Tag Archives: alternative medicine

Harmless Homeopathy?

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

It is not uncommon for some of my patients to tell me they have seen a homeopath or a naturopath. Sometimes they tell me this a little sheepishly; sometimes they go to homeopaths with the same attitude I have when I’ve been talked into letting someone read my tealeaves. I certainly don’t believe any of it for a second but when my aunt peers intently at the dregs at the bottom of my cup and says that, “soon a little money will be coming your way” I can’t help but feel a twinge of pleasure. Or when someone points out that the life-line on my palm predicts a long and prosperous life. Very nice.

Occasionally when a patient tells me of the homeopathic advice she has been given for her child, I try to assert a little twentieth century knowledge into the discourse, but often I pass. One person told me she had been prescribed lithium by her homeopath, because of an obvious deficiency in this substance, determined by – who knows – the colour of her eyes? I was about to let loose a rant about this when I paused to consider two probabilities:

1. The substance that was prescribed for this woman had a 50% chance of having no lithium in it at all, and,

2. A 50% chance that it had no more lithium than a bowl of vichyssoise. In the end I made no comment on the subject.

Another took her three hyperactive boys to a special homeopathic clinic, where, apparently, they took blood samples and examined them under a microscope. Then the mother was told, and she related this to me, that all three of her children had parasites in their blood causing their ADHD.

An outraged rant about this formed in the back of my head, this ridiculous notion, this proclamation or diagnosis that, if actually true, would constitute a life-threatening emergency. I quelled my outrage in favour of asking what the homeopath had prescribed for her boys. Apparently what he had recommended, for the expunging of these parasites, was a healthy diet, exercise, and sufficient sleep. Again I smiled and let it pass.

But I watched CBC’s marketplace Friday night, and I have several grandchildren. The opening images of the documentary are quite striking: a group of very healthy children playing on Granville Island in Vancouver, and then very healthy mothers with very healthy robust babies. The mothers were not wearing black as they would be if they were mourning the deaths of two out their five children. The children could see and hear and run on two legs and catch with two hands. None of them had suffered through an epidemic of polio, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, cholera, meningitis, or the bubonic plague. None of them. These diseases were not even part of their consciousness. I tried to imagine the same group of children and mothers in a park during the polio years of the 1950’s, and then the early 1900’s, and again perhaps on the commons of a village in the early 1800’s. The early 1900’s would be the time an uncle-to-be of mine died from diphtheria, the 1950’s when a classmate of mine disappeared from school and into an iron lung at the hospital.

They had homeopathic remedies in those days too, a hundred and two hundred years ago, and they didn’t work then and they don’t work now. The difference in those images, the healthy children and healthy mothers today, vs. the images from a century ago, has been brought to us by medicine and public health: clean water, good nutrition, good prenatal care, antibiotics, and vaccination.

These homeopaths are not just endangering the lives of the children they see as clients, but my grandchildren as well. I actually think a class action lawsuit is in order.

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Alternative To What?

stone of madnessBy Marvin Ross

Two interesting events this past week. Scientists at Northwestern University in Chicago announced a major breakthrough in the cause of ALS which may lead to an effective treatment. It has taken a team of researchers studying one family who are genetically prone to this disease to uncover what they believe is a cause using, of course, the scientific method.

In Orlando in contrast, we had the 28th annual Alternatives Conference put on by the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse and funded by the US Government. Their theme was Creating the Future: Change, Challenge, Opportunity and that “Learning from each other is a clear example of self-help, mutual support, and the principles of recovery in action!”

Looking through their program, I don’t see anything that in any way suggests that they are going to come up with solutions to the cause or effective treatment of mental illnesses. And effective treatment (recovery) does require an understanding of why and how these conditions afflict us. We are nowhere near that. What I do see is a lot of talk about peers helping peers and concepts like Emotional CPR.

I’ve always had a problem with the term alternative. It is as irritating as political correctness but on two occasions I did attend alternative conferences – the Total Health Expo Billed as “North America’s premier natural health show”. The event has been held every year since 1977 by the Toronto-based Consumer Health Organization of Canada. Both times I attended, it was with physicians and I described that visit for a magazine.  

The one person there who talked about mental illness (depression) was Carolyn Dean who claimed that 784,000 people are killed annually by doctors in the U.S., but thought that the true number might be five times greater. Dean is a popular speaker who recommends magnesium for many ailments and currently lives in Hawaii. She is a medical graduate of Dalhousie University in Halifax and then had her medical license revoked in Ontario in 1995 for “incompetence and professional misconduct.

She claimed in her talk that when she appears on TV in the U.S., she is not allowed to talk about depression and St. John’s Wort. She told the assembled faithful that the networks tell her the subject is too heavy for the audience. But she says that is not the real reason. She believes that pharmaceutical advertisers probably have a clause in their contracts with networks preventing them from mentioning anything other than prescription drug treatments.

Now I don’t know how far out the Alternatives delegates in Florida are as I was not there but I have to wonder at their use of the term alternative. I agree with Montreal scientist Jonathan Jarry who said in his Cracked Science Video on homeopathy that there is no shame in looking after our health if we feel underwhelmed by the medical system. It’s natural to look for alternatives (as the folks in Orlando are doing) but these substitutes are often not based on scientific evidence.

I’ll go even farther and support the  definition put forth in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine by two of its editors. In 1998, Marcia Angell and Jerome Kassirer said:

It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride… There cannot be two kinds of medicine — conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted.”

So, if the Orlando alternative folks want to support each other as is indicated in their tag line that’s great. But they need to realize that all pills, substances, medicines are placebos. All have the potential to make us feel better, at least for a while. But some of these placebos also have scientifically proven pharmacological effect, proven help beyond that of a placebo. Those are true medicines. The others are not. But as long as the others make us feel better, give us hope, do not bankrupt us, do not cause harm, and do not prevent us from seeking real medicine, they are fine. The last two phrases being the most important: if they do not harm, and they do not prevent us from seeking real, scientifically proven, medicine.

And the drawing at the beginning of this blog is of an old treatment for mental illness – drilling a hole in the skull or trepanation. It was mainstream for a large part of history and, according to Wikipedia, “In 2000, two men from Cedar City, Utah were prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license after they performed a trepanation on an English woman to treat her chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.”