The great promise of mind-body medicine will never be fulfilled as long as the treatments are unpredictable. This has been a major stumbling block in the West, ever since the original excitement over acupuncture in the Seventies and Ayurveda in the Eighties. Patients who have been helped sing the praises of alternative medicine while official clinical trials don't satisfy the skeptics. In the East it is more easily accepted that each patient is unique, and therefore one cannot expect that the same therapy will lead to the same results in everybody. One sees this in the placebo effect, also. You can give inert sugar pills to cure pain, and the pain will go away in some patients but not others. To a Western-trained physician this lack of reliability undermines the treatment's credibility. Medical schools teach their students to expect a shot of penicillin or an appendectomy to lead to a cure as reliably for patient A as for patient B.
In practice there is no such thing as complete reliability, however, and one must consider how many patients die on the operating table or suffer extreme side effects from drugs. There is also the problem that drugs become less effective over time -- the phenomenon known as tachyphylaxis -- and that "super germs" develop in hospitals, causing a serious rise in illness and death caused by the treatment -- a phenomenon known as iatrogenic disease. In response to the growing resistance of microbes to standard antibiotics, drug companies promise to develop new alternatives as the germs learn to beat the old drugs, but unless there's big money in it, the pharmaceutical research isn't undertaken with any great enthusiasm or speed. Hence the vicious circle of ineffective drugs, smarter germs, and rising drug prices that plague American medicine.
That's one reason, among many, why mind-body medicine poses a brighter future than the proponents of standard drugs and surgery are willing to concede. (The fact that the average American over 70 takes seven prescription drugs a day must make anyone pause.) The public already trusts alternative medicine far more than the official voices who warn against it year after year. One reads of the dire effects of vitamin A poisoning, for example, when in reality the number of megavitamin overdoes in this country is minuscule compared to the thousands of people who get sick and die from hospital infections. It's like condemning nutmeg as a hallucinogen while and ignoring the crash of five jumbo jets.
The New England Journal of Medicine has been much less sympathetic to alternative medicine than the leading British journal, The Lancet, which ran a 2005 article on the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating and preventing colds and flu. Almost immediately The Lancet ran a counter article bolstering the conventional view that homeopathy isn't effective. This represents the usual confusion. Adherents to alternative medicine clash with the establishment, both sides pointing to their own research, but both sides also having to admit that definitive results never seem to settle their disputes.
I've come to feel that the argument will never be settled until we accept a fact of nature: everyone has a unique response to disease. No single treatment can be expected to cure or prevent illness with complete reliability, and even if Western medicine is right to claim that a drug like penicillin works more often than any alternative, Eastern medicine can point to drug intolerance, side effects, and expense as considerable drawbacks. (Not to mention the exponential risks that often mount when pharmaceuticals are mixed with one another, or with alcohol consumption.) Therefore, each of us needs to consider our own bodies, our own life history, and our own susceptibility. Mainstream medicine constantly tries to sell its one-size-fits-all position, and it shouldn't. For decades all patients with high blood pressure were put on reduced salt diets that they found hard to tolerate, despite the fact that over 80% of people are not salt sensitive and can eat as much salt as they want. Over that same period low-cholesterol diets were pushed for all patients at risk for premature heart attacks, even though the connection between the cholesterol you eat and the cholesterol in your blood varies widely. To claim that there was a simple correlation was bad science. Meanwhile, the strong correlation between heart attacks and psychological stress was pursued with much less enthusiasm, if at all. Today, of course, newer and better drugs are meant to solve all problems.
What, then, can you and I do to offset the unpredictable nature of healing? The answer doesn't lie in a simplistic choice between drugs and surgery all the time or none of the time. We have to envision a new future for the body, and with that in hand, intelligent choices can be made from both sides of the medical menu, mainstream and alternative.
(to be cont.)