A few decades ago “alternative” medicines mainly came from “head shops” and other fringe outlets that catered to the then-marginal counterculture. Today every health food store, pharmacist and supermarket sells a range of “natural” pills, juices, salves, teas and powders that promise to cure your cold, detoxify your body, sleep soundly, stave off illness, brighten your mood, remember your anniversary and return to the size you were when you were a teenager. Advertisements tout nutritionists, homeopaths, herbalists and therapists of all kinds to read your chi, your chakras or some other kind of pseudo-spiritual “energy.” In short, our poor health and dissatisfaction has created whole new fields of capitalism.
It’s not difficult to see why; we’re getting sicker across the industrialised world, perhaps most in my native USA, where more than a third of the population is obese, and another third is overweight. Chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes have created skyrocketing medical costs – up 58 per cent in just nine years, according to one study.
We can easily think of many reasons for this. For one thing, most Westerners are surrounded by cheap and unhealthy food. An increasing number of my own countrymen live in “food deserts”—especially, ironically in farmland -- where junk food is the only thing available for many miles. Most of us in the West live sedentary lives at work and home, working longer and more stressful hours in this declining economy, and have less to show for it. Moreover, that post-World-War-II Baby Boom is now entering pension age, so a disproportionate percentage of the population is getting much sicker. So we need doctors more, and can afford them less.
Even those Westerners who can afford treatment don’t always get it; the number of parents who refuse to give their children vaccinations, for example, increased by 77 per cent from 2003 to 2008. Part of this might be because modern medicine has done its job so well, wiping out almost all major diseases in a mere century; if you’ve never heard of anyone getting polio, tuberculosis or measles, you might not be motivated to protect yourself against them. We have quickly forgotten what it was like many generations ago, when most children did not survive into adulthood and everyone knew someone who died or were crippled by these diseases.
Part of it, however, might stem from an increasing scepticism of a medical establishment that seems so distant and costs so much, the same sentiment that makes pharmaceutical companies a reliable villain in Hollywood movies. Americans in particular must pay exorbitant rates for prescription drugs, so the companies charging such rates turn to other options. Unsurprisingly, then, more people spend money on alternative therapies -- Americans spent almost $15 billion on herbal pills, a third as much as was spent on conventional pharmaceuticals.
If you think that medicine, like all aspects of modern society, will face a crisis in the coming decades, you might be inclined to cut alternative medicine some slack. If our fuel, economic and climate crises deepen, won’t fewer of us be able to afford CAT scans and chemotherapy, even if hospitals still have them or the electricity to power them? Or if we value a more traditional way of life, shouldn’t we be exploring more traditional cures, and rediscover how to heal ourselves with a field of wildflowers?
Let’s get a few things straight. Firstly, words like “alternative” or “natural” cover a lot of ground, and will encompass methods that work and those that don’t. All foods affect the body – they’re food – and some have long-noticed effects beyond mere nutrition; dandelions, for example, are famous diuretics, as their colloquial name “piss-a-bed” suggests.
Almost all humans in history knew a great deal about the plants all around them from the time they were children, and knew them as intimately as we do the sexual lives of celebrities. We would do well to rediscover that knowledge, and tend to our own health as much as we can before having to see a doctor. We can probably do more by simply eating well, exercising and spending time with loved ones, however, than we can by eating herbs once we get sick.
As much local knowledge as those practitioners of herbal medicine had, they lived only to about 40 years on average, until science brought microscopes, trial and error and peer review into the medical world in the 19th century. Few ancient skeletons appear older than that, whether Neanderthals from 100,000 years ago or bodies preserved in Irish bogs from 2,000 years ago. Even a century ago in the wealthy European nations, most people died before they were 50. Herbal wisdom could do some good, but it was no substitute for clean water and sterilisation.
Secondly, most herbal medicines that actually work were isolated chemically long ago and sold in pure form – aspirin, for example, from willow bark. We still use them, but have stopped calling them herbal medicine. In order to become medicine, however, they had to stand up to scientific tests, and that’s where most alternative therapies fall apart.
