequently they are perceived to be ineffective when they actually are effective. For example, our neighbor's one-and-a-half-year-old son Alex had a very high fever a few weeks ago. His parents took him to a pediatrician (M.D.) for a diagnosis. When they asked about using herbs to treat his infection, his doctor's response was, "Herbs are for salads. He needs something more sophisticated to help him recover. Drugs." This doctor was convinced of this fact despite the tremendous body of scientific research that indicates that herbs could, in fact, help the boy recover. Based on the recommendations they received from a naturopathic physician about other infections that Alex had in the past, his parents decided to use herbs before trying drugs. Within twenty-four hours of administering the recommended herbs to Alex, his fever disappeared and he was markedly better.

The public has grown to prefer the "safety of the status quo," which, in the United States, is conventional doctors and their medicines. Because doctors routinely prescribe drugs such as antibiotics and sedatives, the public generally believes that they are the most effective treatments. However, several major magazines and national news programs have reported the hazardous side effects of these drugs. As a result, an increasing number of patients now voice their concerns about these drugs and ask about alternatives.

The most fervent critics of alternative medicine charge that alternative medical practitioners are "quacks." The NIH's "Chantilly Report" defends the alternative medical practitioner saying, "The term 'quack' generally means one who pretends to have medical knowledge but does not; that is, it implies the element of fraud. . . . [However] most alternative healers do possess some other sort of knowledge [than M.D.'s] that they and their clients believe is relevant to health."15

Another charge is that alternative medical practitioners prey on the gullible and uneducated. The "Chantilly Report" also refutes this, stating that, "Recent studies of cancer patients indicate that well-educated persons with higher incomes are more likely to use alternative treatments, primarily because they want to take charge of their health."16

When using alternative medicine, you will probably encounter skeptics with these or other misconceptions. When this happens, the best strategy is to present an "unbeliever" with real facts backed by respected sources. Generally this is a much more effective approach than sharing personal stories about miraculous cures. Irrefutable facts have a way of calming skeptics' doubts - and sometimes - of changing their minds. Here are some facts that will alleviate the concerns and doubts of the people in your life:

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