Many Americans equate the term traditional medicine with the current Western, pharmaceutical medical model. We go to the doctor, complain about our ailments, fill our prescriptions, and file insurance claims. Though it’s now the norm, many are not aware that this Western form of medicine has only existed for a little longer than two centuries.
By contrast, the traditional medicines of China, India, and the Amazonian and African nations have survived for thousands of years; in these societies, a more naturalistic approach exists—one that has proven to be efficacious and highly regarded around the world.
Commercial, clinical medicine—and the communities that practice it—continue to have a bias against the traditional medicine of these ancient societies. An analysis in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization mentions that it is often difficult to conduct highly structured, standardized trials of traditional herbal medicine because of the high degree of real-world variation within those practices: differences in the source of the herb, preparation, dose, use, and other factors.
Despite thousands of years of recorded primary data centered on traditional herbal medicine, many Americans believe these data are not of equivalent scientific rigor compared with double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover clinical trials. As a result, the media and many mainstream American physicians dismiss traditional, natural medicine—including the world of herbs and nutraceuticals—citing them as dangerous and/or a waste of money because of ineffectiveness or the lack of scientific validity. But even some of the most common drugs we take—such as aspirin—lack some scientific validity, and we are still willing to trust our health to a couple of pills when we have a headache.
Shifting Toward Traditional Practices
Regardless of these types of assertions, there is an ever-growing subgroup of Americans who search out and effectively employ the services and remedies of traditional medicine. The non-Western world is fully engaged in the intermingling of medical disciplines. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in China, traditional Chinese medicine and herbs played a significant role in containing and treating severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). WHO further noted that 80 percent of African populations use some form of traditional medicine to address their healthcare needs.
The tide of American medicine is shifting, according to Robert Ludovise, owner of the Institute of Medical Studies. For 25 years, Ludovise and his company have been dedicated to continuing education for physicians in the United States. When asked in a recent interview whether he had observed a rise in demand for, or a desire to learn more about, the different modalities of medicine—traditional, alternative, and complementary—Ludovise replied affirmatively. He attributed the increase in information demand to younger physicians who have been motivated by their patients, both young and old, to find more effective and safer answers to the increasing adverse effects and stressors of modern society—and to relieve the effects of aging in general. Many older physicians, among whom current Western pharmaceutical medicine is the norm, disregard the different modalities. Some consider their younger contemporaries to be “out of the mainstream” medical practices.
When asked what he thought the future might hold for fuller integration of traditional, alternative, and complementary medicine into the mainstream pharmaceutical medical paradigm, Ludovise replied, “The American Medical Association allows continuing medical education programs to provide information about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches, but if the program teaches specific patient treatment protocols—i.e., ‘how’ to treat patients—these protocols must be truly evidence-based with research that is acceptable by traditional standards, not just anecdotal or market-driven research. Eventually they will be fully integrated. It’s a matter of how well and how soon CAM provides valid, evidence-based research regarding claims that are being made.”
Combining Old and New Methods
The real question, then, may not be whether traditional and current Western medicine can coexist, but in what manner and manifestation will the paradigm shift? Even within its own ranks, Western medicine has witnessed the rise of what is now commonly called biomedicine. Biomedicine is defined in many medical dictionaries as “clinical medicine based on the principles of the natural sciences, such as biology and biochemistry.”
Biomedicine aims to push the frontiers of clinical treatment within the current Western medical model to include treatments such as nutritional therapies and herbal protocols. The current coexistence of biomedicine, traditional medicine, and Western pharmaceutical medicine has produced some results that have begun to appear in widely disparate applications and in examples other than mere statistical analysis. Both published research and the juxtaposition of different medical practices represent a shift in thinking toward integrative approaches.
A Peaceful Coexistence
The medical models and remedies of ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, African bush medicine, and other ancient medical traditions—along with biomedicine—are increasingly sought out by the general population. Patients are looking for answers to health issues that may or may not be addressed by the dominant pharmaceutical medical model. The intermingling of these disciplines sets the stage for the development of new treatment therapies and strategies that may improve patient outcomes. As these medical worlds continue to integrate, and leaders in their respective medical fields remain open to the possibilities of authentic exchange, the future of integrative medicine shows much promise. Looking ahead, integrative medicine has the potential to reduce iatrogenesis—preventable harm resulting from medical treatment or advice—and to classify methodologies that have been historically clinically effective. This will offer evolving improvement to the overall health and wellbeing of humankind.
Nancy Angelini and Thomas Dadant have more than 75 years of combined experience in natural healing practices. They founded the Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medical Studies to provide professionals and the public with reliable, unaffiliated information on products, health, and alternative medicine practices.
What Do Studies Show?
As both medical practitioners and patients grow increasingly curious about integrative medicine, clinical trials and studies have begun to surface. Check out these published reports, which all exhibit a combination of Western practices, traditional medicine, and biomedicine.
Statins// These drugs, used to lower cholesterol, are often prescribed to patients with coronary artery disease. Though it can be effective, statin therapy is known to reduce the production of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) in the body; this antioxidant is needed for basic cellular functions. Gold-standard research published in Nutrition Journal suggests that patients who take statin drugs may benefit from a CoQ10 supplement. In the study, those who took a daily 300 mg supplement of the nutraceutical CoQ10—in addition to the statin drug—saw significantly enhanced antioxidant enzyme activity related to CoQ10 and experienced lower levels of inflammation.
Chemotherapy// The negative side effects of chemotherapy routinely force patients to withdraw from treatment. The mushroom product AHCC—active hexose correlated compound—may be an effective natural remedy to help reduce secondary side effects of chemotherapy, according to a study published in Nutrition and Cancer. A separate study published in ISRN Oncology indicates that the mushroom Trametes versicolor (Tv) may enhance immune markers—thus helping to boost the immune system—in women with breast cancer after radiotherapy treatment. That study also noted that the mushroom did not disrupt the effectiveness of the standard cancer treatment chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The option to use either AHCC or Tv mushrooms to alleviate some side effects of cancer treatment may encourage more patients to remain in treatment.
NSAIDS// In the treatment of migraines, studies have shown the combined use of NSAIDS—nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—and natural remedies can reduce recurrence and severity. One study, published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, found that magnesium in combination with acetaminophen or ibuprofen reduced headache pain frequency in children. The plant petasites—also known as butterbur—was similarly found to decrease frequency and severity of migraines, according to a study published in Neurology.
Vitamin D + Interferon// Patients infected with hepatitis C tend to have vitamin D deficiencies that reduce the effectiveness of interferon therapy—a widespread immune-boosting treatment for many diseases including hepatitis strains, various types of cancer, and multiple sclerosis. The Journal of Viral Hepatitis published a study demonstrating the increased effectiveness of interferon medication when paired with complementary oral vitamin D supplementation. In a more dramatic representation of integrative medicine, Annals of Transplantation published a report detailing the use of intravenous silibinin—an extract from the seeds of the milk thistle plant—in two liver transplant patients, in conjunction with interferon therapy, to successfully reduce the recurrence of the hepatitis C virus in patients who were not eligible for the commonly used ribavirin therapy.