MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

The ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE SOCIETY’ claims to be a ‘a global network of medical practitioners and contributors who scour the best research and findings from around the world to provide the best advice on alternative, holistic, natural and integrative medicines and treatments for free.’

Sounds great!

They even give advice on ‘7 common diseases you can treat through natural medicine.’ This headline fascinated me, and I decided to have a closer look at what is being recommended there. The following is copied from the website which looks to me as though it was written by a naturopath. My comments appear dispersed in the original text and are in bold.

Despite an exponential research advancement in recent years, we’re finding more and more problems with conventional medicine – from reports of fraud, to terrible medicinal side effects, to bacterial tolerance to antibiotics. Thus, it’s no surprise that more and more people are looking towards more natural medicine for disease management. Many people are seeking solutions which are not only inexpensive, but are also less harmful. Did you know that a lot of the medical conditions suffered by patients today can be adequately treated with natural medicine? Here are seven diseases you can treat through natural medicine:

  1. High blood pressure/hypertension

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a condition most of us are really familiar with. It’s a risk factor, not a ‘disease’. Defined as the elevation of blood pressure in systemic arteries, hypertension left untreated could lead to serious, possibly fatal complications such as strokes and heart attacks. Conventional treatments for hypertension usually include a cocktail of several drugs (no, good conventional doctors start with life-style advice, if that is not successful, one adds a diruretic, and only if that does not work, one adds a further drug) consisting of vasodilators, alpha/beta blockers, and enzyme inhibitors. However, hypertension can be managed, and altogether avoided with the use of natural medicine. Alternative treatments involve lifestyle changes (e.g. intentionally working out, alcohol intake moderation), dietary measures (e.g. lowering salt intake, choosing healthier food options), and natural medicine (e.g. garlic). As pointed out already, this is the conventional approach! Unfortunately, it often does not work because it is either not sufficiently effective or the patient is non-compliant. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor (many experts would say no) role in the management of hypertension.

  1. Arthritis

Arthritis literally translated from Greek, means joint (arthro-) inflammation (-itis). There are two main categories of arthritis: inflammatory and degenerative, and they need to be managed differently. This condition is common in old patients, due to prior dietary choices (diet is not important enough to be mentioned on 1st place), and the natural wearing out of joint structures. Doctors typically prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. steroids) to reduce irritation, and pain relievers (e.g. analgesics) for managing the pain. On the other hand, natural medicine could do an equally effective job in treating arthritis, through the use of several herbs such as willow, turmeric, ginger, and capsicum. It is not true that these herbs have been shown to be of equal effectiveness. Research has also shown that lifestyle measures such as weight loss (that would be the advice of conventional doctors), and other natural treatments such as acupuncture (not very effective for degenerative arthritis and ineffective for inflammatory arthritis) and physical therapy (that is conventional medicine), also lessen pain and inflammation in patients. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of arthritis.

  1. Bronchitis

Bronchitis may be defined as the irritation, or swelling of the bronchial tubes connecting our nasal cavity to our lungs commonly cause by infections or certain allergens (that would be asthma, not bronchitis). Patients with bronchitis typically deal with breathing difficulties, coughing spells, nasal congestion, and fever. There are usual prescriptions for bronchitis, but there are also very effective natural medicine available. Natural medicine include garlic, ginger, turmeric, eucalyptus, Echinacea, and honey. None of these have been shown by good evidence to be ‘very effective’! These herbs may be prepared at home as tonics, tea, or taken as is, acting as anti-microbial agents for fighting off the infections. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of bronchitis.

  1. Boils

Boils are skin infections which occur as pus-filled pimples in various parts of the body. Despite being highly contagious and painful, boils can easily be treated with natural medicine. Some of the herbs proven to be effective in treating boils include Echinacea, turmeric, garlic, and tea tree oil, due to the presence of natural chemicals which have antibiotic capacities. There is no good evidence to support this claim. Repeated exposure to topical application of these natural medicine is guaranteed to cure your boils in no time. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of boils.

