Alternative Medicine: Why so popular?
by Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE
In 1997 Americans made 627 million visits to practitioners of
alternative medicine and spent $27 billion of their own money to pay for
alternative therapies. In contrast, Americans made only 386 million visits to
their family doctor. It is estimated, by none other than the Harvard Medical
School, that one out of every two persons in the United States between the ages
of 35 and 49 years used at least one alternative therapy in 1997. That is a
growth of 47.3 per cent since 1990. This is spectacular by any means and of
great concern to conventional (allopathic) medicine especially since the people
using alternative medicine are primarily well-educated, affluent baby
The trend to alternative medicine is repeated throughout Western society. In
Australia 57 percent of the population now use some form of alternative
medicine, in Germany 46 percent do, and in France 49 percent do. The growth of
some types of alternative medicine is indeed astounding. Between 1991 and 1997
the use of herbal medicines in the United States grew by 380 per cent and the
use of vitamin therapy by 130 per cent. These are impressive numbers by anyone's
What it is and isn't
So why do people increasingly prefer alternative to conventional medicine? The
reasons are pretty simple - it is safe and it works! While there is little doubt
that allopathic medicine works well in the case of trauma and emergency (you
don't call your herbalist if you get hit by a car), it is much less effective
when it comes to prevention, chronic disease, and in addressing the mental,
emotional, and spiritual needs of an individual. These are precisely the areas
where alternative medicine excels. To most of the world's population, over 80
per cent to be precise, alternative medicine is not "alternative" at all, but
rather the basis of the health care system. To Western-trained physicians
alternative medicine is "something not taught in medical schools" and something
that allopathic doctors don't do and, one could add, generally know nothing
about. Alternative medicine actually encompasses a very large array of different
systems and therapies ranging from ayurvedic medicine to vitamin therapy.
Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for the past five thousand
years and has recently undergone a renaissance in the West due, in no small
measure, to the work and lectures of Dr. Deepak Chopra, MD. Ayurvedic medicine
is a very comprehensive system that places equal emphasis on body, mind, and
spirit and uses a highly personalized approach to return an individual to a
state where he or she is again in harmony with their environment. Ayurvedic
medicine uses diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, herbs, and medication
and, despite its long lineage, is as applicable today as it was 5000 years ago.
For example, the seeds of the Mucuna pruriens plant have long been used to treat
Parkinson's disease in India; it is now receiving attention in conventional
circles as it is more effective than l-dopa and has fewer side effects(4).
Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for over 3000 years and
over one quarter of the world's population now uses one or more of its component
therapies. TCM combines the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and the use of
therapeutic exercises such as Qi Gong. It has proven to be effective in the
treatment of many chronic diseases including cancer, allergies, heart disease
and AIDS. As does Ayurvedic medicine, TCM also focuses on the individual and
looks for and corrects the underlying causes of imbalance and patterns of
Homeopathy was developed in the early 1800s by the German physician
Samuel Hahnemann. It is a low-cost, non-toxic health care system now used by
hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is particularly popular in
South America and the British Royal Family has had a homeopathic physician for
the last four generations. Homeopathy is an excellent first-aid system and is
also superb in the treatment of minor ailments such as earaches, the common
cold, and flu. Homeopathy is again based on the treatment of the individual and
when used by a knowledgeable practitioner can also be very effective in the cure
of conditions such as hay fever, digestive problems, rheumatoid arthritis, and
Chiropracty primarily involves the adjustment of spine and joints to
alleviate pain and improve general health. It was practiced by the early
Egyptians and was developed into its present form by the American Daniel David
Palmer in 1895. It is now the most common form of alternative medicine in the
United States. Chiropractors not only manipulate spine and joints, but also
advise their patients on lifestyle and diet matters. They believe that humans
possess an innate healing potential and that all disease can be overcome by
properly activating this potential.
Naturopathic medicine also strongly believes in the body's inherent
ability to heal itself. Naturopathy emphasizes the need for seeking and treating
the causes of a disease rather than simply suppressing its symptoms. Naturopaths
use dietary modifications, herbal medicines, homeopathy, acupuncture,
hydrotherapy, massage, and lifestyle counseling to achieve healing.
Vitamin therapy or orthomolecular medicine uses vitamins, minerals, and
amino acids to return a diseased body to wellness in the belief that the average
diet today is often woefully inadequate in providing needed nutrients and that
the need for specific nutrients is highly individual. Conditions as varied as
hypertension, depression, cancer, and schizophrenia can all benefit enormously
from vitamin therapy.
Biofeedback, body work, massage therapy, reflexology, hydrotherapy,
aromatherapy, and various other forms of energy medicine round out the vast
spectrum of alternative medicine modalities.
How is it different?
So what sets alternative medicine
apart from allopathic medicine?
Conventional medicine is preferred in the treatment of trauma
and emergencies while alternative medicine excels in the treatment of chronic
disease, although homeopathy can also be very effective as a first-aid.
Conventional medicine focuses on the relief of symptoms and
rarely places emphasis on prevention or the treatment of the cause of a
disorder. All alternative systems, on the other hand, strive to find and treat
the cause of a disorder and frown on covering up the symptoms. Alternative
therapies are also much more focused on prevention.
Conventional medicine is organ specific, hence ophthalmologists,
cardiologists, nephrologists, neurologists, etc. Alternative medicine, without
exception, considers each person as a unique individual and uses a holistic
approach in treatment.
Conventional medicine believes in aggressive intervention to
treat disease. It revels in terms such as "magic bullet" and "war" ("the war on
cancer"), and prefers quick fixes (as do many patients). Alternative medicine
believes in gentle, long-term support to enable the body's own innate powers to
do the healing.
Conventional medicine's main "arsenal" consists of surgery,
chemotherapy, radiation, and powerful pharmaceutical drugs. Alternative medicine
uses time-tested, natural remedies and gentle, hands-on treatments.
Conventional medicine practitioners are guided in their
treatment by strict rules set out by the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons.
This often leads to a "one size fits all" approach. Practitioners of alternative
medicine, on the other hand, treat each patient as an individual and do what, in
their opinion, is best rather than what is specified in a "rule book".
Conventional medicine sees the body as a mechanical system (the
heart is a pump and the kidneys are a filter) and believes most disorders can be
traced to chemical imbalances and therefore are best treated with powerful
chemicals (drugs). Alternative medicine systems, almost without exception,
accept that the body is suffused by a network of channels (meridians) that carry
a subtle form of life energy. Imbalances or blockages of this energy are what
lead to disease and clearing of the blockages and strengthening of the energy is
the ultimate goal of alternative medicine.
Conventional medicine prefers patients to be passive and accept
their treatment without too many questions. Alternative medicine, in contrast,
prefers and indeed, in many cases, requires the patient to take a highly active
part in both prevention and treatment.
Both conventional and alternative medicine ascribe to the
principle "Do no harm". However, while alternative medicine is essentially
achieving this goal, conventional medicine seems to have almost totally lost
sight of it. Hospitals are now the third largest killer in Australia and over
one million people are seriously injured in American hospitals every year. Blood
infections acquired in American hospitals cause 62,000 fatalities every year and
bypass surgery results in 25,000 strokes a year. Two million patients experience
adverse drug reactions in hospitals in the United States every year; of these,
over 100,000 die making hospital-induced adverse drug reactions the fourth
leading cause of death after heart disease, cancer, and stroke(5-11).
The practice of conventional medicine is intimately tied in with
the whole medico-pharmaceutical-industrial complex whose first priority is to
make a profit. Although most conventional physicians have "healing the patient"
as their first priority, they find it increasingly difficult to do so while
operating within the system with its pharmaceutical salesmen, its rule books,
its fear of malpractice suits, its endless paperwork to satisfy bureaucrats and
insurance companies, and its time pressures. Most alternative medicine
practitioners have no such constraints and pressures and can give the patient
their undivided attention.
Conventional medicine generally resists the use of natural
remedies long after their efficacy has been scientifically proven (Germany is an
exception to this). Most alternative medicine practitioners eagerly embrace new
remedies and, in many cases, can point to years of safe use. Ginkgo biloba is
now the most prescribed drug in Germany and has been found effective in the
prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease(12). Also in Germany the herb
saw palmetto is now prescribed in 90 per cent of all cases of enlarged prostate;
in the United States 300,000 prostate operations are performed each year to
solve this problem. More profitable for sure, but dangerous and unpleasant for
The major source of funds for medical research is pharmaceutical
companies who, not surprisingly, are very reluctant to support investigations
into lifestyle modifications, vitamins, and other unpatentable products.
Nevertheless, a growing number of medical researchers are focusing their
attention on natural supplements and remedies and are publishing their work in
mainstream journals. The benefits of antioxidants have now been thoroughly
documented by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and similar prestigious
institutions. Folic acid, a simple B vitamin, has also been extensively studied
in university laboratories and has been found to be effective in preventing or
ameliorating heart attacks, strokes, angina, intermittent claudication,
atherosclerosis, kidney disease, colon cancer, hearing loss, and Alzheimer's
Although alternative practitioners and a small group of conventional physicians
do embrace the use of natural therapies and products the vast majority of
"establishment" physicians are still dragging their heels and even denigrating
and ridiculing alternative medicine. This fact, perhaps more than anything else,
is what is driving the rapid and massive switch from conventional to alternative
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