Dissatisfaction with allopathic or traditional medicine has enlarged the opportunities for entrepreneurs offering ‘fringe’ medicines. Indeed, the growth in these alternative products is probably due as much to dissatisfaction with the safety and efficacy of traditional home and prescription medicines as to satisfaction experienced with the alternatives. The irony is that although traditional treatments may have been tried and found lacking in many respects, the majority of alternatives have never even been tried I Anecdotal experiences, advertising material and uncritical enthusiasm are frequently mixed up, offered and mistaken for realistic scientific judgements.
Many of the remedies which are today on the market as viable alternatives are remedies which were in regular use several hundred years ago and which are pharmacologically identical in purpose to the modern preparations which replaced them. The difference being that the modern replacements are more reliable, purer and safer. The advocates of ‘natural’ medicine could sometimes just as well be offering surgery without antisepsis or anaesthesia. It is probably no coincidence that some purveyors of natural medicines also sell magical cures for baldness, impotence and obesity while a few also offer for sale knickknacks, ornaments, kitchen gadgets and other ephemera.
Three of the most popular areas explored and exploited by manufacturers and retailers of alternative home medicines are biochemistry, herbalism and homoeopathyBIOCHEMISTRY
In addition to being a definition of the study of the chemistry of living matter the world ‘biochemistry’ is used to describe the philosophies put forward by a certain Dr W. R. Schuessler during the last century. Biochemistry is not a branch of homoeopathy or indeed of any speciality – it is a discipline in its own right. Its exponents disapprove of the use of drugs and instead propose the use of inorganic, mineral substances known as ‘tissue salts’.
These mineral elements, present in minute quantities in the human body, are, they insist, active and life-giving. Without them bodily rhythms are disturbed, rebuilding processes are halted and ‘disease’ results. A shortage or deficiency of one or more of these vital substances may result from injury, poisoning or, as one textbook on biochemistry puts it, ‘obscure influences which in many instances science has not yet been able to explain’.
There are only twelve remedies used in this form of treatment: calcium fluoride, calcium phosphate, calcium sulphate, phosphate of iron, potassium chloride, potassium phosphate, potassium sulphate, magnesium phosphate, sodium chloride, sodium phosphate, sodium sulphate and silicic oxide. These are sold either individually or in various combinations. Elasto Tablets, sold for aching legs and advertised widely, contain calcium fluoride, calcium phosphate, phosphate of iron and magnesium phosphate.
According to the Biochemic Handbook, published by New Era Laboratories, who advertise and sell these twelve remedies: ‘The biochemic system of medicine rests upon a firm foundation; it has stood the test of searching investigation. The more recent discoveries in the field of biological research, and the findings of present day biochemists, confirm its teachings.’
I wrote to New Era Laboratories and asked for details of these investigations. The managing director was kind enough to write back and tell me that one of their products was about to be subjected to scientific evaluation. However, until all products in the Biochemic Handbook have been thoroughly tested I can see no reason at all to believe that the twelve tissue salts are likely to have any useful medicinal effect on the human body. This philosophy is not so much a branch of scientific medicine as a branch of faith healing.
An advertisement for one of the largest suppliers of herbal remedies contains the following statement: ‘Potter’s herbal products contain no drugs whatsoever.’
Since the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘drug’ as ‘an original, simple, medicinal substance, organic or inorganic, used by itself, or as an ingredient in Medicine’ it is difficult to see the purpose in buying a remedy from this company!
The truth is, of course, that Potter’s have been misled by the growing apprehension about drugs (sometimes thought of as being inevitably-powerful, dangerous and potentially evil) into wrongly describing their own products. Any herbal remedy which has an effect on the human body is, by definition, a drug, while a product which does not have any effect on or in the body is hardly worth buying for its medicinal properties!
I think that this apparently semantic argument is an important one. Today’s pharmaceutical industry uses herbal extracts as the basic ingredients for many of its despised products. Indeed, the substances sold by today’s suppliers of herbal remedies appear in the major pharmaceutical textbooks. Even the common dandelion root (also known as piss-en-lit for the excellent reason that it has an effect as a diuretic) is described in Martindak’s Extra Pharmacopoeia.
But the claims made for herbal products sometimes seem to exceed the possible scientific expectations, perhaps because many products have not yet been clinically evaluated.
One company which has done a great deal of research into the effectiveness of herbal remedies is Bio-Strath. Recognizing that herbal remedies can produce dangerous side effects and that without properly organized clinical trials claims can easily be dismissed, Bio-Strath have begun a professionally organized research programme. Their early results seem most encouraging although there is a long way to go yet before any herbal remedies can be described as definitely more effective and safer than competing pharmaceutical products.
