Wednesday, March 30, 2005

You may be surprised to learn that as much as prescription drugs are now being shown to be dangerous for human health, there’s also a big problem in the way people turn to alternative medicines such as Chinese herbs, Western herbs, nutritional supplements and superfood supplements. And that problem is not in those remedies themselves, but rather in the way people use them to address their health challenges.

But to fully explain that problem, let’s take a closer look at how people view prescription drugs. The predominant view is that when a person has a disease (or various symptoms that have been given a disease label), they can turn to a prescription drug to solve that problem. Unknown to most patients, however, is the fact that prescription drugs only mask the symptoms of disease, they don’t actually resolve any health problems whatsoever.

Thus, the great failing in turning to conventional medicine or relying on prescription drugs is that patients shift responsibility for their health outcome to the drugs themselves. In other words, they aren’t taking ownership of their health outcome; they are asking for a cure from outside themselves. They are visiting their doctor and saying “Doctor, please cure me, or give me something that will solve my problem.” And what goes unsaid is the rest of that thought, which is “…and I have this problem because I haven’t been taking care of myself.”

Let’s face it: the vast majority of chronic diseases are caused by choices made by the patients themselves. Typically those are choices in foods, substance abuse such as smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee or using recreational drugs, or in avoidance of physical exercise. And perhaps two-thirds of the American population routinely avoids physical exercise. And yet with all of this lack of responsibility on the part of patients, and with these diseases that emerge as a natural result of these lifestyle choices, these patients still insist on finding external “cures” — hence the popularity of prescription drugs and today’s pharmaceutical industry. “Cure me, doc!” This is how organized medicine is, technically, pure quackery. They’re promising cures, but they only deliver dependence on profitable prescription drugs.

With that said, you may be surprised that much the same problem exists (although to a lesser degree) in the area of natural remedies and alternative medicine. Because far too many users of herbs, nutritional supplements and other complementary or alternative health solutions view those solutions in the same way they view conventional medicine. That is, they are asking for an herb to cure their symptom. If they have pain, they want a pill that will eliminate the pain, and the only difference in this example between patients who turn to conventional medicine and patients who turn to natural medicine is that the natural patient wants a pain pill from a plant. The problem with both patients is that they fail to recognize the internal cause of their pain, or they fail to take ownership of their role in creating the disease they are currently expressing.

Getting acupuncture to cure your back pain so that you can continue to sit on the couch, avoid physical exercise, and eat junk foods isn’t “natural medicine.” It’s just allopathic medicine with acupuncture needles as the tool. Similarly, curing your depression with St. John’s Wort isn’t natural medicine, either. It’s just another ingested chemical to cover up the symptoms of a much deeper problem. Healthy people don’t need St. John’s Wort for mental health. That’s not to say that the herb can’t be helpful while you’re making lifestyle changes that improve your mental outlook (such as dietary changes, increased exposure to natural sunlight, taking up exercise, and so on), but to depend on St. John’s Wort day in and day out is no different than being hooked on Prozac (except the herb is a lot more affordable and doesn’t have negative side effects).

All this is extremely frustrating for practitioners of alternative medicine, holistic medicine, herbalists, nutritionists, etc. Because they want to help patients, but most patients really aren’t looking for long-term solutions: they’re looking for short-term masking of their symptoms, using products that they can call “natural.” Frankly, this isn’t natural medicine at all. This is just using herbs in a strictly allopathic manner to shift the responsibility of the patient’s health outcome.

Good health practitioners, whether in conventional medicine or complementary medicine, attempt to place that responsibility squarely with their patients, and they do that through education. They try to teach their patients about the value of nutrition; they try to show them the wisdom of making new choices about their lifestyle habits and chemical addictions that would lead them to a more healthful journey for the rest of their lives. Good healers attempt to put patients back in control of their health outcome.

But there are two huge challenges with this effort. First, educating patients takes time and the time of both conventional physicians and alternative practitioners is rather expensive. For them to take the time to teach patients, they would have to charge a couple of hundred dollars per visit, and most patients wouldn’t want to pay that. And that leads me to the second challenge with this approach, which is that most patients don’t want to hear this. The vast majority of patients aren’t looking to be educated. They don’t want to change their lifestyle, and they don’t want to have to do anything that’s too uncomfortable or unfamiliar. And to many people, discomfort includes getting up off the couch, turning off the TV, going outside and taking a walk, and so on. For a whole lot of people, it’s uncomfortable to stop drinking coffee every morning, or to stop smoking cigarettes, or to give up refined sugars or soft drinks (see related ebook on soft drinks) or white breads and other refined foods. These are all uncomfortable things for most people.

So the vast majority of patients, perhaps 95%, are visiting their doctors or alternative practitioners and they are asking for the same thing: some magic pill that will cover up their symptoms and alleviate their responsibility for their health outcome. For some people, it’s drugs. For others, it’s herbs. But it’s all the same distorted view on where healing really comes from.

That’s the bottom line truth of what most patients are asking for. And that is the common flaw in conventional medicine versus complementary medicine. Because if you look at them both from the perspective of a victimized patient who is not willing to take control over their health outcome, then neither system of medicine is going to solve a person’s health problem in the long run.

Alternative medicine is no better than conventional medicine if you treat it as a temporary cover up for a pattern of symptoms that you created in your life through your unwillingness to make changes that lead to long term health. Thus when people sometimes say to me “Oh, yeah, I’m into alternative medicine, I once got acupuncture for my knee pain”, I say to them “Well, that’s not what alternative medicine is about — it’s not about covering up knee pain with some acupuncture needles.”

Herbal medicine has a much higher purpose than to be relegated to the limited worldview of conventional medicine. Herbs should be used holistically to support a healthy lifestyle. Patients should be taught to use herbal medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic care, nutritional supplements and naturopathic advice in conjunction with their own good decisions about health. That’s where herbs are truly powerful and can, indeed, help a person overcome practically any disease: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, you name it.

Similarly, acupuncture is much more than just something to stop nausea after chemotherapy (a role to which organized medicine would love to relegate the therapy). In fact, virtually all the healing arts — acupuncture, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, Ayurvedic herbs, etc. — have all been “dumbed down” as they were introduced to western cultures. The teaching of alternative medical therapies in this country is far too technical, and it lacks any real art. Some people are taught that acupuncture is basically a system of points that correspond to certain symptoms: put a needle on the P6 for this problem, or Liver 3 for that problem, and so on. And that’s all hogwash. It has no resemblance whatsoever to the true art of acupuncture as practiced in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China.

If you really want good acupuncture in this country, find yourself a healer who trained in Asia or learned from a native Asian healer. They probably won’t be accredited to practice acupuncture, but accreditation is largely a joke anyway. With a true healer, every treatment is different. Every patient is unique. It’s truly a healing art, not a technical skill. And there is no accreditation for that.