Like most allopathic physicians, I have no formal training in herbal medicine. Nonetheless I tend to think that I have an open mind to non-Western therapies. I do not discount their effects in various conditions, but they are not the end-all-be-all of disease treatment and prevention, as some “health experts” would have you believe.
Unfortunately, terms such as natural or herbal have become synonymous with healthy and safe. Many people who tout the benefits of such products virtually always do so because they are concerned about the man-made (aka, non-natural) chemicals that allopathic medicine practitioners often prescribe, and believe (often without question) that natural treatments are better.
In allopathic medical schools, physicians are taught to critically analyze the scientific data that supports diagnosis and treatment. In current parlance, this is known as “evidence-based medicine.” I will certainly admit that much of what happens in medicine, in my own practice as well, is not fully backed by evidence, usually because not every detail of diagnosis and treatment has been rigorously tested, especially with more complex problems. Yet scientists, researchers, and clinicians involved in medicine try to find the answers and incorporate our experience with the scientific data, and when it does not exist or is uncertain, we need to use our best judgments.
This type of care is in stark contrast with the vast majority of natural therapy, which I will call CAM (for complementary and alternative medicine) from here on out for simplicity [even if there are other terms for CAM, I am using the blogger’s prerogative here]. CAM advocates who decry allopathic medicine usually tout their own wares based on experience and the report(s) of their patients or their mentors. This type of “proof” is the weakest type in science. A testimonial report of benefit is equivalent to a case report, whereas allopathic physicians depend on randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled trials to make our best decisions.
Few CAM therapies have actually been subjected to this type of scientific investigation, and when they are, most of the time they are no better than placebo. Although this is not universally true, it is one of the reasons that allopathic physicians maintain healthy dose of skepticism for CAM therapies.
I began this blog by saying that I have an open mind about CAM, and I really do. Most of the time therapies are generally safe. If they are safe but not markedly effective, the only real harm is to the pocketbook of the patient. Nonetheless, it is my responsibility to make sure I at least understand what the compound is, so I do what I can to look it up.
Recently someone asked me about a cough treatment, wild cherry bark, which her husband had purchased from a local organic store for his own cough. Knowing nothing about its composition or effects, I looked it up. Much to my surprise the active component is…HYDROGEN CYANIDE. Yes, the natural herb wild cherry bark consists of a poison.
Now its concentration in the herb may not be as high as it is in the pesticide or in the air of the gas chambers it’s used in, but I ask you…when did cyanide become safer and healthier than man-made chemicals that are tested in thousands of people before they are approved for distribution to the public?