The homoeopathic science was developed by a German, Dr Samuel Christian Hahnemann, in the eighteenth century. His original theory was that the patient, who consisted of three parts – body, mind and spirit – must be treated as a whole. Disease, said Hahnemann, is a state of disorder within the patient and any treatment must be designed to restore peace and harmony, encouraging the body to protect itself rather than attempting to simply eradicate any intruding organism.
As a result, homoeopathy works on a ‘hair of the dog’ theory. Minute doses of drugs are given with the intention of triggering a defensive reaction within the body and stimulating the body’s own natural resistance to disease, much in the same way that vaccination works.
When you are given a vaccination against smallpox a very much diluted dose of the infecting organism is injected into your body. On the basis of this sneak preview your body prepares its defences. When you are later exposed to a genuine case of smallpox and stand in danger of contracting the disease, your body has its defences ready.
The homoeopathic doctor follows what is basically a similar principle buthe uses this system actually to treat existing disease rather than to prevent the development of disease.
He prescribes drugs which in larger doses will produce the very symptoms of which his patient is complaining. So, for example, he will give a vomiting patient a minute dose of ipecacuanha because that drug causes vomiting in larger quantities. And he’ll give a very nervous, edgy patient a minute dose of coffee because in larger doses (such as the amount in a drink of the same name) coffee causes a greater sense of nervous awareness.
Homoeopathic doctors use a wide range of products in their attempt to trigger off this body response. They even use one drug manufactured from the black widow spider. When this spider bites a human being the symptoms are like a mild heart attack – an attack of angina. So to treat angina, homoeopathic doctors use the black widow spider. It sounds terrifying but there is a good deal of evidence that it works – not only with humans who might be influenced by the personality of the practitioners but with animals and children who are less likely to be so influenced.
The homoeopaths claim that their treatment causes very few side effects because the drugs they use are so diluted. And their claim that it is the patient they are treating and not the disease certainly sounds attractive. Certainly since the dilutions they use are enormous – they effectively empty a bottle of neat medicine into a lake and then use the lake water to treat their patients – bad reactions should be very few and very mild.
The vital point about homoeopathy is that the treatment has to be individual. The doctor’s task is to find a drug that can produce symptoms similar to those from which the sick person is suffering and to then offer that drug in a sufficiently diluted dose. The treatment for one patient with a cold may not be the same as the treatment for another with a cold. A patient with rheumatic pains which are relieved by movement will not receive the same treatment as a patient who has rheumatic pains which are made worse by movement. In addition, the prescriber will want to know the constitutional type of the patient – both emotionally and physically.
Once all these symptoms have been identified the treatment can be arranged. Homoeopathic remedies have to be stored extremely carefully and used one at a time. The use of all other medicines has to be avoided and pollutants such as tobacco, food, drink, sweets and toothpaste must be eschewed immediately prior to taking the treatment.
It should be clear by now that homoeopathy is not a discipline to be approached lightly by amateurs. I suspect that the founder Samuel Hahnemann would have had a fit if he had seen what is being offered for sale today in the name of homoeopathy. One of the leading homoeopathic chemists pointed out to me that the word ‘homoeopathic’ is appropriated for various concoctions based on natural products without any regard to the real meaning of the description.
If homoeopathy attracts you then I suggest that you study an introductory guide (such as Homoeopathy by A. C. Gordon Ross) or contact the British Homoeopathic Association for details of the discipline and the names of homoeopathic hospitals and practitioners.
If you obeyed all the advertisements paid for by companies selling ‘fringe’ medicine products your diet would be composed of little else but garlic, ginseng, seaweed, brewer’s yeast and vitamin tablets. Not the sort of diet to encourage the life insurance companies to lower your premiums, I’m afraid.
The advertisements promoting these products raise a number of strange questions. For example, how do you know if your blood needs regenerating? They also suggest that the copywriters know very little about anatomy or physiology. One advertisement I have seen describes sciatica as a type of nervousness! In fact, of course, sciatica is the name given to the type of pain which occurs when the sciatic nerve is irritated. Confusing nerve pain with nervousness is an error which does not give one much confidence in the supposedly responsible manufacturer’s product.
More important, perhaps, is the fact that many of the companies selling ‘natural cures’, ‘herbal remedies’ and so on contravene many of the basic principles espoused by the innovators of the philosophies concerned.
For example, in 1747 John Wesley, an advocate of natural treatments, pointed out that it was wrong to make up compounds of twenty ingredients as apothecaries of the day were wont to do. He argued that a single, natural remedy was often more reliable. Today, of course, his successors often promote compounds containing twenty or even more natural remedies.
It is an unfortunate fact that a great many of the claims made for alternative medicines are unsubstantiated. I have looked hard for evidence supporting the various claims and have invited manufacturers and others to offer me proof that the remedies work. Little proof has been forthcoming and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that many of those selling alternative remedies are no more than charlatans taking advantage of the susceptibility and gullibility of the sick. Those who are honestly promoting their products need to work at least as hard as the pharmaceutical companies to prove the effectiveness of their products.