BY DAN KLUGER
For millions of years, humans have healed themselves using the flora and fauna around them, guided by their own intuitive sense about health. In recent years, humans have vastly increased their survival rates, using Western medicine (also known as allopathic medicine) to treat and cure disease while sometimes dismissing the natural flora and fauna that had aided them for so long. For example, vaccinations, antibiotics, and technologies that decrease infant mortality are incredible advances that have dramatically increased life expectancy worldwide. Although this technological and scientific approach to healing has been incredibly successful, the scientific community should not dismiss the wisdom about the healing process that humans have gained over millions of years.Sarsaparilla leaves are commonly cited as an example of an effective natural medicine solution to many diseases
Although many of these centuries-old healing practices based their ideas upon an unscientific understanding of the human body, the flora and fauna that were used to heal people in the past could potentially revolutionize medicine today. For example, healers began to treat the sick with a vine known as sarsaparilla centuries before society had the tools to scientifically evaluate its utility. According to L. Taylor, Peruvian indigenous peoples have long used this common vine to treat headaches, the common cold, and joint pain.1 Because the medical establishment has turned away from natural cures such as sarsaparilla or willow tea, it has missed an opportunity to create a medical practice that focuses more on preventative or mild curatives. Instead, people often turn to the most concentrated alternative. For example, many chose to expose their bodies to drugs such as aspirin – which is actually derived from willow – which, according to a study performed by H. Sørensen et al. and published in Nature, can increase one’s risk of major gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding in the esophagus, stomach, and intestines, and in rare cases can have other severe side effects.2
In some cases, researchers find new cures or treatments for diseases when they re-evaluate herbal remedies discovered by older cultures. For example, researcher Youyou Tu from the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing will be awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of an extremely effective treatment for malaria. In 1969, Tu was appointed to lead a project to combat chloroquine-resistant malaria. She began her research by collecting approximately 2000 candidate recipes from ancient texts and medicinal traditions. One of the recipes utilized an extract from the artemesia annua plant called artemisinim, which she discovered was very effective. She then used various Western technologies to reduce the toxicity of the extract while boosting its potency. Tu’s story shows the true potential of a combined approach to medicine that merges knowledge of alternative medicine with the advanced scientific understanding that underpins allopathic medicine.3
Along with traditional herbal medicine, other branches of alternative medicine such as Reiki (sound healing) and acupuncture can also benefit modern medicine. The placebo effect is well documented in Western medicine and has even been shown to stimulate changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and brain activity. A recent Harvard study concluded that different placebos have varying effects. Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard researcher, collaborated with a nearby hospital on a study in which 262 patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) were either given no treatment, sham acupuncture (placebo acupuncture) with minimal interaction from the practitioner, or sham acupuncture with warm care from the practitioner. Warm care consisted of at least 20 minutes of communication, as well as physical contact with the hand or shoulder of the patient. The group that received warm care experienced the greatest relief of symptoms.4 While this study does not compare the effectiveness of Western and alternative treatments for IBS, it is noteworthy because it indicates that the emotional aspects of treatment impact the healing process. If the scientific community utilizes the wisdom of natural healing methods garnered over millions of years, it will likely find additional methods for optimizing the emotional and mental states of patients. One example of this can be seen in how for cancer patients, alternative medicine utilized early in the treatment process may work as an efficacious supplement to chemotherapeutic treatments, but should not replace modern treatments unless the patient opts solely for a palliative care.
While many of the healing procedures used in alternative medicine today alleviate certain ailments by utilizing the placebo effect, it would be difficult to prove their efficacy through the double-blind gold standard used in the scientific community. This is because double-blind experiments seek to prove that a treatment works better than the placebo effect, instead of studying the benefits of the placebo effect itself. Considering the difficulty thus far in proving its efficacy, ideas about the placebo effect beg further research if scientists aim to comprehensively understand the benefits and harms of this form of alternative medicine.
Dan Kluger is a sophomore in Morse College. Dan is an undeclared major from Connecticut. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) Taylor, L. (1996). “The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs.” Raintree: Tropical Plant Database. Retrieved from http://www.rain-tree.com/sarsaparilla.htm#.VjU9TRCrTdd.
2) Sørensen, H., Mellemkjær, L., Blot, W., Nielsen, G., Steffensen, F., McLaughlin, J., & Olsen, J. (2000). Risk of upper gastrointestinal bleeding associated with use of low-dose aspirin. Nature, 95(9), 2218-2224. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/ajg/journal/v95/n9/full/ajg2000570a.html.
3) Strauss, E. (n.d.). Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Lasker Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/2011_c_description.htm.
4) Feinberg, C. (2013, January/February). The Placebo Phenomenon. The Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/01/the-placebo-phenomenon.