My Love-Hate Relationship With Alt Med
I don't know where to begin with this one. It's an important topic to me, and I think important that I put into words, but I've been avoiding it. Partly because I don't want to hear a bunch of "Alt Med is bullshit and you're dumb for subscribing to this methodology! You call yourself a scientist? Blah blah blah!" and also because I don't want to hurt any of my crunchier friend's feelings or get into arguments with people I love. But most of all it's because it's long and involved and kind of painful. But I guess I'm just going to say "fuck it" and write exactly what I think and feel. This is, after all, my blog.
So, here's the disclaimer: I am not writing this for you. I'm not trying to insult you or hurt your feelings. But I am not going to sugar coat anything or pretend bad/pseudoscience is okay, either. I also don't give two shits if you think that natural methods have no place in science or medicine. That closed-minded attitude is what has no place in science. Fuck off.
Ready? Here we go.
I pride myself on being a scientist. I take a very analytical, evidence-based approach to pretty much everything. I have been this way since I was a child [insert sad story about being taught bad science as a kid, and it spurring a life-long love affair with the scientific method and eternal curiosity here]. So here's where the whole "love-hate, alt med" story begins... (this is long. Get a cup of coffee and something to munch on.)
When I was 18, I got sick. Really sick. And there was no cure, and still isn't. Actually, I had been sick for years, on and off, but it came to a definite head at 18. I did what any good person does when they get sick - I went to the doctor. They ran 1,000 tests, took bags and bags and vials and test tubes of my blood every week for months, did EKG's, ultrasounds, MRI's, and CT scans, and despite not having a good understanding of what turned out to be my complex collection of chronic conditions they did their best to "make me as comfortable as possible" (sounds like I'm dying, right? Feels like it sometimes, too!). They gave me medications to manage nerve pain, and pills for my ever-increasing migraines, and different pills for the referred pain caused by the first pain meds. They gave me pills to help me sleep (because sleep is really hard when your pain levels are rivaling that of childbirth, according to experts) which caused a horrific allergic reaction, so they gave me something to try and combat that, in addition to my meds for my seasonal allergies, which altogether created even more problems. We tried 11 different sleeping meds. Eventually, they took me off the sleeping pill and just said "good luck, sleep when you can. Try taking a double dose of pain meds before bed, maybe?" Pro tip: Sleep is important.
They put me on a medication to help with my digestion, which got fucked up by all the other meds. They gave me meds for my depression, and for my anxiety. This was a good thought, as I had been suicidally depressed for almost my whole life, but unfortunately, the antidepressants leveled me out just above actually trying to kill myself (but not above self-harming). That's not really much better than being suicidal, by the way. And they caused me to gain a ton of weight, which exacerbated my pain, as well as my depression. We tried several different antidepressants, none seemed to really help more than any other. Some made me legit crazy. So they found one that did the bare minimum with the fewest side effects, and just left me on it for 8 years and stopped asking about it. They gave me additional pain meds, opiates to take "as needed," until "as needed" was legitimately every day, and then they changed up my pain meds to stronger "more targeted" meds, and gave me higher doses of opiates "as needed." I honestly have very spotty memory of about 5 years of my life, I think because of the constantly changing meds.
(In case you didn't know, the body adjusts and adapts to medications, so they don't work as well over time, so you have to keep upping the dose until you can't anymore, then you add in different meds and repeat the cycle.)
They gave me my birth control, which I had been on for years, but didn't tell me that when coupled with my migraines with aura, my risk of stroke was doubled. Then the gave me migraine meds that may have negated the effect of my birth control (which no one ever told me - I learned this years later in pharmacology class), but didn't negate the increased stroke risk. But I shouldn't worry because the likelihood of getting pregnant "in my condition" was minimal. As someone who has never a day in her life wanted children, this wasn't the worst news, but it also isn't great to hear.
