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Why Alternative Medicines Don’t Work
by Dr. Dana Myatt

North Americans spend over $30 billion annually on Complementary and Alternative Medicine according to the office of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM).  Still, many skeptics believe that Alternative Medicines don’t work. As an holistic physician trained in alternative medicines, I must agree. Here’s why.

Although many alternative medicines available today have been better-researched than a number of FDA-approved drugs, the failure rate of alternative medicine remains high. If these alternative medicines are well-researched and proven, why the failure of many alternative treatments to produce the desired healing results? The problems may not be in the remedies themselves, but in mistakes made in their use. I offer these five reasons for the failure of alternative medicines and treatments:

1.) Lack of a treatment plan. In medical practice, doctors are supposed to develop a treatment plan that serves a specific purpose. Many laymen tell me they have “a bunch of vitamins and herbs in my cupboard — I could start my own pharmacy.” And therein lies a problem. People purchase a number of disjointed vitamin supplements and herbs with no definitive treatment plan or strategy. Just because someone has twenty bottles of vitamins in their cupboard that are supposed to be good for arthritis is no certainty that these supplements will work together to effect the desired condition. “A bunch of stuff” doesn’t cut it, not with alternative medicines and not with drugs. Patients need to have a concerted plan for health improvement, regardless of the chosen form of treatment.

2.) Buying inferior products. The FDA could do something helpful when it comes to nutritional supplements and herbs: they could oversee quality control. As it stands today, the FDA’s only mission is to outlaw all nutritional supplements, not keep them legal and verify quality. There is no “watchdog” group or bureau that oversees quality control in the alternative medicine industry, and this is a second major problem. What the label on your supplement or herb bottle says and what you may actually have can be two very different things. Consume Reports proved this in spades a few years ago when they “spot tested” supplements from the health food store shelves. The bottom line: buyer beware. Some natural and alternative products are cheap for a good reason. Know your source or take your chances.

3.) Not taking products as recommended. This is a perpetual problem in medicine, whether we’re talking about alternative medicines or drugs. If studies show that taking 1,000mg of a substance produces positive results, and the patient takes 500mg per day with no results, the problem may not the remedy but the patient. If a medical study shows that glucosamine sulfate produces beneficial results in arthritis and the patient instead takes glucosamine hydrochloride, again, it may be the patient and not the remedy that is the problem.

4.) Getting medical advice from the dog-catcher (or the butcher, baker or candlestick maker). There is a reason that doctors are required to attend school for 8+ years after high school in order to be licensed as physicians. Diagnosis and treatment of the human body is intricate work. When patients get spurious medical information from their next door neighbor (who has no medical or science background), the dog-catcher, country-western singers (this really happened), or anyone else without medical training, it’s anyone’s guess as to the outcome. Most people wouldn’t dream of taking their Caddy or BMW to anything less than a trained professional for care, yet people rely on untrained friends, family and people they don’t even know for health advice. Go figure.

5.) Using unproven remedies. There are so many alternative medicines that have more scientific study than drugs that it is difficult for me to understand why people choose to use unproven natural remedies. Perhaps it has to do with clever marketing combined with laymen naiveté. Whatever the cause, there are in fact many bogus “natural cures” around, diluting the importance of the true and proven alternative treatments and delivering disappointing health results.

6.) Expecting alternative medicines to work like drugs. For the most part, drugs treat symptoms, not problems. No one suffers from depression because of a Prozac deficiency, or a headache because of a Tylenol deficiency. Drugs don’t attempt to correct the underlying causes of illness, they are designed to give symptom relief — and many do so quite quickly. As soon as the drug wears off, the problem remains.

Although they can be used like drugs, alternative medicines are best used to correct the underlying cause of illness. They may not necessarily give symptom relief in one or two doses, but when they finally do their work, the problem is corrected, not simply masked. Patients who take one or two doses of an alternative medicine and quit because they do not experience symptom relief misunderstand the corrective action and benefit of this form of treatment.

So, I totally agree with skeptics who question the positive effects of alternative medicines. There is indeed an arguable failure rate, but this is due in large part to how these “medicines” are used, not in the medicines themselves. When used correctly, alternative medicines are the preferable way to prevent and treat disease. Isn’t a true correction better than a band-aid?