If we are less likely to be able to afford conventional medicine in the future, we might want to know what plants work as a backup; for example, to boil willow bark to make a headache cure. This should be backup knowledge for an emergency, though, for sterilised and standardised amounts are surely preferable to unknown amounts.
Thirdly, companies have an interest in patenting and selling cures that work, and pharmaceutical companies must follow public law to prove their products work. If such companies could spare themselves the trouble of manufacturing antidepressants and just patent an herb instead, they would save themselves money. The herbal cures that work were patented long ago; if an herbal cure has never been patented to make a profit, it probably doesn’t work.
A landmark ten-year study by the US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine tested a wide variety of common herbal cures and found that none of them performed any better than sugar-pill placebos at alleviating the conditions they were supposed to cure. Specifically:
• Gingko had no effect on memory.
• Saw palmetto did nothing for prostate problems.
• Shark cartilage was useless against cancer.
• Black cohosh was useless for menopausal hot flashes.
• Echinacea, at least in their experiments, did not help with colds.
Fourthly, alternative medicine is an industry, just like the mainstream pharmaceutical industry, run by executives in suits, making pills in mechanised factories. Their packaging might have pictures of sunbeams and rainforests, but they were made by corporations just like conventional remedies; the only difference is that the alternative medicine market, in many countries, doesn’t have to follow as many rules about what’s in their products.
This is one of the most important things to take away: Most herbal pills don’t necessarily contain any of the substance they advertise on the package. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Medicine found “high content variability” in herbal pills sold, with most companies not even testing how much gingko, say, is in the gingko pills.
A 2003 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that only half the Echinacea pills purchased contained the amount they were supposed to, and 10 per cent contained no Echinacea whatsoever.
In addition, remember that “holistic” medicines don’t just come from Chinese monks or Amazonian Indians; “holistic” refers to the idea that the body has essential elements that need to be kept in balance, like yin and yang in Chinese medicine or chakras in India. Western tradition has the four humours, used from Polybus in the fifth century BC to the beginning of the 19th century AD, and which we still invoke when we refer to someone as melancholy or sanguine.
Western writers came up with some creative cures using this method – when 11th-century Arabic physician Ibn Butlan saw a patient who felt cold and clammy, for example, he recommended eating a rooster, an animal that was hot and dry. It might sound ridiculous, but all other holistic medicines work on the same principle.
Holistic theory was used because no one really understood how the body worked. Why did humours continue to be invoked for 2,400 years if their recommendations were so ridiculous -- she-goat urine poured into the ears for a stiff neck, to use an example from Pliny the Elder? Perhaps for the same reason many modern alternative medicines appear to work; people use them to treat problems like a cold or injury that eventually get better on their own anyway, leading the patient to think that the prescribed remedy was responsible. In cases where a patient gets measurably worse, perhaps, a certain anthropic principle comes into play; those patients who die aren’t around to complain that the cures didn’t work. Or – again, like modern alternative therapies – they treated symptoms that are particularly hard to measure, like “fatigue.”
If someone were to open a storefront today selling she-goat urine or literal snake oil, though, they would get few customers and might be shut down by the authorities. Nor, if your appendix bursts in China, will surgeons give you such treatments – they have modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, and use them. The reason such folk remedies still thrive in countries far removed from their origin has nothing to do with the treatments themselves, and everything to do with the counterculture’s romanticising of any non-Western culture as a repository of ancient and secret wisdom.
We shouldn’t accept scientific medicine because it originated in the West in modern times. We should accept it because science works: researchers measure things, come up with a theory based on what they know, test the theory over and over, and make sure their findings are peer-reviewed before releasing them. That is science, and the fact that most of us are still alive testifies to the fact that it works. That, ultimately, is why this issue is important, and is about more than alternative medicine.
