June 14, 2012
(+++) MEDICINE AND BELIEF
The Healing Remedies Sourcebook: Over 1000 Natural Remedies to Prevent and Cure Common Ailments. By C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D. Da Capo. $25.99.
It is no easy feat to separate the sociopolitically motivated claims of advocates of “natural healing” from any underlying truth about the alternatives to traditional Western medicine that proponents of holistic medicine promote. Nor is it easy to know how valid those alternatives are: unlike pharmaceuticals, which are investigated, tested and retested, then go through elaborate approval processes from which they emerge (if they emerge at all) with extensive labeling requirements, so-called “nutraceuticals” and other products that claim to provide health benefits but are not officially labeled as medicines rarely go through any scientifically valid testing, their manufacturers relying instead on anecdotal reports of efficacy, longstanding use of an item in non-Western cultures, or pseudoscientific analyses claiming, for example, that certain substances have physiological effects even though nothing causing those effects can be measured.
C. Norman Shealy, a neurosurgeon who founded the American Holistic Medicine Association, argues the case for non-Western medicine in The Healing Remedies Sourcebook, but not particularly effectively; what he says comes down to an expansion of Karen Sullivan’s statement, in the book’s introduction, that “modern medicine is simply not as efficient or effective as we have been led to believe,” which is certainly true but which in no way indicates that holistic medicine is effective. Still, Shealy presents the material in this book as objectively as possible for someone who clearly believes in the holistic approach. Introducing the famed “flower remedies” of Dr. Edward Bach, for example, Shealy explains that they “are often dismissed as a placebo. They do not work in any biochemical way, and because no physical part of the plant remains in the remedy, its properties and actions cannot be detected or analyzed as if it were a drug or herbal preparation. Therapists believe the remedies contain the energy, or imprint, of the plant…” This is easily dismissible as magical thinking, akin to the old belief that mandrake root must have magical powers because its twists and turns sometimes make it resemble human figures.
Indeed, it could be argued that holistic medicine in general partakes of equal parts of magical thinking and the placebo effect – but that might well be taking things too far. After all, plants are the basis of many medications: quinine, the first effective treatment for malaria, comes directly from the bark of the cinchona tree, and Sullivan points out that “up to 140 conventional drugs in use today are based on plants and herbs.” Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with harnessing the placebo effect, which itself can be very powerful; and if some form of treatment makes a patient believe that he or she will feel less pain or recover more quickly from an illness, thereby harnessing the patient’s own immune system, then that particular treatment is indeed worthwhile for that particular patient.
So for those who do believe in holistic approaches, The Healing Remedies Sourcebook gives details on the use of eight of them: homeopathy, aromatherapy, Chinese herbal medicine, herbalism, Ayurveda, flower essences, folk or traditional medicine, and nutrition. In Ayurveda, for example, Shealy explains that “the fundamental belief…is that everything within the universe is composed of energy, or ‘prana,’” and diseases may be caused by “planetary influences, acts of god, fire and accidents…and evil spirits.” Treatment depends on one’s individual constitution, which in turn “is determined by the state of your parents’ doshas [bodily humors] at the time of your conception.” As for aromatherapy, it “benefits people rather than illnesses” and “is not recommended as a cure for any disease” but “restores body systems to a state of balance in which healing can best take place.” Shealy follows the introductory material with clearly explained and displayed details on items used in each form of holistic treatment, what they are used for, how they are prepared, and what cautions, if any, users should observe. His discussion of nutrition, in particular his explanation of the efficacy of individual vitamins and minerals, is particularly well done.
After presenting the eight forms of holistic treatment, Shealy gives over the second part of The Healing Remedies Sourcebook to specific treatments for common ailments, ranging from addiction to eczema, from cold sores to bronchitis, from appendicitis to diabetes. He shows which forms of holistic medicine may be used to treat each condition, and what the specific recommendations from each form are. Obviously, use of any specific approach, or any recommendation within that approach, is left up to the reader – who may be forgiven for feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities: if you have a fracture, should you use aloe vera (Ayurveda), a comfrey poultice (herbal medicine), elemi oil (aromatherapy), arnica (homeopathy), calcium and magnesium (vitamins and minerals), or one of the many other possibilities – or some combination of several alternatives? Shealy does not point to any specific holistic approach as invariably better, or indeed as invariably effective, for any particular ailment, preferring to present multiple options and leave it to readers to decide which, if any, to use. The decision may ultimately come down to a matter of faith – a decision about the type of holistic medicine in which an individual believes. Faith is a component of Western medicine, too: the more you believe a doctor will cure you, the more likely it will happen – because of the placebo effect. But a somewhat larger dose of belief may be needed for approaches that have far more anecdotal and historical than scientific support. Those who believe in such approaches will find a great deal of useful information in The Healing Remedies Sourcebook.