18 April 2011 (Monday) - Alternative Medicine

I’m going to rant today. I was going to apologize for doing so, but on reflection I will instead ask that the next time any of my loyal readers are feeling ill and avail themselves of any of the wonders of today’s medical wonders, then they might spare a thought for this rant…..

I’ve been having an argument with a Facebook friend of someone whose opinion I value…. My mother once told me it was bad form to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. If only crackpots came with labels: they can sometimes appear so reasonable.
Alternative medicine….. What can I say……? How on Earth does crackpot quackery keep going in the twenty-first century? I can't understand how intelligent people are against modern therapeutic drugs which are tried, tested and understood, but prefer crackpot remedies which are based on nothing but hearsay, old wives tales and commercially vested interests.

What these crackpots fail to realise is that both “herbal” and “proper” medicines work because of active ingredients. There is something in both which has a medicinal property. In “proper” medicine that active ingredient is investigated, isolated, and therapeutic dosages determined by proper controlled experimental trials.
In “herbal” medicines it is found that (for example) eating turnips has once cured piles. However that is all that is determined. No one knows how or why it works, or gives any thought to the fact that (whilst curing your piles) eating turnips might give you guts ache as well. And herbalists tend to gloss over the fact that the amount of pile-curing ability varies terrifically from one turnip to the next. One turnip will cure whereas a field of different turnips might just achieve mild relief at best.

For an example of this, take the old wives tale that if you get stung by a stinging nettle, rubbing the wound with a dock leaf gives pain relief. I’ve tried this many times. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Depending on the individual dock leaf. Much the same is true of a cure for jellyfish stings. Dousing the wound in urine sometimes eases the pain. But only sometimes, depending on exactly what the person producing the urine has been eating and drinking recently.
Or take malaria. For years those suffering from malaria found the symptoms were alleviated by having a gin & tonic. Sometimes alleviated better than others, depending on the brand of the tonic water used.
Or from a non-medical viewpoint I might suggest the reader go to Hastings Old Town High Street. There’s a pub there called the FILO. Have a pint of the home made ginger beer. It’s made on the premises; each batch to the same recipe. And then go back and repeat this a month later. You’ll find that the strength of the ginger taste varies dramatically from batch to batch. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable; other times it’s overpowering. Why is this? – It’s because they are chucking in a measured lump of ginger root each time, but not measuring the active ginger taste. (I know this because I’ve watched it happen!)

In all these cases (and in thousands of others) the old wives tale has a nugget of truth in it. What modern medicine does is to investigate these tales; find out exactly what the active ingredient is that is causing the medical effect, and then produces that element as a modern drug.
The clever bit lies in finding out and *proving* the active ingredient. This is where the entire concept of clinical trials comes into play. Regular readers may recall I had a burst blood vessel in my eye a few weeks ago. It’s now better. Using the “herbalist’s argument” I might claim this as a resounding success for the application of excessive amounts of ale. But I won’t because we know from experience that it would have got better anyway.
This is the problem with many illnesses. Lots of them get better anyway. I once read the biography of a general practitioner who felt that ninety per cent of his patients would recover from their maladies regardless of any cures he might have offered. Also, a lot of illness is psychosomatic – “in the head”. I once took a blood sample from a little old lady with a persistent sore throat. She walked into the clinic looking like death warmed up. I stuck a needle in her arm and drew some blood, and she visibly recovered. Medically it was a nonsense, but the blood drawing cured her. She’d decided that the cure she needed was a blood test, and it worked.
Clinical trials are designed to get round these effects. They take a thousand (or more) people with piles. Five hundred are given blue pills containing turnip extract. Five hundred are given blue smarties. And no one (including those giving the pills) knows which is turnip and which is smartie. The recovery rates are compared and if the drug works (without too many side effects) then it becomes readily available.

This has been going on for years. It’s called “modern medicine”. It’s a multi-billion pound industry. There’s money in making new drugs, so research is fierce. The crackpot fringe claim that the pharmaceutical industry actively clamps down on the herbal remedies. This is not the case at all – it’s the investigation of these herbal remedies that keeps the pharmaceutical industry going.
(And as an aside, compare the price of herbal remedies to the prescription charge too….)

I could be wrong, but with the intensity of research, there can’t be many herbal cures left that haven’t been scientifically investigated. Apart from the crackpots who refuse to allow their so called cures to undergo rigorous investigation. And most of those who tout these crackpot cures these days (and there’s a lot of touting going on) refuse to allow any trials of their so-called cures.

So the next time you have a headache and you are offered a lump of tree bark to suck on, it may well cure your headache. But you’d be far better off having an aspirin that was made from that tree bark.
Remember this quackery is not so much “alternative medicine” as “an alternative to medicine”…


  1. Having suffered the mouth ulcers and general "dis-ness" from taking Paludrin for two years I'd venture to say it's now a quack medicine, especially as Malarial mosquitos in Sub Saharan Africa seem to thrive on it.

    Good news is that quinine still seems to be effective, so gin & tonic should be taken as as a prophylactic!

  2. All of the above is very true.
    But I still keep an Aloe plant so I can squeeze the sap into the wound when I cut myself.