Medicine: A New Understanding
In the face of an increasingly inadequate system of conventional medicine, a growing number of people are turning to alternative medicine to address their needs. The general public is starting to recognize the effectiveness of alternative medicine's approach to health, which blends body and mind, science and experience, and traditional and cross-cultural avenues of diagnosis and treatment. In fact, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over one-third of those surveyed chose alternative medicine over conventional methods, because of the medical establishment's emphasis on diagnostic testing and treatment with drugs without focusing on the patient as a whole. It is obvious that what was once considered a "fringe" interest is now on its way to becoming the primary medical approach of the next millennium.
The Crisis in Modern Medicine
It is no secret that our contemporary United States medical system is in a state of terrible disarray. Though conventional medicine excels in the management of medical emergencies, certain bacterial infections, trauma care, and many, often heroically complex surgical techniques, it seems to have failed miserably in the areas of disease prevention and the management of the myriad new and chronic illnesses presently filling our hospitals and physicians' offices. In addition, as a nation we pay more for our medical care and accomplish less than most other nations of comparable living standards, while health care costs continue to spiral out of control.
Treatment of chronic disease currently accounts for 85% of the national health care bill. This state of affairs is due to the fact that we spend almost nothing to treat the causes of chronic disease before major illness develops, according to a report from the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. "We wait for it [illness] to develop and then spend huge sums on heroic measures, even then ignoring the underlying lifestyle-related causes. This is the equivalent of waiting for a leaky roof to destroy the infrastructure of a house and then repairing the damage without fixing the leak. This is naturally expensive and ineffective."
Perhaps the greatest evidence of the depth of the crisis is that we have come to accept such levels of chronic disease as normal, despite evidence that much of it is preventable. [Former] Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, in his 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, points out that "dietary imbalances" are the leading preventable contributors of premature death in the U.S. and recommends the expansion of nutrition and lifestyle modification education for all health care professionals. This is borne out by the Centers for Disease Control, which state that 54% of heart disease, 37% of cancer, 50% of cerebrovascular disease, and 49% of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is preventable through lifestyle modification.
The changes that are necessary, however, will not be implemented as long as physicians earn their living and win renown primarily by delivering rescue medicine (interventions that simply treat symptoms), since it is in this area and not prevention that they benefit most. If the U.S. is to be saved from catastrophic health care costs, it is time to take a good look at the wisdom and cost-effectiveness of alternative medicine.
Doctors are confronted daily with patients suffering from illnesses for which conventional medicine offers only superficial treatment of symptoms. The magic of antibiotics is vanishing as a host of resistant infections emerge; diseases such as AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome have shown us clearly that our present treatments are simply not effective and hint at new health problems which may lie ahead.
Roots of the Crisis
The underlying concepts of alternative medicine are not new. They represent a return to the principles that have been part of human understanding of health and disease for thousands of years. Over the centuries, medical wisdom evolved within a framework which linked health to a state of harmony or balance, and disease to a state of disharmony or imbalance, and took into account the factors that contributed to both.
"The genius of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, was not in the drugs he used or his diagnostic skills," points out Dr. John R. Lee, M.D. of Sebastopol, California, "but in his insight that the elements which were needed to produce and maintain health were natural, and that they included hygiene, a calm balanced mental state, proper diet, a sound work and home environment, and physical conditioning. In addition, he recognized the life forces that pervade all of nature, and which have multiple expressions---some known, some theorized, and many unknown. He taught that health depended upon living in harmony with these forces." Recognition of these life forces is also vital to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India.
A Dangerous Detour
In the mid-nineteenth century, following the discovery of disease-causing microbes, a departure from this philosophy of health occurred due to rival theories concerning the cause of disease. One theory was that infecting microbes called germs (viruses, bacteria and fungi) were the cause of illness. The opposing theory maintained that these microbes only became infectious if conditions inside the body were right for them. According to this theory, by keeping the internal environment of the body healthy, these potential agents of infection will remain dormant.
When the germ theory of disease became dominant, the birth of contemporary medicine, with its emphasis on infectious causes of diseases rather than physiologic balance or harmony, occurred. This provided medical science with the opportunity to greatly expand its role in the treatment of illness. This was followed by the rapid development of microscopy, bacterial cultures, vaccines, x-ray, and in the 1930s the discovery of antibacterial drugs such as penicillin and sulfa drugs. However, the more that medical science embraced the germ theory of disease, the more it also superseded the individual's role in his or her own health.
The Purpose of Medicine: War or Repair?
The thrust of 20th century medicine can be described by the metaphor of war. Disease is considered an invasion by an enemy and treatment is aimed at developing "magic bullets" in the form of drugs and vaccines to eliminate that enemy. We have seen, for example, a failed "war on cancer," a proliferation of antibiotics, and a growing number of surgical procedures, cell-killing radiation treatments, and chemical medications (such as chemotherapy), all of which do harm to the body, in one form or another, in their attempts to restore health. Lost in this approach is the concept of repairing the imbalances which allow the illnesses to occur in the first place. Medical science has become one-sided in its focus, increasingly losing sight of the whole person in its attempt to treat the body's individual parts.
Because the emphasis of conventional medicine remains upon war and not repair, it has led to the organization of medical schools with their various departments, such as cardiology, neurology, dermatology, orthopedics, psychiatry. This forces students to focus their study on one organ system at a time, as if each bodily organ functioned independently of all the others. This diverts attention away from the intrinsic interrelatedness of all parts of our body and the complex dynamism of life forces. It's no wonder that our "modern" doctors understand so little of holistic concepts of health.
Why Are We Ill?
Health is far more than the absence of disease. When we are healthy all our bodily systems and functions are harmoniously balanced and integrated with each other, and we are also in balance with our environment. In this state of equilibrium our defense mechanisms and our immune system can efficiently handle most of the hazards that life presents, whether these are pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms, toxic substances, or stress factors of various kinds.
Foundations of Health
According to Dr. Leon Chaitow, N.D., D.O. of London, England, positive health depends upon three factors, which are interconnected. The first of these is the body's structural system, including all of the muscles, bones, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels and organs and their functions. The second factor is the body's biochemical process, which involve the absorption and utilization of nutrients, and the elimination of wastes, along with the complicated biochemical relationships which are the key to cellular function and health. The third factor comprises the mind and emotions, as well as the spiritual dimension of each person. "When there is a balanced, energetic interplay between these three components we have health," Dr. Chaitow says. "But when imbalances exist within any of these factors, or in their relationships with each other, ill-health occurs.
In a state of health, if we cut ourselves, we heal. If we are bruised, strained, or suffer a broken bone, healing starts immediately. If we are exposed to infection our immune system deals with it. These examples are illustrations of the body's natural tendency towards repairing itself. This tendency is known as homeostasis, the maintenance of the body's internal organs and defenses to compensate for external health hazards.
When homeostasis is called into play to handle a "crisis," its activity is usually experienced as "symptoms." For example, when you exposed to an infection your body will mount an aggressive defensive response which might result in fever. Or, should you injure yourself, the healing process which starts immediately might involve inflammation and swelling of the traumatized area. In other words, under normal conditions, the body will attempt to heal itself without help, and the symptoms produced will indicate what sort of healing process is going on. Unfortunately, many people, including all to many physicians, rather than respecting these homeostatic processes and simply waiting for them to finish their tasks, will actively try to suppress the symptoms of self-repair, whether this be a raised temperature or inflammation in an injured area. When this occurs, we are in effect saying that we know more than our body's innate intelligence about what is good for it.
In order to maintain good health, therefore, it is important to recognize that many symptoms are actually evidence that healing is underway, and that, unless they are actually unbearable or dangerous, the symptoms should be left alone so that the repair processes can be completed.
The Return to Health
The vast majority of illnesses are self-limiting, meaning that they get better all on their own. Alternative medicine recognizes this fact, realizing that health will usually arise spontaneously when the conditions for health exist. Therefore, once you are ill, getting healthy again requires the very same inputs that were needed to keep you healthy in the first place.
This may seem obvious but it's a message worth restating. As Dr. Chaitow says, "To regain health once it has been lost we need to begin to reverse some, and ideally all, of those processes which may be negatively impacting us, and over which we have some degree of control. This includes taking responsibility for stopping those lifestyle choices which we know are harmful, whether this be smoking, excessive alcohol intake, or using drugs. In addition, we need to start to positively address the real needs that such behavior masks."
Depending on the nature of our health problems, this might involve starting to eat more nutritiously, sleeping and exercising in a more regular and balanced way, and making sure of receiving reasonable exposure to fresh air and sunlight. It may also include hygienic considerations, detoxifying and cleansing our bodies, addressing any structural or mechanical imbalances, as well as learning how to properly cope with stress, and deal with our mental and emotional needs.
"That sounds like a vast prescription," Dr. Chaitow says. "However, even if only some of it can be addressed, such as diet and relaxation, a remarkable phenomenon occurs as homeostasis begins to function more efficiently and health begins to return." Our bodies are not designed to become ill, they are designed to heal and become healthy.
The return to health is a road which each person must walk according to his or her own unique individuality. It is also a road that needs to address one's entire being, taking into account one's mental, emotional and physical aspects, as well as the structural, biochemical and energetic components that shape each of us. It is precisely because alternative medicine honors and understands these concepts that it is now positioned to become a valuable and necessary pathway for meeting the medical crisis we, as a planet, are currently facing.
Burton Goldberg is a nationally-known advocate of alternative medicine. His introduction to the field began through an attempt to help resolve the health crisis of a close friend. This incident sparked an 18 year quest which took him to clinics and conferences around the world; an endeavor which has culminated with the publication of Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, a 4-year, two million dollar project that assembes the knowledge and experience of nearly 400 hundred leading physicians and scientists in the alternative medical community. This book is available at bookstores and health food stores everywhere.