  1. Eczema

Eczema is also a skin condition resulting from allergic reactions which are typically observed as persistent rashes. The rashes are usually incredibly itchy, showing up in the most awkward places such as the inside of the knees and thighs. Thankfully, eczema can be managed by lifestyle measures (such as avoiding certain foods which elicit allergies – these measures would be entirely conventional and require conventional allergy testing to be effective), and natural medicine. These includes herbal components such as sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, evening primrose oil and chamomile. There is no good evidence to show that these therapies are effective. These natural medicine contain different active ingredients which are not only able to moisturize the affected skin, but are also able to reduce inflammation and soothe itchiness. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of eczema.

  1. Constipation

Constipation is a normal (??? why should it be normal???) medical condition in which patients are unable to empty bowels at ease. It may be caused by a wide variety of reasons such as bowel stricture, hyperparathyroidism, or simply a case of terrible (???) food choices. However, it can very easily be treated with natural medicine. Some common remedies are molasses, sesame seeds, fiber, ginger or mint tea, lemon water, prunes, castor oil (an old-fashioned and largely obsolete conventional treatment) and coffee (for none of the other treatments is there good evidence). The action of these natural medicine involves laxative effects which stimulate contractions along the colon which incidentally moves your bowels along. Conventional doctors would recommend life-style changes and would warn patients NOT to use laxatives long-term. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of constipation.

  1. Hay Fever

Allergic rhinitis, as hay fever is also known, are allergic reactions to certain particles like dust or pollen which incite coughing sprees, sneezing spells, and congested sinuses. There are very good natural medicine options for treating hay fever, which contain ingredients which act the same way as your conventional anti-histamine drugs. If they act the same way, what would be their advantage? Some of the natural medicine used to treat hay fever include chamomile, ginger, green, and peppermint teas, as well as butterbur, calendula, and grapefruit. Butterbur is the only one in this list that is supported by some evidence. Altogether alternative treatments play only a very minor role in the management of hay fever.

In essence, none of the 7 ‘diseases’ can be treated effectively with any of the alternative treatments recommended here. ‘The best advice on alternative, holistic, natural and integrative medicines and treatments’, it seems to me, is therefore: AVOID CHARLATANS WHO TELL YOU THAT ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS ARE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE. 

9 Responses to ‘The best advice on alternative, holistic, natural and integrative medicines’

  • Striking, how frequently the term “that is conventional medicine” shows up in this controlled demolition.

    These fols are in many ways right about medical mal-practice, but they *always* forget to mention that the odd times when they do bother to provide accurate statistics, these were collected by the medical system itself. Plus, malpractice is “mal”-practice, notably, correct procedures were not followed. The dangers of alternative medicine lies in actually correctly following their methodology.

  • “highly contagious …boils”

    I think the author may be thinking of sixth plague of Egypt from the Old Testament not what modern doctors would call a skin boil!

    Natural medicine advocate confusing 3000-yr old myth with accurate understanding of dermatology? I’m shocked.

    • Staphylococcal skin infections are contagious (think gym, sauna) and can be VERY dangerous. But natural anything won’t help.

  • Hypertension: a symptom, yes. But also a silent killer.

  • Garlic for hypertension? Really? Maybe aged garlic extract would help, but the studies so far are not very encouraging.

  • Egads! Many years ago, when I was upset to be put on bp meds at the tender age of 40, I toddled off to the alt med shop and loaded up on garlic and other things (various tinctures and a pile of supplements–all recommended by the educated in absolutely nothing proprietor). My bp never budged one digit. I went on like this, thinking the “right” herb or potion was just around the corner for FIVE years until I went to have it checked one day at the real doctor; whereupon the kindly nurse, looking rather shocked at my horribly high reading, told me to “sit” and then demanded the phone number of my doctor whom she called on the spot and had her write a prescription for what turned out to be a diuretic (just as you say). I’ve been on meds ever since, though I have been able to lessen to lowest them to the lowest dosage through weight loss and salt reduction. I do take two pills now, but only because I became allergic to an ingredient in the original one settled on after a few years of the diuretic. I so regret those five years that I allowed my bp to go uncontrolled because I fell for the naturalistic fallacy. I have bad genes (early onset heart disease), but have outlived many relatives with good medical management and the willingness to follow advice. The weight has stayed off many years now and I no longer miss the salt. The pills are dirt cheap, have little or no side effects (slight dizziness at times), and have been around long enough that any problems with them would likely have shown up by now.

