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Health, psychology & science stories


Resurgence of the natural healing arts

26 November 2002

Published in The Age

In a story which stretches from the Stone Age to the Information Age, natural medicine has changed vastly over the centuries: yet elements remain which are as old as humanity. Herbalism, for instance, was used by early Homo sapiens, including the Neanderthals. Reflexology (Egypt, 2330 BC) and acupuncture (China, 2500 BC) were among the first subjects of written history.

In the fifth century BC formal western medicine began. Its father was the Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos, who famously said, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food” - a sentiment that would put him squarely in the mainstream of today’s natural healers. Dr Rebecca Flemming, an expert on ancient medicine at King’s College, London, told The Age: “The pursuit of health by living well - balancing the famous five of exercise, food, drink, sleep and sexual activity - was very much part and parcel of Hippocratic medicine.”

But by the 19th Century, western medicine had strayed somewhat from its roots, with “heroic” treatments like emetics, purgatives and drugging with mercury taking the place of  “lifestyle” approaches. Mid-century, Catherine Beecher (sister of the author Harriet Beecher Stowe) surveyed 1,000 women in 79 American communities: the sick outnumbered the well three to one.

Naturally counter-movements arose. In 1826 the Austrian Vincent Priessnitz opened his first “water cure” establishment. Whilst almost magical powers were attributed to the waters Priessnitz had his patients drink and bathe in, simply being removed from the influence of mainstream medicine probably saved many.

The “nature cure” - as it became known - was made famous in the US by Benedict_Lust (pronounced loost), who spoke out against processed foods and artificial drugs. The word “naturopath” came into use when Lust and his colleagues - under attack from government and the American Medical Association - were prohibited from using the words “cure”, “healing”, “therapy”, “physician” or “doctor”.

Most of the new healers were persecuted by the medical establishment. Despite this, by the 1920s there were 20,000 naturopaths in the US, and thousands of herbalists, homeopaths, osteopaths, chiropractors and others.

After a mid-century decline because of antibiotics, and advances in surgery and medical technology, the natural healing arts sprang back into favour in the early 1970s. A new epidemic had arisen - of lifestyle diseases such as arthritis and cancer - which Medicine seemed powerless to halt.

The revolution in health care which ensued went beyond the wildest dreams of the nineteenth century water cure doctors. Today in the US, alternative practitioners attract more patient visits than primary care physicians. In Australia, we spend more out-of-pocket on medicines we term “complementary” than on the pharmaceuticals they supposedly complement.

The revolution has brought several things. First among them has been a significant number of quacks. For example the popular American huckster Joel Wallach claims that the “colloidal minerals” he promotes were discovered by the West in the 1920s, when ailing rancher Thomas Jefferson Clark was told about a healing stream by Chief Soaring Eagle, a Paiute medicine man. Curiously, the present-day Paiute have never heard of either Clark or their famous Chief.

James Pontolillo, the world’s leading scientific researcher on colloidal minerals, told The Age that claims about their health benefits are “pseudoscientific gibberish”.

In a 1979 trial, three leading American iridologists were shown photographs of the eyes of 143 people, and asked to look for kidney problems. They demonstrated no statistical ability to diagnose such problems - although one diagnosed 88 percent of the healthy patients with kidney disease.

The premature deaths of various holistic heroes - such as Paavo Airola (64) and Herbalife’s founder Mark Hughes (44) - prove there’s more to longevity than making claims that other people find convincing. Indeed it’s increasingly perceived that only a full embrace of scientific method will save alternative medicine from its many dubious practices.

Fortunately, this is starting to happen. For example studies have shown that certain antioxidants can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in newborns, retard atherosclerosis in men, and reduce bone loss in older people.

And these days many ancient healing techniques are being given a new, scientific rationale. For instance the soundness of letting some fevers run unimpeded - which natural healers have been prescribing for centuries - has recently been “discovered” by science.

More broadly, the birth of Psycho-neuro-immunology is revealing the feedback mechanisms between behavioural, immunologic and nervous functions - between emotional states and physical health: thus bringing the “mind-body continuum” of all hunter-gatherer, classical and medieval healing systems into the mainstream of modern science.

The influence runs both ways: natural healing is becoming more scientific, and scientific medicine is becoming more natural. Associate Professor Susan Elliott, who oversees the development of Melbourne University’s Medicine curriculum, says:

“The study of nutrition is now integrated throughout the entire course - from year one to year six - and students study it in relation to the causes of a disease, and also its management.”

On the other hand, holistic medicine is rushing headlong into the technological age, with new high-tech tests like the American full-body CT scan - which enables examination of the internal organs and skeleton, and the detection of anything from cancer to osteoporosis.

Dr Michael Parkinson, of the American Board of Preventive Medicine, has reservations about the cost-effectiveness of these pre-emptive scans: “Technology typically outpaces the ability to understand its appropriate use,” he told The Age.

Flavour of the month in Australia is Live Blood Microscopy (LBM) - where a magnified image from a blood sample is projected onto a TV monitor, so both patient and practitioner can view the action. Seeing the blood “live” allegedly offers many advantages for diagnosis.

“With older samples the cells don’t move,” says Patti Dyne of SAFE, a Gold Coast LBM laboratory. “To give one example, looking at a live red blood cell wall may lead you to prescribe some essential fatty acids for the person’s diet.”

Ray Lowenthal, Clinical Professor at the University of Tasmania, isn’t buying that: “There is no scientific validity for the claims made by ‘holistic’ practitioners that they can detect illness or determine treatments by observing the motion of blood cells,” he says.

Hopefully good double-blind trialing of these techniques will,  in due course, sort the wheat from the chaff.

Today, holistic medicine is an international discipline which is branching out in some intriguing new directions. In Germany the herb St John’s Wort outsells Prozac for depression by 20 to 1. In Britain, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist is studying energy medicine in the light of quantum theory. And in the US, Professor Arthur De Vany - a Chaos theoretician and mathematician from the University of California at Irvine - has developed a new discipline he calls “Evolutionary Fitness”. De Vany sees the human body as “non-linear and dynamic”. Exercise, he says, should mix chaos and order - structure and novelty - as it did in Palaeolithic times.

Holistic patients are still often counselled to drink eight glasses of water a day; and spas and colonic irrigations remain popular. Notwithstanding, in a century or two we’ve come a long way from the water cure.

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