In a recent two-part post on this site (June 18 and 19) I wrote about the new physics and the new medicine. I am very aware that this conversation has some strange extremes to be found at both ends of the spectrum. The mere mention of “new” medicine makes some people react with intense passion, pro and con. I am not on the extremes of this debate thus I want to explain how I have come to appreciate alternative medicine without buying into the “hype” that so often surrounds this subject.
One of the first questions people ask when this subject comes up is very basic: “Why are so many competent and good physicians so negative about complimentary, or alternative, medicine?” If this is really beneficial why are so many opposed to it?
If my non-scientific sense of things is accurate the mainstream media presents a lot of negative information about the flaws of alternative medicine and the hype often associated with it. The truth of the matter is that there is a lot of hype in alternative medicine. The media does us a favor by pointing this out routinely. Even if you believe, as I do believe, that there is a lot of good to be discovered in alternative medicine, you should always welcome good criticism. Every gain, in any field of research and study, has positives and negatives.
Some of the criticism provided by mainstream Western medicine reminds us that no complimentary therapies have been found to cure cancer thus we should not rely on such theories in treating it. I agree, but with one caveat. We have no single proven approach to cancer, though great advance has been made and some Western models are proving beneficial in major ways. I would opt for a combination approach to most illnesses, including cancer, for which we have no proven (single) cure. Since I have an illness that the medical world in the West offers no solid cure for I speak from some experience at this point.
However, many of these critical articles and news releases contain some implied facts that are not proven on the opposite side of the debate. For example, bio-energy fields are real and measurable. This study has been going on for more than thirty years. I gave, in my two previous articles, an example of how the new physics and the new medicine had combined in producing a way to break up kidney stones with a totally non-invasive approach based on sound waves. These studies are not based on placebo effects or “self hypnosis.” The mind is powerful and habituated patterns of thought can be changed. There is much more to learn in this field. My appeal is that we become open to learn more and to use all that science reveals to us, including the way the mind works to promote healing and wellness. Surely Christians, who have read so much in the Bible about the mind and human thought, can be open to such an approach to health.
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One of the major reasons that CAM treatments are oppoosed is the lack of double-blind gold standard medical testing. Unfortunately, there seems to be little that’s being done to remedy this. Here’s why.
(1) Double-blind tests are tests where neither the test-taker nor the test-giver know which is the real thing, and which is the placebo. This prevents the test-taker from muddling the results. Double-blind is easy enough to do with drugs: just give them to the test-taker without saying which is which. It’s a lot harder to do with CAM modalities. After all, how would a chiropractor not know if he or she is doing real chiropractic or sham chiropractic?
(2) Testing is very expensive. In the case of conventional medicines, massive pharmaceuticals foot the bill so they can convince you your sick and cash in. CAM doesn’t have major industry backing, and is a lot less expensive than conventional medicine (which is one of the attractive features, but also one reason it can’t afford extensive testing). This corporate-funded testing is sort of a bizarre system anyways, and has lead to things like the Vioxx controversy (since the company doing the testing just didn’t report the bad tests).
(3) A lot of CAM practitioners distrust conventional medicine, and refuse to be tested by it. There is also a fear held by many CAM practitioners that successful testing will lead licensed medical professionals into the field, and normal CAM practitioners will get edged out (or even legislated out: states might start requiring medical licenses).
(4) There are hoaxsters and charlatans in the field, who are trying to keep the light of day from shining on their practices.
(5) Western medicine usually operates on a notion of a single effective drug, or chemical, or whatnot: penicillin is the classic model in this regard. A lot of Eastern medicines use strange herbal combinations which are effective ONLY as a combination. So huang lian (Coptis chinensis), for example, has been shown to kill cancer cells, but only as a blend of 37 compounds. Tested separately, the compounds don’t do anything useful. We can’t explain it, it defies what we assume about medicine, and each of those 37 compounds would fail Western medical tests.
Anyways, sorry if my prognosis is bleak. I think that there’s a lot of good in CAM (although, like you, I think it’s a “diamond in the rough” sort of thing, where we have to navigate past a lot of pseudo-science and non-Christian spirituality), and while I remain a bit pessimistic, I hold a flicker of hope that more credible testing will come along to separate the wheat from the chaff in the field of CAM.
It seems like there are only three pathways Christians take when dealing with devastating diseases. A dear Friend of mine, a pastor, who was my age died a few years ago of colon cancer, many many people who loved him offered every Alternative Medicine cure on the planet. Some so extraordinary in claim and weirdness I hesitate to mention them. Most were charlatanism at the worst or faith-in-medicine healing potions that were little more than effective placebo causing people to believe to the point where the body responded.
The other extreme was to become a pincushion refugee and submit to every single treatment medical “science” could gin up. If a doctor thought of it, they gave it to him. No matter how debilitating it all is or was, no matter how much worse the treatment was than the actual disease, the effect being that you destroy the village to save it in terms we Vietnam era folks can understand.
The third way, is to selectively and carefully use whatever proven and least destructive medical treatments are possible and to trust God for the rest.
That is the way I would believe in.
Right now, one of the concerns on my personal prayer list is a little 12 year old boy with stage 4 cancer who has been thru one round of horrible chemo and is facing another. I have tried to be there for the family. I know them only as Brothers and Sisters in Christ. But this is brutal, 12 year old little boy. They too have been peppered with offers of very strange “Cures” of every kind. They are mature enough to look thru some of them for what they are.
When faced with debilitating diseases, and I have been, I think the balanced approach is militant Faith in God for his healing along with “SOME” medical intervention if needed.
And be very very careful about the alternative medicine route.
We have not yet touched the true power he has provided to be the Psalm 103 God we confess.
Joe listed some good reasons why it is difficult to demonstrate effectiveness of alternative treatments within the scientific community. With respect to his point #5, drug combinations (e.g. groups of 3 or more anti-retroviral therapy compounds used to treat HIV) are increasingly common. His example of huang lian is a very interesting one. It’s probable that many of its 37+ components are unnecessary, but identifying the important combinations would require costly departures from standard experimental designs.
John’s article addresses a different question: Why are alternative therapies rejected out of hand by many in the Christian community? I think that the reasons are largely sociological. These therapies are commonly linked, rightly or wrongly, with devotees of New Age and Eastern religions, conspiracy theorists, charlatans and other undesirable groups with whom we are reluctant to associate. This is understandable. But I’m sure that Jesus would have no problem associating with any of these people. He would welcome them wholeheartedly and lovingly, even if he disagreed with them.
As someone who regularly interacts with scientists and Christians, I have found that scientists tend to be more open-minded toward these issues than Christians are.
I recall an interaction that I had a few years back with a very bright student of physics who attended my church and who had a strong interest in science fiction and in eastern religions. In our conversation, we began talking about ch’i, the concept of energy flow that underlies traditional Chinese medicine. I made it clear from the beginning that I was very skeptical of ch’i. But I was speaking largely out of prejudice and ignorance, because I really didn’t know much about it. It so happened that he was a strong believer in ch’i for reasons that I do not understand. He was offended by my attitude. And rightly so. Looking back on it, I now realize that I should have been much more willing to listen to him first, and to acknowledge that he might know more about the subject than I. Passing judgment out of ignorance and prejudice does not defend the faith. It does not advance the cause of Christ. It only reveals our narrow mindedness and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.