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More than a question of semantics

The words ‘alternative’ and ‘complementary’ are used interchangeably when referring to medicine but actually have completely opposite meanings.

Alternative is different – ‘something that you have instead of something else’, whilst complementary means ‘two things that go well together’. This blurring of definitions can lead to confusion and it is important to clarify this point in relation to medicine, and this is one of the reasons I prefer to use the term ‘natural medicines’.

General Health

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Defining ‘Orthodox Medicine’

Words are very powerful. They convey subliminal meaning and it is such subtleties of language that can elude the foreign speaker. Our views can be manipulated by the careful choice of words. For example, we have been deluded into regarding foods that have been sprayed with chemicals as ‘conventional’. If we prefer to eat our food in its natural state we have to seek out ‘ organically grown’ produce as if it were unusual. The same attitude has influenced our beliefs about medicine. ‘Orthodox medicine’ refers to treatments such as prescribed drugs and surgical intervention, but ‘orthodoxy’ actually means ’the way things have always been done’ and refers to ‘older’ and ‘more traditional’ methods. Herbal medicine would therefore conform to the definition of ‘orthodox medicine’ better than the pharmaceutical-led industry we see today - the use of drugs being comparatively new, having a history of less than two hundred years.

The dichotomy between ‘natural’ medicines and pharmaceutical medicines

It may be helpful at this point to explain why there is such a dichotomy between ‘natural’ medicines and pharmaceutical medicines. In order for a profit to be made from a medicine it has to be patented, and it can only be patented if it has been invented. Therefore it would be impossible to patent a herb which has always existed. Without a patent a substance cannot be sufficiently profitable, and this is the reason why the pharmaceutical industry has to change something – usually by the removal of one or more parts – in order to make a profit. Drugs are often herbs which have been altered in some way. Practitioners of natural medicines would regard such products as inferior to the original substance as found in Nature, and consider that ‘natural’ products have a greater affinity to the body.

Historically, illness was regarded as punitive

However, the differences between allopathic (drug-based) medicines and natural medicines are far greater than mere alterations in chemical structure. The philosophies and beliefs upon which they are based are contradictory, and different medical paradigms reflect the beliefs of the culture from which they originate. There is a long tradition in ancient cultures of seeking cure from the ‘gods’ and illness was regarded as punitive, with priests additionally carrying the role of ