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Is Alternative Health “Pseudoscience?”

March 7, 2015

Alternative (or “holistic”[1]) health measures get a bad rap from the conventional medical community.  I can see why.  It is somewhat factual that many of the holistic remedies touted by naturopaths and the like have not been as systematically evaluated with scientific tests as more conventional methods have.  A lot of it is based on experience handed-down more than scientific studies.  I know a woman whose sister, in her South American home country, saw alternative health gurus for cancer prevention, and ended up not getting appropriate treatment, and her cancer grew very severe.  Now, I don’t know how the alternative health movement in her country compares to that in the United States.  But this points out a very important thing- that natural health measures do not necessarily have some of the strong, powerful medical capabilities that conventional medicine has.  Suzanne Humphries, MD, an Internist and Board Certified Nephrologist, has said in a lecture:

“I don’t have anything completely against the pharmaceutical industry because I have witnessed the miracles of giving a drug to somebody who needs it when they need it.  It’s fantastic if you want to get rid of a symptom, pain; if you have organ failure.  We need this kind of medicine.  The problem is that when people have minor issues, health issues, that this kind of medicine is used automatically as first line of defense, and none of these drugs from the pharmaceutical industry bring people to higher states of natural health, whereas there are many nutriceuticals and [there is] nutritional advice … that can do that, and then they can avoid these drugs.  And that is really my belief at this point in how I practice medicine, but it wasn’t always the case.”[2]

And so we need conventional medicine- we need those powerful drugs and procedures for dire cases. I have two cousins whose lives were saved from an immune-crippling genetic syndrome because of the modern availability of bone-marrow transplants.  Alternative health does not have the ability to do things like that.  (This is the reason why, even if I could afford to go to a naturopath, I would still want to be seen by a conventional doctor.)

However, what alternative health does have the power to do is to strengthen the body’s ability to heal itself, using nutrition and what I call “holistic sickness management.”  This involves not giving fever-reducing drugs[3], for example, and treating colds and common illnesses with vitamin supplements, herbs, and bodily rest instead of symptom-meds such as suphedrine and ibuprofen.  Even antibiotics are less necessary than commonly thought- I cured a sinus infection in myself with a blend of essential oils including tea tree and eucalyptus.  The result of this is an immune system that gets stronger every time it fights a sickness, and so sicknesses that follow become less severe or non-existent.  This is the way I grew up being treated by my parents (sans the essential oils), so I have never had the opportunity to see a before/after holistic methods contrast in my health.  But I was surprised to get through four years of dorm life in college without catching any illness greater than a basic cold, and to move then to a European country and have no trouble adapting to a new flora of bacteria and viruses. Yet an even stronger testimony is a good friend of mine, who did not grow up this way and adopted this holistic approach to sickness in the past two years.  Now, this year she has experienced the first winter ever that she did not got sick in January and February.  You can read about her experience here, and the dramatic change that holistic medicine has brought about in her health.  She has even noticed a difference in her struggle with depression, which she writes about in other blog posts.  And so you see, the alternative health movement hasn’t died because, in many cases, it works.  But unfortunately we don’t have very many scientific studies to back up our methods in public debate.  Why?

I don’t think the alternative health system has been given a fair chance to show its robustness in scientific studies.  As far as I understand, scientific research in the USA is driven by one of two things: pharmaceutical companies or grants.  Pharma has very little motivation to study something that can’t be patented- such as vitamins, herbs or essential oils.  Grants for scientific research at universities are obviously limited. And so, natural remedies don’t get studied much.  But if thousands of years of experience handed-down has taught alternative health doctors that a certain remedy or procedure (i.e. a Chinese herb or acupuncture) is effective, safe and holistic, can you blame them for wanting to help patients in this way?   In their 500 page book (with scholarly citations on nearly every page), Dissolving Illusions, Dr. Humphries and Roman Bystrianyk relate stories of some doctors in the 1930s who were healing diphtheria patients with intravenous Vitamin C, with outstanding success.  But the practice never caught on because the medical system was wrapped up in the money-making opportunity of vaccines and Penicillin.  They write: “Perhaps the best prevention and treatment that exists against all toxin-mediated diseases will never be accepted by conventional medicine, simply because it cannot be patented.”[4]   It is unfair to call unconventional methods “pseudo-science” when the financial cards are stacked against them.

Even “integrative medicine”, which seeks to take the best, scientifically validated practices from both alternative and conventional medicine,[5] faces an uphill battle against the bias of certain scientists, such as David Gorski, a highly respected surgeon and blogger.[6]

What the pharmaceutical, conventional system doesn’t realize is that itself is limited by this set-up.  It is not just the alternative health doctors who are pointing out problems.  The problem is self-evident in the fact that Eastern Europe has a cure against antibiotic-resistant bacteria that the Western medical system doesn’t.  In its February 2015 issue, Prevention magazine reported on phage therapy.  An American woman with a life-threatening sinus infection, after struggling for years under antibiotics with no success and becoming severely weak, travelled to Romania for treatment with phages, which are bacteria-eating micro-organisms.  She was healed completely in three weeks.  Why the heck don’t we have treatment like this in the United States?  The answer seems pretty simple to me. Phage science is much like an art.

“Phages are expensive to test because they don’t adhere to the Western ‘one size fits all’ treatment paradigm.  Rather, they are custom remedies made from naturally occurring viruses, applied in ways specific to the particular strains of bacteria each patient is suffering from.  It’ll take leaps of time and technology to turn them into prescription drugs.  To get phages approved in the US, a drug company would have to test not only each individual phage but also all [near-endless] combinations of phage cocktails…and prove their safety in multiphase human trials.  While dozens of Eastern Europe studies … have shown success… the one complete US study in humans pitted a single cocktail against a variety of infections and, predictably, didn’t show impressive results.”[7]

And so you see, the Western scientific and pharmaceutical process does not always lead us to the truly most effective and brilliant medical advancements.  Just because a treatment doesn’t fit the Western medical “mold” doesn’t mean it is irresponsible, unscientific or wrong.

I myself have asked my healthcare practitioners for advice taking herbal supplements and teas in pregnancy, but only got a vague answer “not recommending” all herb supplements because there is too little research.  How is it that, with all our “highly advanced” medical technology, we can’t use one of the oldest medicines known to mankind – herbs – for one of the most common patients ever – a pregnant woman?

I don’t know much about medical research from my college education.  But I do wonder if maybe all these issues I’ve shared reveal some faults in in the way we do things here in in the Western world, and particularly America.  Maybe our biggest health problem isn’t McDonalds or couch potato habits.  Maybe it is that and something more- the system itself?

What do you think?  Anything to add? Anything to dispute?

Disclaimer: Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any foods, supplements, or activities have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. By using this site you agree to these terms.

[1] Definition of holistic in this context: characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease. (Google)

[2]Suzanne Humphries, MD, Lecture for Canal 2nd Opinion, Sweden. Part 1 of 4

[3] Fever Myths and Facts:

[4] Humphries, Suzanne and Bystrianyk, Roman. Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten History. 2013, p. 205.

[5] Integrative Medicine:

[6] David Gorski:

[7] Cure for Antibiotic Resistance:

UPDATE: please see the comment from Brianna for helpful info about research on herbs.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. ewbsuffern permalink
    March 8, 2015 12:27 am

    Very well written post, Kate. Thank you for summarizing so lucidly wide ranges of information and viewpoints in what I feel is a balanced way. Your cross-cultural exposure brings an “added-value” to your post which helps me see the big picture.
    – – Ned

  2. Liz permalink
    March 8, 2015 7:07 pm

    Reblogged this on Salad At Midnight and commented:
    Great post about the controversy alternative health practices spark. We are at a place right now as a society where we refuse to accept anything as truth unless it has been proven in a scientific study. Anything else is rumor, conjecture, and “art”. But by doing this, we are only recognizing one type of knowledge.

    • March 8, 2015 10:36 pm

      Liz, I almost said something about types of knowledge, or epistemology, too, but took it out. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Brianna permalink
    March 8, 2015 8:55 pm

    First, I appreciate your initial disclaimer that you do appreciate conventional medicine and recognize that naturopathy and holistic medicine has it’s limits. The vocal proponents of the latter who are wholly against the former *really* annoy me.

    Second, some thoughts about herbs/herbal supplements and research on them, from the perspective of a scientist (I’m a physicist, so I checked this explanation by one of my biology/biochem/biomedical grad student friends after I wrote it up). It’s not just a matter of money, or an idolization of science, it’s also an issue of complexity. That is, herbal supplements from unmodified herbs include a lot of variables that make it extremely challenging to control for in a valid study that would lead to valid, generalizable conclusions, compared to studying pure compounds. Even if a connection were found, the natural variation in concentrations from one plant to another would make recommending a specific dose challenging, and would likely lead to reluctance in authoritatively recommending something unless it were in purified form. My biologist friend said that there *have* been studies done on herbs/herbal supplements (specifically, she knows of research that has been done on traditional Chinese herbal medicines which has shown some of them to be verifiably helpful). There’s just not as many because the issue is such a complex one to tackle.

    To elaborate on the complexity issue (for those interested): the effective chemicals in herbs undoubtedly vary depending on growth environment and year – I’m sure you’ve experienced variation in how pungent and flavorful homegrown herbs can be, even within the same species, just depending on the type of soil you grew it in or how well it was watered, etc. So, say you’re wanting to determine how much of X herb should be recommended, based on the fact that it contains Y chemical that shows Z effect. To properly test this, you’d need to control the dosage of Y. But you can’t just give everyone 5g of X, since different sources of X may contain different amounts of Y. Lets say you do in fact measure the concentration of Y in your samples of X to make sure that all the people in your study get a properly scaled amount of X that gives everyone the same amount of Y, and then you discover that 5g of Y does in fact have Z effect, but if you increase the dosage to 10g, it’s dangerous. Great! You have now discovered the appropriate amount of Y chemical that will produce the desired Z effect. The problem is, that doesn’t necessarily correspond to a universally appropriate dose of X herb, because maybe this grower’s X herb has less Y in it than that grower’s X herb – how are you going to account for this to make sure people use the right amount and aren’t inadvertently harmed? It’s a lot easier and more reliable to recommend a certain dose of say, aspirin, than it is to recommend a dose of willow bark extract (from which aspirin was originally derived), since you know exactly how much acetylsalicylic acid is in an aspirin pill but you don’t necessarily know the exact concentration in the extract. All this assumes that you already know that Y compound causes Z effect – figuring that out is a whole *other* complex study, because herbs contain multiple chemicals, and all you may know at the start is that X herb seems to maybe have Z effect, but you have no idea which of the various chemical compounds present in X could be causing that effect. So again, it’s a lot simpler to test and recommend specific chemicals in a conventional drug type format than it is to test and recommend specific herbs.

    • March 8, 2015 10:35 pm

      Brianna, Thank you, I was actually hoping you would read this and comment, cause I know you have helpful things to say and are knowledgable! That info helps me understand better. Thanks.

      • Brianna permalink
        March 8, 2015 11:32 pm

        You’re welcome!

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