Importance of Alternative Medicine

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 22 February 2021

Over the past couple of years, ever since we have broadband internet with unlimited use, I often watch some YouTube video channels including lessons on cooking and use of specific software. I also like some channels on politics and health related issues and Indian classical music and dances.

One of health related channels which I often watch is Medlife Crisis by Dr Rohin Francis from UK. Recently, I came across one of his older videos, which was about "alternative medicine". In this video he explained about the importance of evidence-based medicine and how this scientific approach ensures that we can truly understand the efficacy of treatments and make rational choices about medicines. The other aspect of his intervention was that alternative medicine lacks this evidence-based approach and thus for him it was mostly hogwash. In his intro on this channel he also says that "There's a lot of bad science on YouTube, especially medicine, with quacks and clowns peddling garbage", which probably also refers to alternative medicine, apart from other conspiracy theorists and No-Vax groups. The image below shows a person receiving a traditional treatment in Mongolia.

Traditionaltreatment in Mongolia - Image by Sunil Deepak

In another tiny video titled "How does Homeopathy work?", he has a short no-nonsense answer to this question - "It doesn't".

Rohin Francis is not the only one who speaks out against wasting money on alternative medicine. Some of my other doctor friends have been very active against quacks and untrained persons masquerading as doctors in India. Some doctors on Twitter regularly rant against homeopathy and alternative medicine practitioners.

I understand from where all these persons are coming from. However I do not agree with them that alternative medicine is all about non-evidence based quackery. In this post I want to share some personal experiences and some opinions regarding the role of alternative medicine in today's world.

Disclaimer: Quacks & Clowns Peddling Garbage

I know that there are persons who claim to have miracle powers and who can cure all kinds of conditions. They prey on people when they are most vulnerable and psychologically fragile and they do it to earn money and gain power. Some of these frauds may be mentally ill and may actually believe in their supernatural powers. This post is not about justifying any of them. They do need care and treatment for their delusions and if needed, deserve law-suits and prisons.

I also do not wish to say that alternative medicine can cure everything such as conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes or cancer. People who give up their blood pressure or diabetes medicines because of their beliefs in alternative medicine, often end up with irreversible body damage to their vital organs like kidneys or eyes. Conventional (western) medicine is a better choice for most such persons.

Origins of Alternative Medicine

For thousands of years, ancient humans have tried looking for treatments for common health conditions. They did it mainly by looking for plant-based treatments. The plant-based medicines they identified, did not have the backing of double-blind studies on random samples of carefully chosen groups, but to call those "non evidence based" would be a bit of stretch. Many of our common modern medicines from Aspirin to Quinine and Artemisia come from those traditional experiences. Guys looking for the next blockbuster drug have often stolen the knowledge of plants and herbs from traditional healers. Scientists carry out experiments with synthetic derivatives based on those same plants and herbs and then do scientific trials to show their effectiveness. Many of them call as quacks the traditional healers in villages using those same herbs, simply because they base their knowledge on the oral transmission of experiences.

In countries like India, China and Mongolia, people practicing traditional medicine, study in their medical collages just like students studying modern medicine. For example, in Ayurvedic medical collages in India (I have visited 2 of them), students study for their medical degree for 6 years and their curriculum includes all the subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology, taught in conventional medical colleges.

However, a part of their studies is based on beliefs which modern science does not accept. For example - the Chinese beliefs about meridians running through the body with the energy points and the balancing of Yin and Yang forces; or the Indian beliefs about the three body humours (vayu, kaffa and pitta); or the homeopathy belief about using "like to counter like" and the power of dilutions of medicines. These beliefs do not fit with the understanding of modern science, because they do not follow the logical thinking paradigm but follow some other esoteric or intuitive paradigms.

Shaping of Our Beliefs - Personal Experiences

Our beliefs are predominantly shaped by our own life experiences. Scientists say that our experiences are anecdotal evidence and are unreliable and usually biased. So we should only believe in what scientists and experts tell us. However, from personal experience I know that if I have experienced something, I may accept scientific opinions but I will also find a way to keep my own opinion based on my experience, even when the two are contradictory. This seems to be a common human trait.

Let me share a few experiences regarding alternative medicine, which have shaped my ideas on this theme.

My first experience with alternative medicine was with homeopathy in 1980s, when I was a community doctor. I had developed a strong pain in my left shoulder and had difficulty in lifting that arm. For many days I had taken anti-inflammatory and pain-killer medicines. In those days my paternal aunt had high blood pressure and I often visited her house for her check-ups. My aunt's husband, my uncle, had retired and taken up homeopathy as a hobby. He gave free homeopathic medicine to anyone who came to him. During one visit, after checking my aunt's blood pressure, I told my uncle about my shoulder pain and that I was tired of taking pain-killers as they were giving me gastric problems. He asked me numerous questions about the pain and then gave me a small dose of small sweet pills. He also wrapped in an old newspaper, two more doses of those pills and told me to take them after some hours. In less than 15 minutes after the first dose, my shoulder pain had disappeared and I had no difficulty in raising my arm. It was like a miracle and it changed completely how I felt about homeopathy.

