Look into alternative medicine

Western medicine isn’t always as effective as its practitioners would like.

Many of our most widely-used treatments only control symptoms, without addressing underlying causes. That’s one of the major reasons why more and more doctors have begun using alternative and complementary medical practices to treat a wide variety of ills.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CM) is a catch-all term for a diverse collection of healthcare practices – such as acupuncture, herbalism, homeopathy, massage therapy and naturopathic medicine – not generally considered to fall within the scope of conventional western medicine.

Treat the whole person
What’s common to most definitions of complimentary medicine (CM) is the idea that practitioners treat the whole person, rather than the disease, in part by stimulating the body’s own natural healing powers to heal itself. In their 1997 book, Alternative Health Care, The Canadian Directory, Bonni L. Harden and Craig R. Harden suggest practitioners of CM see symptoms of illness as “signs of imbalance that must be corrected to help prevent disease and promote good health. Some practitioners prefer the term ‘Complemeary Health Care,’ because they do not claim to replace conventional medical care, particularly in case of injury or serious disease.”

Not every physician finds it easy to accept CM. For many, the idea of switching paradigms – replacing traditional western models of medical care with an eastern or other unconventional model of treatment – is like being asked to consider smoke and mirrors over MRI technology. It doesn’t appear to make scientific sense.

Sometimes like mixing oil and water
That issue is sharply outlined in the light of psychiatry, where herbal medicines and other “unconventional” therapies have traditionally been as welcome as witch doctors and magic charms. Thus, it was a sign of the times when the Royal Ottawa Hospital (ROH), led by its psychiatrist-in-chief and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Jacques Bradwejn, convened a meeting of psychiatrists to discuss the use of alternative and complementary medicine in their discipline.

Bradwejn led the charge in his opening remarks, summarizing the difficulties he and other practitioners have experienced in trying to build bridges and open links between mainstream and complementary therapies – which made the current meeting, he said, “a significant milestone” in the willingness of mainstream medical authorities to begin a serious review of the prospects and potential of what their alternative/complementary counterparts have to offer.

Bradwejn’s own journey began with traditional medical training, but he was also keenly interested in the potential of herbs in treating illness, such as hypericum (St. John’s Wort) for depression, or feverfew for migraine.

Over time, that led him to adopt a multidimensional therapeutic approach that takes into account a variety of factors that might influence a patient’s wellbeing, but that may not be a usual part of the psychiatric approach. Sometimes patients talk in a very different way to a psychiatrist than they would talk to a homeopath or Chinese doctor, Bradwejn says, “so I encourage them to talk about beliefs, illness, causes and treatment, and then identify potential barriers to treatment.

Empower the individual
“One view many of our patients like is that we go from a position of health and remove barriers to wellness,” Bradwejn says, “and that’s basically the approach alternative or complementary medicine practitioners have. It’s much more positive. It’s much more empowering, and it’s more of a light at the end of the tunnel than just taking the textbook approach to illness – take this pill, and that’s it. We address it with the goal of wellness in mind. It’s a big, big difference in approach.”

Next page: Achieving a balance

Dr. Scott Gerson agrees “there’s no cookie-cutter approach to disease.” Gerson, an M.D. who went to India for formal training in ayurvedic medicine, is president of the National Insitute of Ayurvedic Medicine in the U.S. He treats his patients’ ailments on a case-by-case basis, looking for a balance (or imbalance) of vital elements unique to each individual. This accords with Ayurveda (meaning “science, or knowledge, of life” in Sanskrit), which holds that a healthy person is one who is “in balance, whose digestion, assimilation and metabolism are good, whose tissues and wastes are created properly, and whose self, mind and senses remain full of bliss.”

Balance is the key
To attain and maintain this “state of bliss,” adherents follow a holistic regimen aimed at achieving a balance between all aspects of life, including diet, rest and activity, social relationships, environmental factors.

As Gerson explains, most illnesses are regarded as having their roots in mental disorders, which can then be treated by means of a change of lifestyle, such as diet. In fact, his own research – using essential oils as topical agents to treat patients suffering with anxiety – has demonstrated “statistically significant improvement in patients’ condition” as measured by their EEG (electroencephalogram, a measure of brain activity) scores.

Botanical medicines also have a variety of applications for mental health, according to Jerry Cott, Ph.D., chief of the Pharmacological Treatment Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. He points out that, despite the proven success of many drugs, some 80 per cent of the world’s population still depends on botanical medicines for healthcare.