Most of the doctors I saw had me in the office, a new script written, and back out the door in 8 minutes or less (after waiting in the extremely uncomfortable waiting room chairs for over an hour). They didn't care that I was in constant excruciating pain. Some accused me of drug seeking. Lots told me it was in my head, or I was looking for attention. Some told me to lose weight, or gain weight, or exercise more, or sleep better. They made it pretty clear I was a problem, and one they didn't really have time for. They threw new meds at me, often without reviewing my chart at all, and moved on. The number of contraindicated drugs I was prescribed was appalling. I felt really alone, really scared. I was young, I was in pain all the fucking time, I couldn't participate in activities with my friends, I couldn't work, I couldn't think straight, and my doctors treated me like I had a completely unknown disease and I was on my own to figure out what it was, how it worked, and how to treat it. Because what they were doing wasn't working so /shrug.
I was a regular at the NACC (Naval Ambulatory Care Clinic). At 22 years old, I knew the entire nursing staff, the doctors, the lab techs, and the pharmacy staff. I knew more about drug interactions than the PA's. I guided more than one phlebotomist on where to draw my blood, and which vials to use. I reviewed all lab work requests and results because half the time I knew which tests were needed better than the nurse. I had to BEG for tests & screenings for things that I thought were a concern (and I was usually right). Guys, that's ridiculous! And here's the kicker - I wasn't getting better. I was getting worse. And no one cared.
Near the end of my time at the NACC, I had a great doctor. Or at least one who didn't treat me like I was an imposition for being sick. I came in one day, angry and crying. I was on 32 pills a day at this point. Everything hurt. I was having 20+ migraine days a month, on top of the other pain. The pills weren't working. I hadn't had a good night's sleep in years. I was ready to give up. You know... like permanently give up. He looked away from his computer for a moment to actually make eye contact with me and said, "look... you didn't hear this from me, but I'd like you to go see an acupuncturist. It's not covered by your insurance so you'll have to pay out of pocket, but I want you to try it. " So I did. And it helped! It was the first thing that had actually helped!
Within a month I wasn't using my cane anymore, and within 6 months I was working again, for the first time in years. My pain was reduced, and more manageable. My migraines were down to <5/ month! My acupuncturist put me in touch with massage therapists, yoga instructors, holistic nutritionists, all of which made a positive impact on my wellbeing. I started studying herbal medicine (as a lover of plants and an amateur botanist, this was a natural path, pun absolutely intended), and self-medicating with various herbs (I do not recommend this, especially when mixing with pharmaceuticals. Work with a professional). It helped! I started working with my doctor to step down off my medications and started using herbs, dietary changes, and therapies like massage and chiropractic to manage my symptoms and improve my health instead. Within 2 years I had gotten off all my prescriptions, and was feeling really good! I was using herbs, oils, supplements, and diet to manage my ailments, and practicing good self-care/preventative care with complementary therapies. It was the best I had felt in ages! It was amazing.
[I want to be clear here - I am not advocating for getting off medications. I am not saying that's the goal. It was, for me at that point in my life, the right move, under the care and guidance of my PCP. But medications are important and can really benefit people, if the correct ones are prescribed in the correct doses. Just wanted to make sure you know, there's absolutely zero med-shaming in this post.]
It made such a difference for me, I went to school for medical botany, then "natural health consulting" which is a blended degree of nutrition, exercise science, and some other holistic therapies, and now am in my final year of my doctorate in Natural Medicine. Natural therapies have quite literally been a lifesaver for me. I've been working with them for myself for about 8 years now, and I now also work with others, specifically those dealing with chronic pain and mental health struggles.
Something beautiful I quickly noticed when working with holistic therapists versus my doctors: I never felt like I was an imposition, or like I was being rushed out of the office. I didn't feel like they thought I was stupid, or troublesome. I never felt like they were dismissive of my pain or my experience. They treated me like a person - a SMART person - who might have some insight into my own body. That was revolutionary.
