Making the Case for Balance Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Do you know anybody, perhaps even yourself, who eschews traditional “Western” medical treatments for entirely natural ones? Perhaps this person has a lifestyle that involves an abundance on supplements, homeopathic remedies, and similarly alternative treatments?

Well, as excellent for one’s health as it is to choose a good balance of vitamins and minerals, to avoid taking unnecessary prescriptions, and to ingest natural and unprocessed foods, an over-reliance on or trust in all things “natural” can end up being a very poor decision for your health.

What’s in a Name?

While it’s not a problem to dance with natural cures and remedies, blindly putting your faith in cures and solutions just because they’re labeled “natural” defies safety and logic.

For example, would you ever ingest botulism, coniine, alpha-amanitin, taxine, ricin, anthrax, strychnine or arsenic? Hopefully not, because any of them can result in death (very unpleasant ones, sometimes from very small doses) — and they’re all totally natural, Nevertheless, due to the abundance of industrial pollutions and poisons, and toxic, fattening or carcinogenic food additives, a misconception has grown in recent years that anything natural is healthier than its non- or less-organic manufactured cousins.

This backlash has inspired an enormous interest in and demand for natural supplements, alternative curative or preventative recourses and homeopathic solutions. While this isn’t a problem in and of itself, “natural” doesn’t always mean safe.

“Any herbal supplement or remedy could potentially cause liver or kidney failure or have dangerous interactions with other medications you may be taking,” writes Fiona Tapp with Reader’s Digest. She goes on to mention 12 “trusted” home remedies that could actually make your ailment worse, including St. John’s Wort, castor oil, and charcoal.

The experts over at The Conversation list four different reasons that alternative therapies can end up doing more harm than good:

  1. They can be a terrible waste of money: There are unproven treatments in both conventional and alternative medicine, but alternative treatments often cost a lot and produce little more than a placebo effect.
  2. Underreported side effects and drug interactions: Most patients don’t tell their doctor that they’re on alternative medicines, because they don’t think any side effects could be caused by the “natural” therapies they’re taking.
  3. Depression, disappointment, and disillusionment when treatments don’t work: When the placebo effect wears off, patients move on to more expensive products. This makes the consumer more and more disillusioned, and they question whether they should they believe any health professional.
  4. The delay of effective therapy: If you take something that you think is working, but your problems are actually getting worse, you could end up in serious trouble.

Now, before you go calling me a shill for Big Pharma, realize that I don’t think conventional medicine is perfect either — I’m just advocating for a well-researched balance.

The Failures of Conventional, Triumphs of Alternative

natural-medicine-1738181_1280There’s absolutely something to be said for the failures of Western medicine. The rise of antibiotic resistant diseases such as gonorrhea, for example, show that conventional medicine doesn’t necessarily hold all the answers.

On top of that, the system that countries such as the U.S. embrace often favor Big Pharma over the patients that they are supposed to serve. This has given rise to medical tourism, where the afflicted travel out of country so that they can afford treatments they badly need, receiving sometimes up to an 86 percent discount on medication, procedures, and surgeries.

On the flip side, there is also certainly a place for natural supplements and treatments. Pet treatments, for example, have been utilized for the last 150 years, but it was only in the late 1970s that researchers began to legitimately study the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. According to Benchmark Senior Living:

“One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.”

Even more recently, a 2014 study from Yonsei University College of Medicine in Seoul, Korea found that children with cerebral palsy treated with horse therapy had significant improvements in both gross motor function and functional performance, according to Drug News.

These types of natural treatments and therapies show that there is absolutely a legitimate side to the holistic and natural movements. In fact, one-third of US adults use some form of alternative medicine, either in preventative care or for the treatment of chronic and acute conditions.

Unfortunately, even though alternative medicines have proven themselves effective when used properly, many American medical insurance providers don’t cover them.

Aetna, for example, says it considers alternative interventions medically necessary only “if they are supported by adequate evidence of safety and effectiveness in the peer-reviewed published medical literature,” according to US News.

Interestingly, even though many conventional medical solutions fulfill this description, they also are extremely expensive and oftentimes can be accompanied by serious, and sometimes deadly side-effects. Opioids, for example, are not cheap, and the damage that opioid addiction wreaks on society threatens to outweigh what good these painkillers might be accomplishing — especially when preventative measures and alternative medicines like cannabis are much cheaper solutions in terms of cost to the individual and society both.

A Balanced Approach

When it really comes down to it, I don’t really know anybody who dismisses Western medicine altogether. When that horrible toothache starts swinging its little pickaxe, I’ve never known anyone to choose the buddy-with-pliers option over an antiseptic dentist’s office with a nitrous mask, local Novocaine injections, and follow-up antibiotics if necessary.

So do your own research and consider medical issues logically. There’s a tendency among my very pro-naturopath friends to consider the issue with as much single-minded (close-minded even) dismissal of everything modern/manufactured/synthesized as the most skeptical, scientific cynic regards alternative treatments.

On the other hand, it’s wrong to dismiss the natural movement completely. There’s plenty that Western medicine has yet to understand or present solutions for, and there are absolutely downsides to the Western line of thinking.

The bottom line for all of this is: life is a grey area … all of it, basically. All Western medicine is no more the answer than all alternative medicine. “Natural” supplements and medicines are cut with any number of chemicals in many cases, some do absolutely nothing and some are worse than useless, sickening those that take them — even in their purest form.

The pharmaceutical companies aren’t always necessarily scheming to produce ineffective medicine and conspiring to suppress the truth of all natural cures. If I get a bad infection, I’m going to take an antibiotic prescribed by a doctor. But to prevent infection, I’ll take a well-researched regimen of effective vitamins and supplements; get a massage, chiropractic adjustment, and acupuncture session to boost my health, lower my stress, and improve my immune system.

Life is all about balance. Remember that the next time you’re deciding whether to go with natural or traditional Western medicines. As the Old El Paso girl once asked: “why not both?”

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Author: Andrew Heikkila