In fact, much of the history of medicine is a history of botanical discoveries. In recent years, researchers have begun to take a more serious look at the way botanical preparations have been used in native cultures, including agents such as St. John’s Wort or ginkgo bilabo, as well as others known to yield physiological effects.

But does it work?
The question of effect is still very much in debate when it comes to homeopathy, but the system of therapy has its adherents, even for the treatment of psychological disorders. Dr. Shahram Ayoubzadeh, an M.D. and N.D. (doctor of naturopathy), is clinical director of the Integral Health Clinic in Ottawa. Ayoubzadeh has successfully treated a number of patients for a variety of physical and psychological symptoms with homeopathic remedies.

Homeopathy (from the Greek homios, meaning “similar,” and pathos, for “disease”) is a widely practised system of therapy based on two fundamental ideas: that a person’s symptoms are the key to his treatment; and that small doses of the same substances that caused an illness can be used to stimulate the patient’s body to heal itself (“the law of similars”) – a concept that underlies the preparations of homeopathic remedies.

Homeopaths don’t see symptoms as unhealthy responses to be treated and suppressed; they see them as “positive, adaptive responses to the variety of stresses the body experiences,” write Stephen Cummings and Dana Ullman in Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines (1984). “Symptoms represent the body’s best effort to heal itself. Hence, instead of suppressing symptoms, therapies should stimulate the body’s defences to complete the curative process.” Homeopaths, in other words, don’t treat symptoms:

“Instead, the symptoms guide the homeopath to the medicine that can best stimulate the person’s defences.”

The underlying principles of homeopathy stem from the Platonic notion that disease should be treated in a holistic fashion, says Ayoubzadeh, addressing like problems with like agents. The result, he concludes, is a rapid, gentle and lasting restoration of health.

Skeptics difficult to convince
The main source of the controversy surrounding homeopathy is the nature of the remedies used to “stimulate the body’s defences to complete the curative process” – substances so diluted there’s no scientifically available theory to explain the efficacy claimed for them. Skeptics insist that homeopathic remedies are no more than placebos, yet there have been studies that demonstrate efficacy beyond what could possibly be claimed by the placebo effect alone. As Jessica Fein points out in Natural Health magazine, “homeopathy has been shown to work on populations that don’t respond to placebos – including infants, unconscious people and animals.”

The placebo effect, of course, is the first thing some people think of at the mere suggestion religion might have an effect on mental and physical health. Dr. Harold G. Koenig, associate professor of psychiatry and assistant professor of medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C., would not be among them. Koenig points out that religion and healthcare were at one time nearly synonymous, the concept of systematic caring for the sick having been introduced by the Christianization of Europe.

Despite such influential thinkers as Sigmund Freud, who insisted that religious belief stands in opposition to modern tenets of health, some of the most recent investigations have revealed that religion can be a key factor affecting the remission rate of patients. While that’s a difficult effect to measure, it can be demonstrated with respect to levels of immune system components in the blood.

Next page: Can CM cure the health care system?

Koenig, in fact, put the matter to a test of his own. He and his colleagues initiated a study designed to discover what factors determine the speed of remission from depression. It’s a big issue, he says, “because of the increasing rates of depression in the population related to chronic health problems. That’s what’s crushing our healthcare system – disability and the resulting depression in both the caregiver and the patient, and that then escalates medical costs, increases length of stay.”

Quality of life critical
Koenig’s group measured a wide range of factors in the study, including the severity of patients’ depression, life stresses and quality of life, religious variables, social supports, and anti-depressant psychotherapy at any time during hospitalization or during the year after discharge. After carefully following their subjects for a year after discharge, they noted factors that independently predicted the speed of remission from depression: Quality of life was very important. Koenig says, “people who have more social support, who had less severe depression and less physical health problems, recovered significantly faster”; People with no family psychiatric history recovered faster; Changing physical function – as people became more disabled over time, Koenig says, “clearly they became more depressed.”

But what was interesting, says Koenig, “is that intrinsic religiosity was also related to faster remission of depression. This was the first study that ever looked at the effect of religiosity on the speed of recovery from depression, anywhere in the world [it was published in the April 1998 American Journal of Psychiatry]. What it shows is that for every 10 points of intrinsic religiosity on a scale of 10 to 50, there’s a 70 per cent increase in the speed of remission from depression.

But perhaps more than anything else, what Koenig’s study demonstrates – along with all these other approaches to the treatment of mood disorders – is that there are many roads to wellness.

That may not be as exciting as word of a universal cure, but it’s still pretty good news.