But... and you knew there had to be a "but..." not all natural medicine, or "alternative medicine" is created equal. Guys... there's a lot of bullshit out there. Some of it's just fucking stupid, like most everything shared by GOOP. Some of it's not directly harmful but still wrong, like alkaline water changing the pH of your body, fluoride making people mentally malleable, and consuming non-organic or GMO food being inherently toxic/carcinogenic. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But aside from the added expense, these beliefs are just wrong, they're not going to directly hurt you. But then there is the really dangerous stuff. Stuff that, if you follow that guidance, you could be putting yourself and others in serious risk. Such as... and let me be very clear here... VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM. Vaccinate your fucking children against life-threatening diseases (we can talk about chickenpox vaccines and flu shots later [spoiler: I don't get a flu shot])!!! There are people berating individuals for using antidepressant medication and opioids for legitimate pain management. Fucking stop that! Don't tell disabled people that [natural remedy] will cure them. Stop "prescribing" pot or CBD oil for everything unless you are a prescribing physician (and even then, it's not a good fit for everyone). That ableist bullshit is super damaging physically, emotionally, psychologically. A "doctor" of natural medicine once told me not to take antibiotics when I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and to rub essential oil on my leg instead. FUCKING REVOKE THAT BLONDE TWAT'S LICENSE! I was once told by a natural health professional that I did not need meds or my mobility aids, I just needed to suck on some chicken bones. Or the man who told someone who was seriously allergic to peanuts that they just needed to start eating them every day to "bulid up a tolerance." Or the woman who claimed to be a "medical intuitive" and told a woman, over the phone on a radio show, that her physical malady (I can't remember what it was now, cancer maybe?) was repressed emotional issues because she had been raped. "No, I wasn't," said the caller. "You were. You're repressing it. That's what's causing your health problem. You don't need medical treatment, you need to have your father arrested." What the fuck?! <deep breath> There is no actual, legit science backing up homeopathy, but if you want to give it a try for non-life threatening issues, go for it. I know quite a few people who swear by it! But if your infant has a dangerously high fever, take them to the hospital, don't give them flower essences (and yes, I know flower essences are different than homeopathy). DO NOT gloss over mental health struggles because of crunchy, religious, or other biases. If your child, partner, friend is talking about experiencing depression/anxiety/DID/bipolar/schizophrenia/BPD/literally ANY MENTAL HEALTH STRUGGLE, get them/encourage them to get help from an educated/licensed professional! If they want to start with talk therapy and St. John's Wort and see how it goes, cool. That's their choice. But never ever EVER shame someone for needing to utilize pharmaceuticals for mental health care. Fucking don't do that! I cannot even tell you how many individuals I know who have been shamed or denied care because "it's not natural" or religious reasons. I will fucking break your kneecaps, I swear to god!
And see, as an educated (albeit sweary) woman who comes to natural medicine from a logical, scientific, and actually wholistic/integrative (that is, both natural therapies and conventional medicine have important roles to play in our health) approach, I don't want to get lumped in with those people. I hate that when I say I practice holistic healthcare, people automatically assume I talk to spirits or angels, use a Ouija board, and lobby against vaccines and antibiotics. That I tell people to stop taking their medications and just drink tea instead - to go for a walk instead of taking their antidepressants. That I use crystals and tarot cards instead of sending off for blood work. No!
I do know that if we practiced better preventative care, that is, managing stress, diet, and lifestyle better, we could avoid some, actually probably a lot of illnesses. I know stress is the/a root cause of 60-90% of all disease, according to experts who are much smarter than me. I also know that 20% of Americans are on antidepressants, and of that, over 80% have not seen a mental or any other healthcare provider in over 2 years. I know that antibiotic resistance is becoming a really big problem. I know that our "healthcare" system is a fucking mess. I know that a HUGE number of not only my clients, but just people I chat with on the street or in line at the post office complain that their doctors don't give a shit, don't listen, treat them badly, and rush them out the door. I know that "big pharma" is intertwined with our gross capitalistic society and is in bed with the insurance companies, which are all together profiting on keeping people sick and on meds forever (while also not paying for the thing that would be actually helpful, but I'll save that rant for later).