My second experience of alternative medicine was more recent. In 2015, while living in Guwahati in India, I developed a severe knee pain. It became so bad that it curtailed my walking. I stopped going out for walks and took frequent anti-inflammatory and pain-killing tablets. In 2016, back in Italy, I went to an orthopaedic specialist for a few visits. A scan of my knees showed myxoid degeneration of Cruciate ligaments. I was given Hyaluronic acid injections in my knees, wore knee supports and took pain-killers. But nothing seemed to help me. After a few visits, the orthopaedic specialist told me that I had to learn to live with the pain as I was too young for knee replacement surgery. I was also told to reduce weight and do physiotherapy. I shared my scan results with an orthopaedist friend in USA and even his opinion was the same. Talking about it with a Catholic priest, who had become my friend in Guwahati, he suggested that I should try Ayruvedic treatment in a hospital in Kerala.

In January 2017, I went to the Ayurvedic hospital suggested by my friend for a one week of treatment. The treatment consisted of daily massages with oils containing different herbs. After a week's treatment, I was advised to rest for a few days. After that one week of treatment, my knees improved greatly and I could again walk without pain. I went back to that hospital for a week in 2018 and 2019. However, last year (2020) and this year, because of Covid-19, I have not been able to go there and lately, I have again started to have some knee-pain, though the situation is yet not as bad as it was in 2015. The image below shows Dr Vijayan, the chief Ayurvedic doctor of this hospital, together with his 3 students who were doing internship with him.

Dr Vijayan & students, Kerala, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

A couple of years ago, I had talked to an orthopaedist friend to explain what had happened, to try to understand why I had responded to the Ayurvedic treatment and his answer was that it was possibly a placebo effect. Another possibility was the effect of medicines taken in Italy had arrived after a few months.

Perhaps it was indeed a placebo effect, but I would like to know why I didn't have this placebo effect after treatment in Italy and after the injections in my knees? Are traditional treatments likely to induce more placebo effects? If yes, why?

Finally, last week a friend from Mongolia told me about her experience with traditional Mongolian medicine. We are working together for a project and communicate frequently. Last week she told me that her mother was very unwell due to Biliary colic caused by stones in her gall-bladder. Her mother is quite old and she was in a great deal of pain. However my friend was hesitating to take her to hospital due to Covid-19 fears, so she was visited at home by a doctor and was given pain-killers. He had suggested that if the pain would not pass, they might need to do surgery for removing the gall stones. After 3 days of injections, her conditions had continued to be serious, so the family invited a traditional healer to visit her. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was not easy to get the traditional medicines but somehow they managed. That night her mother slept well after many days of pain and the morning after, it was the day of Lunar new year, she woke up completely pain free - she got up from bed as if she had not been seriously ill till the previous evening. My friend who had been so worried was overjoyed. She said that it was like a miracle. Once again, I am sure that if we ask, most doctors in the hospital will explain it as placebo effect or some kind of psychological effect.

These are all anecdotal stories without any scientific value. But if any of these had happened to you, will you be able to forget them? Such experiences illustrate why so many persons, especially in traditional and rural societies, continue to go to traditional healers even when experts tell us that there is no proof regarding their usefulness.

For persons like me, too much anchored in the Western Medical Paradigm, alternative medicine may not be the first line of treatment for any problem, but I will seek it if modern medicine are not able to resolve my health condition.

A Role for Traditional Medicine

Even for persons who feel that alternative medicine is not effective or is illogical, I feel that in today's world there are some functions for which it can be very suitable. For example, think of illnesses like flu and viral fevers. Doctors say that these should be given only some symptomatic treatment and not treated with antibiotics because they are not useful. Still a large number of people take antibiotics for such conditions. I think that taking alternative medicines for such illnesses is a good strategy to discourage the antibiotic abuse.

There are so many chronic non-infective conditions accompanied by chronic pains, like the ones I had in my knees or in my shoulder, where conventional medicines can have many side-effects, so if persons can feel better with alternative medicines, why not encourage them?

When modern medicines can do little because we have not found treatments for some conditions, I feel that people should be given the option of trying alternative medicines. The image below shows a modern pharmacy plant for making Ayurvedic medicines based on herbs and oils in India.

A modern Ayurvedic pharmacy, Kerala, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

I know the situation in India - alternative medicine is usually cheaper and is much more accessible to persons. Unless it is a life-threatening condition, often it can provide psychological support and even serve as placebo and reduce suffering. In many villages, traditional medicine is all they have because modern medicine is costlier and located far away. I feel that demonising alternative medicine as fraud and quackery and to think of people preferring it as gullible or stupid, is not the right approach towards it.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com