Simon Best Weighs The Benefits Of A Broader Approach To Health
Today one hears and reads an increasing amount about ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine, presented with varying degrees of support or scepticism depending on the author. However, it is estimated that as much as 40 per cent of the adult population have tried various types of ‘alternative’ treatments.
The impetus for this growing interest appears to be a growth in awareness of the benefits of good nutrition, matched by an equal dislike of taking drugs that may themselves have strong side-effects or addictive properties.
It is perhaps not surprising then that many people have, over the past couple of decades, increasingly sought the services of holistic medicine practitioners, some of whom, qualified in orthodox medicine, have moved away from the latter because of their dissatisfaction with what they see as its over-dependence on drug treatment and its focus on symptoms as opposed to the underlying causes of ill-health.
A growing number of thinkers in both psychology and medicine argue for a wider view of Man, a more ‘wholistic’ understanding that takes account of factors such as the environment and the spiritual dimension in order to understand all that influences how people – and their bodies – function and malfunction.
Herbal medicines and rise of ‘Big Pharma’
There has always been a tradition and acceptance of herbal medicine in Britain – due in no small measure to Nicholas Culpepper and his ‘Herbal’ – which takes a holistic approach to any ailment, often applying two or three herbs for a given problem on the basis of counteracting sideeffects of individual herbs and taking account of its psychological aspects.
However, after the Second World War, with the success of penicillin and other drugs, the pharmaceutical approach began to dominate thinking in orthodox medicine - a ‘pill for every ill’, reaching its peak in the last decade. Ironically, a number of very successful drugs are derived from herbs or plants, for example aspirin and warfarin.
But by the early 1960s an opposite approach – today generally referred to as alternative or complementary medicine – had already taken root and has grown in strength ever since. It views the individual as functioning in a much wider context – family, social and environmental – and seeks to discover the origin of illness rather than just treating the symptoms with ‘quick-fix’ drugs.
And despite a general suspicion, if not altogether dismissive view, from the orthodox medical establishment, certain complementary therapies are now available through the National Health Service. These range from the more accepted therapies, such as acupuncture and meditation, to more controversial ones such as homoeopathy and reflexology, though pressure is growing for their exclusion.
A number of complementary medicine organizations have been established since the 1980s to set standards of training and competence, as well as to adopt codes of conduct for its members and the public is generally advised only to see a practitioner who can show a recognized level of training and membership of a professional body.
One charge that is often leveled against certain complementary therapies is that a large part, if not all, of the claimed therapeutic effects is in fact due to the ‘placebo’ effect – which basically states that people will respond to a given therapy or pill according to the expectations they receive as to what effects should occur. The effect has been shown to be real but it is difficult to believe that young children or infants are subject to such effects when, for example, homoeopathic solutions are applied; similarly, some vets use homoeopathy in their practice and no animal has yet been shown to respond to a placebo! The fact that no theory of how it might work is yet accepted by orthodox medicine should not preclude investigating it.
Nonetheless, it is clearly important that complementary therapies produce as much objective evidence for their claimed effects as possible and the varying amounts of research evidence that currently do exist largely determine to what degree each is accepted by orthodox practitioners. Various academic journals now exist which publish properly peer-viewed research that meets the criteria required to be taken seriously by researchers and clinicians in mainstream medicine; otherwise it risks not only opposition but exclusion.
Three broad areas
Complementary therapies focus broadly on three main areas: nutrition, environmental and what is called ‘psychoneuroimmunology’ (PNI) – that is, the study of the effect of the mind’s state on the body’s function, particularly with respect to the immune system.
The public is becoming increasingly aware of the need to examine the ingredients in food and drinks, and nutritional therapists certainly place strong emphasis on such knowledge to help clients avoid or reduce the effects of chronic illness. In particular, they emphasize the beneficial effects of minimum levels of vitamins, minerals and enzymes for the body’s – and brain’s – optimal functioning. This has an added importance in today’s economic climate: if the cost of healthcare to the NHS can be reduced significantly through a change in lifestyle and eating habits then this is to be encouraged. Researchers calculated that unhealthy eating habits cost the NHS £6 billion, which is three times the cost of smoking; the cost of obesity alone in 2007 was £4.2 billion and this is estimated to rise to £6.3 billion by 2015.
The use of supplements is a controversial area, with mainstream doctors arguing that they are unnecessary if a balanced diet is adopted, while many others claim that lack of nutrients in, particularly, processed foods, as well as additives and sweeteners, coupled with extra stress and pollutants, means that they are almost essential. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
The result for many is adopting a lifestyle that involves supplements, organic produce, raw food and minimum intake of processed food, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of certain degenerative illness or mitigating its onset.
Concern for the effect of environmental aspects is linked to nutrition in its investigation of the effects on and elimination of pollutants from the body. Various techniques are used to ‘detox’ the body and to remove heavy metals and other environmental toxins, contributed by industry and modern, intensive agriculture. Other techniques involve shielding the body from sources of environmental stress, such as manmade electromagnetic fields from sources like mobile phone microwave transmitters Finally, the study of how a person’s mental-emotional state can affect the function of their immune system is gradually being accepted; for example, depressed people generally reduce their immune system’s ability to fight illness so it makes sense to adopt practices such as meditation and yoga, combined with good nutrition, to boost the brain’s ability to cope, without having to resort to antidepressant drugs, particularly given their addictive potential.
In view of the epidemic of depression in the United Kingdom, the NHS stands to save an increasing amount of its huge drug bill by encouraging non-drug therapies: orthodox – like cognitive behaviour therapy, CBT – or complementary, which enable people to function without depending on pills.
In conclusion, mainstream medicine needs to explore openly the possible benefits of the more effective complementary therapies, while the latter perhaps need to realize that they will not gain much further acceptance without the ability to provide the kind of evidence that any regulatory authority needs to be convinced of their efficacy and to provide protection to the public from the unscrupulous.
Simon Best, MA, trained as a psychologist and later moved into medical journalism. He is editor of Caduceus, a magazine which focuses on healing in all its forms www.caduceus.info. He is not a Freemason.