I work closely with general practice medical doctors, neurologists, oncologists, psychologists and psychiatrists, rheumatologists, and osteopathic doctors, as well as chiropractors, massage therapists, Reiki practitioners, herbalists, yogis, nutritionists, and acupuncturists to make sure that every client I work with is receiving the best possible care from all sides. I have had years of conventional medical training, in addition to the holistic approach. I can read lab reports, understand what various drugs are supposed to be doing, know how the body reacts and processes different things. I can work with a client with pain who is on a series of analgesic medications and suggest herbs, oils, nutrition and lifestyle changes, supplements, whatever to help them sleep better (or reduce their sensitivity, or anxiety, or whatever else is of concern) without interacting with their meds. And if they sleep better, maybe they feel better the next day. And if they consistently can feel a little better, then they can be a little happier, interact with the world around them more easily. And as the whole system begins to get healthier, things begin to work more smoothly, less painfully. Maybe they can someday stop taking pain meds, but maybe not. Either way, that's not my goal. My goal is not "anti-conventional med," it's "pro-improving the entire quality of someone's life."
I'm not claiming a cure for anything. I certainly haven't cured myself. I'm still in pain, and it's getting worse (at least one of my conditions is seriously degenerative). I have an appointment coming up, actually, to see a new physician and talk about some pharmaceutical options. But what I do know, for a fact, is that without utilizing natural supplements, good self-care, stress management, identifying food sensitivities and allergies, and keeping my poor broken body moving, I would be much, much worse off. I know this for a fact because I was there.
I want to address 3 things "quickly."
One is a cliche I am fucking tired of hearing. It's "You know what they call natural/alternative medicine that actually works? Medicine!"
There is absolutely, inarguably good science to natural medicine. It's the basis of all our modern medicine, as this asinine cliche points out. But to be so fucking arrogant as to think "we've learned everything we can from natural things, adapted it, so now it has no benefit or place in the wellness puzzle" just astounds me. The natural world is more majestic and diverse than you can imagine! And sure, we took valerian root and made valium. Cool beans! Let's pat ourselves on the back and pop some champagne. But guess what, motherfucker? Not everyone needs, wants, or can even take valium! Some people just want a cup of tea with some valerian root in it to help them unwind, calm down, and drift off to sleep. Some people need an added, gentle boost to their sleep game, but valium causes a bad reaction or interacts with their medications or any of a thousand other reasons someone might not want to take valium. And with natural options, since they're more gentle, they don't knock you out as strongly, but you also don't feel as groggy and like you got hit by a truck when you wake up. There are reasons people make the choices they make. Don't be an arrogant, judgmental prick.
Point two is this. I was listening to one of my favourite science podcasts, and they were talking about vaccine safety. The podcast host was talking to one of her friends who just had a kid about whether or not she vaccinated. The friend said that she had chosen not to vaccinate. The host was surprised, and inquired why. The woman said that when she had her baby, her very first child ever, she asked her doctor about vaccines. She'd heard some scary things and wanted some additional information before she shot her baby full of what was, to her, a possibly-scary mystery substance. She said that the doctor put down her pen, looked at her annoyedly and said: "you're kidding, right?" and refused to provide her with information about why she should vaccinate. And the host agreed. You're kidding, right? Guys... why is this the response a brand new mother is receiving from her baby's medical professional? She wasn't stomping her foot and saying "Fuck you, I'll never vaccinate! You don't know what you're talking about you murderous monster! MUAHAHAHAHAHA!" She was a woman who just wanted some information before making one of her first decisions as a parent. And she was treated badly for it. So badly that she didn't trust her doctor anymore, and didn't vaccinate. Her doctor did not give her any information that made her say "ah, this is a good, evidence-based decision." She wasn't open to having a discussion with her patient, addressing her concerns. Nope. Just judgment and dismissal. DOCTORS, SCIENTISTS, WAKE UP! If you want people to listen to you, trust you, take you seriously, you must treat them with respect, take their concerns seriously. Especially healthcare providers. I get it, you went to school for a long time. You know a lot. You worked really hard. You passed super challenging exams and boards. But you don't know everything (it's okay, no one does), and just having a school's stamp of approval on you is not reason enough for someone to blindly trust you. Nor should it be. Patients are allowed to be involved in their healthcare. They should be! It's important. Treat them like people. You cannot, cannot, CANNOT let your ego get in the way of providing the best fucking care possible. This is what's pushing people to bad science, pseudoscience. Well, that and capitalism, but that's a whole different rant for a different time.
