Alternative Medicine: Why so Popular?
by Hans R. Larsen, MSc ChE
Alternative medicine is becoming increasingly popular. In 1997 Americans made 627 million visits to practitioners of alternative
medicine and spent $27 billion of their own money to pay for alternative
therapies. In contrast, Americans made only 386 million visits to their
family doctor. It is estimated, by none other than the Harvard Medical
School, that one out of every two persons in the United States between the
ages of 35 and 49 years used at least one alternative therapy in 1997. That
is a growth of 47.3 per cent since 1990. This is spectacular by any means
and of great concern to conventional (allopathic) medicine especially since
the people using alternative medicine are primarily well-educated, affluent
The trend to alternative medicine is repeated throughout Western society. In
Australia 57 percent of the population now use some form of alternative
medicine, in Germany 46 percent do, and in France 49 percent do. The growth
of some types of alternative medicine is indeed astounding. Between 1991 and
1997 the use of herbal medicines in the United States grew by 380 per cent
and the use of vitamin therapy by 130 per cent. These are impressive numbers
by anyone's standard(1-3).
What it is and isn't
So why do people increasingly prefer alternative to conventional medicine?
The reasons are pretty simple - it is safe and it works! While there is
little doubt that allopathic medicine works well in the case of trauma and
emergency (you don't call your herbalist if you get hit by a car), it is much
less effective when it comes to prevention, chronic disease, and in
addressing the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of an individual.
These are precisely the areas where alternative medicine excels. To most of
the world's population, over 80 per cent to be precise, alternative medicine
is not "alternative" at all, but rather the basis of the health care system.
To Western-trained physicians alternative medicine is "something not taught
in medical schools" and something that allopathic doctors don't do and, one
could add, generally know nothing about. Alternative medicine actually
encompasses a very large array of different systems and therapies ranging
from ayurvedic medicine to vitamin therapy.
Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for the past five
thousand years and has recently undergone a renaissance in the West due, in
no small measure, to the work and lectures of Dr. Deepak Chopra, MD.
Ayurvedic medicine is a very comprehensive system that places equal emphasis
on body, mind, and spirit and uses a highly personalized approach to return
an individual to a state where he or she is again in harmony with their
environment. Ayurvedic medicine uses diet, exercise, yoga, meditation,
massage, herbs, and medication and, despite its long lineage, is as
applicable today as it was 5000 years ago. For example, the seeds of the
Mucuna pruriens plant have long been used to treat Parkinson's disease in
India; it is now receiving attention in conventional circles as it is more
effective than l-dopa and has fewer side effects(4).
Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for over 3000 years
and over one quarter of the world's population now uses one or more of its
component therapies. TCM combines the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture,
and the use of therapeutic exercises such as Qi Gong. It has proven to be
effective in the treatment of many chronic diseases including cancer,
allergies, heart disease and AIDS. As does Ayurvedic medicine, TCM also
focuses on the individual and looks for and corrects the underlying causes of
imbalance and patterns of disharmony.
Homeopathy was developed in the early 1800s by the German physician
Samuel Hahnemann. It is a low-cost, non-toxic health care system now used by
hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is particularly popular
in South America and the British Royal Family has had a homeopathic physician
for the last four generations. Homeopathy is an excellent first-aid system
and is also superb in the treatment of minor ailments such as earaches, the
common cold, and flu. Homeopathy is again based on the treatment of the
individual and when used by a knowledgeable practitioner can also be very
effective in the cure of conditions such as hay fever, digestive problems,
rheumatoid arthritis, and respiratory infections.
Chiropractic primarily involves the adjustment of spine and joints to
alleviate pain and improve general health. It was practiced by the early
Egyptians and was developed into its present form by the American Daniel
David Palmer in 1895. It is now the most common form of alternative medicine
in the United States. Chiropractors not only manipulate spine and joints,
but also advise their patients on lifestyle and diet matters. They believe
that humans possess an innate healing potential and that all disease can be
overcome by properly activating this potential.
Naturopathic medicine also strongly believes in the body's inherent
ability to heal itself. Naturopathy emphasizes the need for seeking and
treating the causes of a disease rather than simply suppressing its symptoms.
Naturopaths use dietary modifications, herbal medicines, homeopathy,
acupuncture, hydrotherapy, massage, and lifestyle counseling to achieve
Vitamin therapy or orthomolecular medicine uses vitamins, minerals,
and amino acids to return a diseased body to wellness in the belief that the
average diet today is often woefully inadequate in providing needed nutrients
and that the need for specific nutrients is highly individual. Conditions as
varied as hypertension, depression, cancer, and schizophrenia can all benefit
enormously from vitamin therapy.
Biofeedback, body work, massage therapy, reflexology, hydrotherapy,
aromatherapy, and various other forms of energy medicine round out the vast
spectrum of alternative medicine modalities.
How is it different?
So what sets alternative medicine apart from allopathic medicine?
- Conventional medicine is preferred in the treatment of trauma and
emergencies while alternative medicine excels in the treatment of chronic
disease, although homeopathy can also be very effective as a first-aid.
- Conventional medicine focuses on the relief of symptoms and rarely places
emphasis on prevention or the treatment of the cause of a disorder. All
alternative systems, on the other hand, strive to find and treat the cause of
a disorder and frown on covering up the symptoms. Alternative therapies are
also much more focused on prevention.
- Conventional medicine is organ specific, hence ophthalmologists,
cardiologists, nephrologists, neurologists, etc. Alternative medicine,
without exception, considers each person as a unique individual and uses a
holistic approach in treatment.
- Conventional medicine believes in aggressive intervention to treat
disease. It revels in terms such as "magic bullet" and "war" ("the war on
cancer"), and prefers quick fixes (as do many patients). Alternative
medicine believes in gentle, long-term support to enable the body's own
innate powers to do the healing.
- Conventional medicine's main "arsenal" consists of surgery, chemotherapy,
radiation, and powerful pharmaceutical drugs. Alternative medicine uses
time-tested, natural remedies and gentle, hands-on treatments.
- Conventional medicine practitioners are guided in their treatment by
strict rules set out by the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. This often
leads to a "one size fits all" approach. Practitioners of alternative
medicine, on the other hand, treat each patient as an individual and do what,
in their opinion, is best rather than what is specified in a "rule book".
- Conventional medicine sees the body as a mechanical system (the heart is
a pump and the kidneys are a filter) and believes most disorders can be
traced to chemical imbalances and therefore are best treated with powerful
chemicals (drugs). Alternative medicine systems, almost without exception,
accept that the body is suffused by a network of channels (meridians) that
carry a subtle form of life energy. Imbalances or blockages of this energy
are what lead to disease and clearing of the blockages and strengthening of
the energy is the ultimate goal of alternative medicine.
- Conventional medicine prefers patients to be passive and accept their
treatment without too many questions. Alternative medicine, in contrast,
prefers and indeed, in many cases, requires the patient to take a highly
active part in both prevention and treatment.
- Both conventional and alternative medicine ascribe to the principle "Do
no harm". However, while alternative medicine is essentially achieving this
goal, conventional medicine seems to have almost totally lost sight of it.
Hospitals are now the third largest killer in Australia and over one million
people are seriously injured in American hospitals every year. Blood
infections acquired in American hospitals cause 62,000 fatalities every year
and bypass surgery results in 25,000 strokes a year. Two million patients
experience adverse drug reactions in hospitals in the United States every
year; of these, over 100,000 die making hospital-induced adverse drug
reactions the fourth leading cause of death after heart disease, cancer, and
- The practice of conventional medicine is intimately tied in with the
whole medico-pharmaceutical-industrial complex whose first priority is to
make a profit. Although most conventional physicians have "healing the
patient" as their first priority, they find it increasingly difficult to do
so while operating within the system with its pharmaceutical salesmen, its
rule books, its fear of malpractice suits, its endless paperwork to satisfy
bureaucrats and insurance companies, and its time pressures. Most
alternative medicine practitioners have no such constraints and pressures and
can give the patient their undivided attention.
- Conventional medicine generally resists the use of natural remedies long
after their efficacy has been scientifically proven (Germany is an exception
to this). Most alternative medicine practitioners eagerly embrace new
remedies and, in many cases, can point to years of safe use. Ginkgo biloba
is now the most prescribed drug in Germany and has been found effective in
the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease(12). Also in Germany the
herb saw palmetto is now prescribed in 90 per cent of all cases of enlarged
prostate; in the United States 300,000 prostate operations are performed each
year to solve this problem. More profitable for sure, but dangerous and
unpleasant for the patient(13).
- The major source of funds for medical research is pharmaceutical
companies who, not surprisingly, are very reluctant to support investigations
into lifestyle modifications, vitamins, and other unpatentable products.
Nevertheless, a growing number of medical researchers are focusing their
attention on natural supplements and remedies and are publishing their work
in mainstream journals. The benefits of antioxidants have now been
thoroughly documented by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and
similar prestigious institutions. Folic acid, a simple B vitamin, has also
been extensively studied in university laboratories and has been found to be
effective in preventing or ameliorating heart attacks, strokes, angina,
intermittent claudication, atherosclerosis, kidney disease, colon cancer,
hearing loss, and Alzheimer's disease(14-18).
Although alternative practitioners and a small group of conventional
physicians do embrace the use of natural therapies and products the vast
majority of "establishment" physicians are still dragging their heels and
even denigrating and ridiculing alternative medicine. This fact, perhaps
more than anything else, is what is driving the rapid and massive switch from
conventional to alternative medicine.