Many people prefer to take natural remedies over prescriptions drugs but don’t. “Alternative medicine” has a stigma—one resulting from lack of evidence for or information about their use. It would seem we have a dilemma. People preferring to go au natural stand at odds with believers in Western medicine, who label them as “hippies” prescribing to “pseudo-science.”
Pharmaceuticals have loads of research backing up their use and as a result, many advocates: doctors, pharmacists, advertisements… Holistic medicines do not enjoy the same status.
Shockingly, it boils down to money. Pharmaceutical and insurance companies have significant influence in our government and, subsequently, the policies it enacts. These two sectors dominate not just what drugs we use, but also which drugs we research and educate medical professionals about.
A medical doctor will not prescribe anything not backed by scientific research. It is part of the dogma that everything a physician does must be evidence-based, with a bottom line of “do no harm.” The issue arises from the fact that
there is no research backing up holistic medicines.
Pharmaceutical and insurance companies–either directly or indirectly through organizations like the National Institute of Health–are the ones funding research. They have a vested interest in not funding investigations into cures that can be obtained free from the land. These sectors want to make money, honey, and they can make more of it if all the data advocates for drugs that they produce. So, if any well-meaning researcher hopes to uncover potential benefits of alternatives, the funding has to come out of pocket or from the few non-profit organizations which have cropped up to address this growing issue.
Bias is the enemy of science, and the term “cultural bias” pops up a lot in medicine. For example, we talk about a patient of Chinese upbringing who may use herbal supplements for their health and call this their “cultural bias”; but
rarely do we address the bias that exists in our own medical system.
As medical students, we are taught exclusively about pharmaceuticals. Strange, as medical providers, that we are not even introduced to alternatives—many of which have been used for millennia, such as cloves for a toothache, honey and lemon for sore throat, aloe vera for stomach pain. Stranger still, I can recall one—and only one—lecture on nutrition during my four years of medical training, at the culmination of which my bewildered classmate turned to me and asked, “What’s a fennel?”
Recently, I read a scientific article on the microbiome, which I will not cite here. The authors conclude this study with the idea that the food we put into our bodies has an impact on our health. And to think, it took us a century of scientific inquiry to reach the conclusion…
The point of is, there is a bias in our medical model which has been introduced into our education, research and policy as a result of the financial interests of the industries funding them.
They gain by suppressing research on holistic medicines–and without substantiating research, no physician will advocate for their use. Further, there is no immediate need to regulate these medicines, as they are not viewed as true medicines. Unexpected contaminates and interactions arising from lack of regulation strengthen the overwrought confidence in our current system.
If you are like me and would prefer, when possible, to obtain healing from that which has been provided to us through the earth rather than that which has been manufactured in a laboratory, I would advise you to be very careful in where you seek your information.
There are many well-meaning naturopathic providers and writers who are not reporting accurate information and may offer at best anecdotal—and at worst dangerous—advice.
So, what to do?
DO try to avoid processed foods and eat as many vegetables as you can. Drink lots of water and move your body often, in creative ways. When it comes to remedies for ailments, a reputable source is the Natural Medicines Database put out by the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. This comprehensive database offers indications and contraindications for alternative medicines and is continuously updated by physicians and researchers. It also provides references to the literature from which the information came.
DO research different brands of the specific natural medicine to ensure it is safe, i.e. contains what it advertises, in the amount it advertises, and nothing more. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP) and NSF International Dietary Supplement Certification are two organizations that conduct laboratory analyses of supplements to ensure that what they contain is in line with what is advertised on the bottle. These organizations also verify that supplement and vitamin brands are adhering to the Food and Drug Administration’s good manufacturing practices (GMPs). Note the words “certified” or “verified” are not regulated and can be slapped on anything.1
The purpose of this article is not to instill distrust of your medical provider, whether the individual is naturopathic or allopathic or neither. I am pointing out the holes in our current system and urging you, dear reader, that instead of throwing in the towel on your instinct to “go natural,” to be smart about what and where you buy.
Disclaimer: I do not have financial interests to disclose in any of the organizations, websites or ideas mentioned in this article. I similarly do not advocate for “going natural” if your medical provider advises you against it, particularly in the face of chronic or worsening disease.
1Information from the NIH website.