Many people, in one way or another, feel disgust at our modern consumer culture and want to return to a simpler way of life. My more devoutly Christian friends in the USA mourn the loss of traditional, close-knit families and safe communities, while rural acquaintances have watched their towns slowly die as everyone drives to Wal-Mart. My more ecological friends grieve for the loss of so much of the natural world. My more countercultural friends dislike living in a world so dominated by global corporations. As different as these groups seem, they all want to yearn for a simpler and more natural way of life, a way to get around giant bureaucracies and deal with authentic people, to feel like their work has some effect, and to buy products whose ingredients they can pronounce.
Yet all of them must live in the culture they hate -- like most of us, they have families and careers, commutes and mortgages. Few can simply abandon their lives and take up farming, and those that try often discover that they don’t have the self-sufficient skills of our forebears, nor are they accustomed to isolated and long hours of physical labour. And trying to live more self-sufficiently in gradual steps, or learning to combine the best of the traditional and modern worlds, does not appeal to the all-or-nothing thinking so popular these days.
So most people I know – evangelicals and New Agers, libertarians and ecologists, in the Tea Party and the Green Party alike --- are trying to rediscover more traditional kinds of wisdom. So the market has responded, creating sects, political movements and product brands to give people the illusion of doing that. The result is that most people I know spend what years and money they have, selflessly and industriously, in ways that not only don’t get them what they want, but worsen the situation they set out to help.
Each group carries their own examples. Conservative Christians I know support putting the Ten Commandments in public places, even though this will not restore the bonds of family and community. Small-town libertarians I know want their area to get casinos, even though this will make their community poorer in the long run. Many of my ecologically-minded friends turn their lights off for an hour once a year, even though that has zero effect on fossil fuels.
The same holds true for alternative medicine. Refusing vaccinations won’t help the world in any way; it just makes your children more vulnerable to disease. If you buy herbal remedies, you are sending money to global corporations – just ones that don’t have to abide by the public rules of pharmaceutical companies, and can sell things that don’t work.
I'm neither a doctor nor a politician, but I can think of a number of ways people can improve their and their neighbours' health. They could persuade many people to garden, getting exercise and fresh vegetables. They could persuade lawmakers to force herbal companies to abide by the same standards as pharmaceutical companies. Americans, with their more complicated and expensive health care, could create a community health fund like the ones Oddfellows or Masons used to have, or that the Ithaca Fund provides now: people pay a small amount into a fund to pay for the amount not covered in their insurance deductible, thus allowing them to have cheap health insurance with a high deductible. Americans could also persuade lawmakers to change health-care laws, imitating what seems to work best in other parts of the world.
Or, people could do what they do now, and buy placebos that give them the illusion of fighting the good fight.
Chinese medicine - seahorses.
Chinese medicine - deer penis.
Nineteenth-century advertisement for tansy pills.
All photos courtesy of Wikicommons.
More than a third of all Americans are obese, and more than another third are overweight: Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2007–2008
The number is projected to increase by more than one percent per year by 2030, resulting in an estimated chronically ill population of 171 million: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & Partnership for Solutions. "Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care." Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD (September 2004 Update).
Chronic illnesses cause about 70% of deaths in the US and in 2002 chronic conditions (heart disease, cancers, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and kidney diseases) were 6 of the top ten causes of mortality in the general US population: National Center for Health Statistics. “ Health, United States” / 2004.
Amount of herbal substance in herbal supplements: “Lack of herbal supplement characterization in published randomized controlled trials,” American Journal of Medicine, Oct. 2005.
Ancient lifespans: http://www.wonderquest.com/LifeSpan.htm
39 percent of parents refused or delayed vaccinations: according to the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Rochester and the National Opinion Research Center.
The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States: http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2007/camsurvey_fs1.htm
They don’t regulate whether there is any amount of the disease in the pill: The American Journal of Medicine 2005 Oct;118(10):1087-93.
About the author
I am a journalist living in rural Ireland, and have written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic and other publications. I interview elderly Irish about traditional ways of life, and write a weekly column about the Long Emergency for my local newspaper.