The third is a matter of education. This is a big one, so apologies.
There is very little regulation in place as to who can practice pretty much anything in the natural healthcare field. So that permits a lot of people to be empowered to take charge of their own healthcare, which is great. Feeling a bit ill and want to start with some echinacea or tea with lemon and honey? Good plan. Burn yourself and want to apply some lavender oil? Do it! Feeling the beginnings of seasonal allergies? Nettle tea with raw unfiltered local honey is a superb choice! But the problem is that then people start expanding the scope of what they do, who they "help." And you end up with dipshits like the "doctor" who told me that microwaving water changes it's chemical structure and it will kill plants... "it's scientifically proven! They did a test on facebook!"
But anyhow, focusing again, basically anyone, with little-to-no training in anything outside their field, and even very little there, can be an "expert" in natural health communities. And it ends up with uneducated people reading a little about something, thinking they understand it because it's "common sense" and publishing a scathing essay on the internet about how veganism will cure all disabilities, or GMO's are going to cause human gene mutations, or that you can take some herbal supplement and magically be healthy without having to make any changes to your lifestyle, or some other inaccurate nonsense. It's a problem for the reputation of the field, but it's also a problem because that information can be very dangerous and misleading. It also results in poorly educated people who are now self-proclaimed experts being the ones teaching the next round of people, so bad science (or just no science whatsoever) is passed along with authority. It's a dangerous problem.
I love natural medicine. It's so important to a balanced approach to wellness, and it's made a profound difference in my life. But it's not the answer ALONE. It's not instead of conventional care. It's in addition to. And there is nothing that is right for everyone all the time. We are beautifully diverse, and need to remember that. And my hippie friends, if spiritual things work for you that's awesome! But don't call it "science." Don't find an article on Facebook published by Mother Nature News and call it proof or validation. Peer. Reviews. Matter. Clinical trials matter.
And when you find something by Dr. Oz saying "THIS ONE FOOD IS SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN TO KILL CANCER - BUT BIG PHARMA DOESN'T WANT YOU TO KNOW" or "VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM!" and share it as fact, evidence, proof of the "science" you've always known in your heart to be true, you do all of us an enormous disservice. Stop. Please stop. For god's sake, please stop. You make me so embarrassed to call myself a student of natural/integrative/holistic/alternative health/medicine. You make it hard for this entire field of study to be taken seriously.
Natural Medicine has good science to it. But a lot of what people are advertising as "alt med" is pure bullshit perpetuated by people who don't know the difference between CoQ10 and the LHC. However, you can't dump the baby out with the bathwater. I have concluded after a very impactful personal experience and years of study that obviously, something here is really valuable, and I want to understand, from a legitimate, scientific standpoint, what it is, how it works, and how to best help myself and others using these methods, along with whatever else I/they need to. I will not be ashamed of choosing natural first. But I'm also not ashamed of needing to take medications. Or using mobility aids. Or speaking out against bad science, even (especially) when it's in my field.
Okay, one last thing (for real this time) - just because we don't fully understand the mechanism of something doesn't mean it doesn't work. But it does mean you can't call it "scientifically proven." That's inaccurate. Now, if you take something like Reiki, an energy therapy, that has a lot of trials and anecdotal evidence backing up its efficacy, can you then say it's "scientifically proven?" No. You can't. But you can say there are studies and anecdotal evidence supporting it. You can point out that it's used in hospitals, hospices, and clinics across the country and the world for everything from pain management to reduction of healing times, and that there is reliable documentation of these benefits. Terminology matters. If you want to be taken seriously, terminology matters. Transparency matters. Testing matters. And good science matters. Good science always matters.