    NONE of these quacks’ arguments hold up under the slightest scrutiny. I would add that during the years before I lost the weight, my doctor did not give up on me, but continued to do her best for me in spite of my inaction. She also was there to cheer me on every week at weigh-in when the diabetes finally caught up to me (was pre-diabetic for years), I came to my senses, and lost the weight (with great help from a lovely Registered Dietician–to whom I was promptly referred). I ate well, as in proper food, but you see, I ate too much, and I simply (but not easily!) had to cut calories.

    I was never ignored by “conventional” doctors and I was encouraged in all aspects of managing my largely inherited disease–even when I didn’t take advice. I am literally the first woman in my family on my father’s side not to have had a heart attack. Yes, I exercise, mostly walking at this stage, but I’ve always been active.

    These quacks are usually sorry these days if they are unlucky enough to run into me with their goofy and dangerous advice.

  • I do wish you would stop the need for providing ‘evidence’ for these things. Evidence-based medicine is a joke in any case, being as pharmaceutical companies are largely responsible for doing their own trials and, as we know from authors such as Ben Goldacre, Peter Gøtzsche, Malcolm Kendrick, David Healy and other medical doctors, they are inevitably manipulated to give the desired outcome. Even trials funded by public health bodies are infected by people with a vested interest.

    If I see someone who had bad eczema, for example, and has been trying various treatments from their various doctors and all it does is suppress the symptoms, which return once the treatment is stopped, and then at last they visit a homeopath and the condition actually disappears, I think that’s evidence enough for me. As for having to avoid allergenic substances and foods that may cause a flare up, these people no longer have to worry about that. Same with asthmatics that I know. Same with a couple of people I know with rheumatoid arthritis. Same with IBS.

    People don’t care that you try and give evidence-based proof as to which complementary therapy may work or not, because they can see the evidence with their own eyes from friends’ and colleagues’ improvement and cure.

    As we have seen in the BMJ’s Clinical Evidence summary, only 11% of treatments have any evidence of benefit, and only 24% more ‘may show benefit’, leaving the rest as either with no evidence either way, or actually harmful. So is it any wonder that people don’t trust conventional medicine?

    http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/set/static/cms/efficacy-categorisations.html

    • @Jane Spedding
      Did you actually read and contemplate the material you linked to or just copy the link from somewhere? It actually does not say what you homeopaths commonly read into it.

      Below, between the lines is a demonstration of, albeit tounge-in-cheek, why many medical interventions lack formal scientific testing.

      BMJ. 2003 Dec 20;327(7429):1459-61.
      Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Smith GC, Pell JP.
      Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 2QQ. gcss2@cam.ac.uk
      OBJECTIVES: To determine whether parachutes are effective in preventing major trauma related to gravitational challenge. DESIGN: Systematic review of randomised controlled trials. DATA SOURCES: Medline, Web of Science, Embase, and the Cochrane Library databases; appropriate internet sites and citation lists. STUDY SELECTION: Studies showing the effects of using a parachute during free fall. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: Death or major trauma, defined as an injury severity score > 15. RESULTS: We were unable to identify any randomised controlled trials of parachute intervention. CONCLUSIONS: As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.
      PMID: 14684649 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

      Do you really think that because parachutes have not been proven formally to work, and they sometimes fail, that you can replace them with umbrellas to save money, just because it worked in a movie?

  • Jane, “I have seen it” can only be answered by this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3bEh-PEk1g

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