Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Melting Pot Medicine

I found an interesting article over at Yahoo News about how many immigrants are choosing to use plant-based remedies they learned in their home-lands, over the modern medicines being offered by American doctors. This is an interesting revelation. I've blogged before about the rising cost of health care, and according to the Yahoo article, that's one of the main reasons some of these immigrants are seeking "natrual medicines" over modern "chemical medicines."

I'm curious to see what kind of an impact this will have on our national health care system. The debate (more like a shouting match) over so-called "natural" and "alternative" medicines vs. "modern" or so-called "allopathic" medicines is really bizarre. It's very politically charged. Different groups get very passionate about what they perceive of as truth, and scream bloody murder about the "other guy." All the while they ignore the fact that the "other guy" might be right once in a while.

A lot of it has to do with money. Health insurance and pharmaceutical companies are very big businesses. They see plant-based medicines and "alternative therapies" as both a detriment to American's health, and the company's profit margins. (I've got my own unsubstantiated opinion as to which is more important to them, but that's another blog.) Companies and practitioners of alternative and so-called "natural" medicines scream and rant just as vehemently, trying to defend their practices so they can stay legal, and unregulated.

I think some of the problem is simple terminology. Some Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) are called naturopaths. Some people refer to Mecial Doctors (MDs) as "allopaths" or "practitioners of allopathic medicine." MDs just call themselves doctors (even when they don't have a Ph.D.). ODs (Osteopathic Doctors) call themselves either osteopaths, or just plain "doctors" as well. Most people don't refer to Chiropractors as doctors, and yet they are "Doctors of Chiropractic" (DCs).

The way we talk bout medicines is bizarre, too. Pharmaceuticals are referred as "modern medicine" or "chemical medicine" while plant-based medicines are referred to as "herbal medicines" or worse, "dietary supplements." What's so funny is that many Pharmaceuticals started life as plant-based medicines. Aspirin is really salicylic acid, and was originally derived from white willow bark. The Pharmaceutical companies just refined out what they considered to be unnecessary.

It's all chemical. Even food is chemical. Everything we eat, drink, or swallow, whether it's food, herbs, or drugs is chemical, and it all affects us. That's why the term "side effect" throws me. There is no such thing as side effects, only unwanted effects.

Modern medicines are no safer, or more deadly, than natural medicines. Pharmaceuticals and herbs are both potentially dangerous when used incorrectly. Heck, some of them are dangerous no matter what. To make things even more confusing, both pro-herbal and pro-pharmaceutical sides like the use that same argument against each other.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of research on many herbal remedies. The scientific community and the FDA like to "remind people" that there is no scientific evidence on herbal medicines, but then they make no effort to create such evidence. In many scientific circles such research is considered to be a waste of time, or "unworthy of scientific pursuit." Something must be going on, even outside of the obvious "snake oil" approaches, or some of these remedies wouldn't have survived this long. Where such research is being done, in many cases the research itself is shoddy, not meeting rigorous scientific standards, and yet it still gets published by the media (and the researchers doing the work).

The controversy surrounding Hypericum (St. John's Wort) is a perfect example. Some studies show effectiveness in treating mild depression, but not major depression. Others show no benefit at all. Still others show benefit in all kinds of depression, as well as anxiety and sleep disorders. In Great Britain it is commonly prescribed for minor depression, but in American it's not a prescribed medicine at all. Who are we supposed to believe?

I know I don't have all the answers, but it seems that if a treatment is working for a large body of people, it's worth studying, don't you think? Whose side is the FDA on, anyway? The pharmaceutical company's or the American public's? (That's another blog in the making.) One thing is for sure, though. With the rising costs of modern health care and pharmaceuticals, more and more Americans, immigrants or otherwise, are going to be looking for alternative solutions.

I recently discovered that a lot of research is going on in Europe on herbal medicines, where they are more widely accepted than in America. Much of it is very promising, but the FDA and the medical industry in America refuse to consider the research.

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