Ten Questions You May Hear from Your Patients About Alternative Medicine
How You Might Respond
by Dónal P. O’Mathúna, PhD
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2008
Question 1: Doctor, do you think alternative medicine is good or bad?
Well, the best answer is that it depends. Alternative medicine includes a wide range of approaches to health along with many types of therapies and remedies. Just like drugs can be good or bad depending on what they are used for, alternative medicine can be good or bad. Some forms are good when used for the right reasons and in the right situations. Other forms of alternative medicine are bad, or can be used for the wrong reasons.
Question 2: Why do you think people are so interested in alternative medicine these days?
There are many reasons for this, and individuals will vary in why they choose alternative medicine. Some people are concerned about the side effects of drugs and the invasiveness of modern medicine. They see alternative medicine providing a more natural and gentler approach. Others are drawn to the longer consultation times that typically accompany alternative therapies. They may prefer this to the shorter appointments at conventional practices. For others, it may be a cost issue, with supplements being less expensive than visiting a doctor and getting a prescription. And some people are drawn to the spirituality that is often included in holistic approaches to alternative medicine.
Question 3: Doctor, what is holistic care?
A holistic approach to health care is one that takes into account the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual factors that impact one’s health. The role of each dimension is taken into consideration in determining why someone might be feeling unhealthy and in deciding how best to help the person. As such, holistic care is that which takes the whole person into consideration. It can be in keeping with the biblical concern for heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), or it can be a way to introduce alternative forms of spirituality.
Question 4: Doctor, I’m a Christian. Should I stay away from alternative medicine?
Christians can approach much of alternative medicine in the same way they would approach conventional medicine to ensure they are being wise stewards with all they have been given. However, some forms of alternative medicine include spiritual advice. All such advice would need to be carefully evaluated in light of Scripture and wise counsel. In addition, some therapies have a strong connection to religious systems (e.g. shamanism, Reiki). Using a therapy or alternative medical system that is closely tied to a non-Christian religion is fraught with spiritual dangers. It would be difficult to justify using such forms of alternative medicine when other proven effective options are available.
Question 5: Doctor, I read that Christians shouldn’t use drugs. Is that true?
Some people claim that pharmaceutical drugs and modern medicine harm more people than they help. Some Christians add that the Greek word for drug is pharmakeia, which is denounced in Galatians 5:20. However, that word is usually translated as “witchcraft” in the Bible. Commentaries support this interpretation, pointing out that many passages praise (or at least endorse) the healing power of medicinal agents (Isaiah 1:6; Jeremiah 51:8; Luke 10:34). This word pharmakeia is sometimes used for witchcraft because of how drugs were often involved in those rituals.
These Christian arguments tie into the way some within the alternative medicine community reject modern medicine. Doctors sometimes make mistakes and people sometimes have bad side effects from treatments. However, medicine also does a lot of good and has developed a lot of treatments that help many people. We must constantly evaluate our actions and systems, and try to improve. God created the substances that we use as drugs and has given us the knowledge to understand and treat the body. Therefore, we can use the resources of the world to promote our health, provided we are acting ethically and justly.
Question 6: Are herbal remedies safe?
Some are; some aren’t. Most herbal remedies on the market are probably not going to hurt people. However, many of them are not going to help, either. If someone avoids or delays getting effective treatment because they use ineffective herbal remedies, they are being harmed. While research is showing that some herbal remedies are effective for specific conditions, thousands of different products are being marketed. Most of these have never been tested to see whether they work or not. Research on a small number of herbs is showing they can be useful for specific conditions, but is also showing that they can interact with other drugs. It is very important to inform your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about all the drugs, herbal remedies, and dietary supplements you are taking.
Question 7: Where should I buy dietary supplements?
That is a difficult question to answer because of current U.S. regulations. Dietary supplements are not required to demonstrate effectiveness or quality before being marketed in the U.S. In general, be very hesitant to buy supplements off the Internet. Although some websites sell good quality products, you can never be sure. Buying brands from a trusted establishment where you know a knowledgeable healthcare professional is more reliable. In addition, ConsumerLab.com is a recognized independent company that tests dietary supplements and herbal remedies. For a small annual subscription you can access their reports. This will show which brands passed and which failed the tests of quality and purity. They do not test whether the products actually work, though.
Question 8: I was thinking about trying acupuncture. What do you think, doctor?
Acupuncture raises all the issues that need to be evaluated about an alternative therapy. From a purely medical perspective, there is good evidence that acupuncture works for certain conditions (like nausea and vomiting after surgery, or for dental pain). There are other conditions for which it is clearly ineffective (in treating asthma, or for weight reduction). However, acupuncture developed within an Eastern religious system, which claims that it works via spiritual energies. The needles are said to impact the flow of these “life energies” to improve health. If acupuncture only involved a spiritual dimension, we would not recommend it at all. But acupuncture needles exert physical effects which may trigger physiological changes. Acupuncture therefore can be practiced in ways that are divorced from its spiritual roots. We believe that acupuncture may be acceptable if used in ways supported by evidence-based practice and by therapists who do not try to promote Eastern beliefs. At the same time, some Christians may be uncomfortable with acupuncture because of its Eastern roots and they should not be pressured into accepting it.
Question 9: Doctor, my sister said she feels much better since starting a supplement. Do you think I should try it?
One of the difficulties with any remedy is knowing what caused any changes that occur. When we feel better, we look back and wonder if it was because of the last change we made. However, some conditions come and go in their severity. In addition, our bodies and minds are complicated and interconnected. Our expectations influence how we feel, and the power of suggestion can be strong. This is why medicine places so much importance on controlled studies of treatments. These do their best to figure out what effects were caused by the treatment and what resulted from all the other factors, which together are called the placebo effect.
When your sister says that she feels better, it is very difficult to know why. It might have been the supplement, or maybe she made some other changes in her life. Whether or not the supplement will help you depends on whether you have the same underlying issues and if the supplement works. I can only answer your question if we have a good reason to try you on the supplement and if there is evidence from controlled studies that the supplement is effective. So, let’s talk more about what is going on with you and see how best we can treat your symptoms.
Question 10: Where can I get more information about alternative medicine?
A large amount of information on alternative medicine is available in popular books, on the Internet, and increasingly in the professional literature. However, the quality of this information varies widely. Our book is the only one that we are aware of that evaluates both the medical research and the theological beliefs underlying numerous therapies and herbal remedies (Dónal O’Mathúna and Walt Larimore, Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook. Updated and Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007). The most complete database of medical information on herbal remedies and dietary supplements (but not alternative therapies) is the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. It includes summary Patient Handouts and is available online for an annual subscription (www.TheNaturalDatabase.com). A condensed form of similar information, available in book form, is C. W. Fetrow and Juan R. Avila’s Professional’s Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004).