On Nature & Medicine

This was written by me for a discussion post in a pharmacy class, the question given being “List 3 places where you can find more information on herbals… what did you learn that might influence you to lean/or not towards natural medicine?”

I am a fairly ardent believer in evidence-based medicine. The terms “natural” and “organic” and “holistic” have long been appropriated by purveyors of woo and are typically red flags pointing straight at quackery. It’s unfortunate that the genuine meanings of these words have been twisted, because evidence-based medicinal treatments can (and indeed do) come from “natural” and “organic” materials. Setting aside the pedantry of what is or is not “organic” (Chemistry fans please remain in your seat) and what is or is not “natural” (Physicists and Biologists, simmer down please), I think it’s important to remember that science doesn’t actually care about labels. Whether the product was brewed as tea from the leaves of a willow tree (as in the case of acetylsalicylic acid; that is, aspirin) (Aspirin Foundation, n.d.) or whether it was synthesized in a laboratory, what makes medicine “medicine” and not “alternative medicine” is rigorous application of the scientific method. Once a product has been demonstrated to be effective with better-than-random statistical effect by study, testing and peer-review only then can it be considered an actual medicine.

I’m going to show my obvious bias here but one of my main resources on understanding homeopathy was given in a TED talk by James Randi. He explains homeopathy in this way:

“What is homeopathy? It’s taking a medicine that really works and diluting it down well beyond Avogadro’s limit. Diluting it down to the point where there’s none of it left. Now folks, this is not just a metaphor I’m going to give you now, it’s true. It’s exactly equivalent to taking one 325 milligram aspirin tablet, throwing it into the middle of Lake Tahoe, and then stirring it up, obviously with a very big stick, and waiting two years or so until the solution is homogeneous. Then, when you get a headache, you take a sip of this water, and — voila! — it is gone. Now that is true. That is what homeopathy is all about.” (Randi, J. 2007). (Entire lecture seen here)

I’m honestly having a hard time coming up with any internet resources regarding “natural” medicine which I feel comfortable endorsing. Anything written outside of a peer-reviewed journal by chemistry and biology PhD’s is untrustworthy to me; I can’t imagine that for all the lab work and multitude of researchers poring through the properties of various matter have never looked at (or even more unlikely, refused to publish) any genuine evidence that, say, cashews are the cure for depression or that pomegranates “HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN” (exact quote) (Levinovitz, A. 2014). Most of these types of claims are based on misunderstanding (or rather, hoping that paying consumers will misunderstand) how drugs like SSRI’s work or how carbohydrates are needed to help other chemicals pass through the blood-brain barrier.

All that said, however I also understand the influential role psychology plays in physical health. Having suffered from chronic atypical depression I am keenly aware of the ways that perception effects health; sometimes the need to believe that a treatment will or will not work may make all the difference in a patient’s response to treatment. For example, while I personally believe prayer is ineffective I also know that it can do a lot to comfort a person’s psyche, if they are so inclined (it would in fact only give me stress and discomfort but to me this is more evidence of the truth that psychological states have almost everything to do with physical health). Believing that bowl of mom’s home made chicken soup will relieve your flu will indeed make you feel better, if perhaps only emotionally. I think it’s important to understand the realistic limits of this though; hugging your childhood stuffed teddy might relieve some pain but rituals will never make a limb grow back.

References:

Aspirin Foundation. What is aspirin? (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://www.aspirin-foundation.com/what/timeline.html

Levinovitz, A. This article is fortified with antioxidants. Slate.com (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/05/pomegranate_supreme_court_case_food_industry_nutrition_claims_sound_scientific.html

Randi. J. Homeopathy, quackery and fraud. (2007). Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/james_randi/transcript

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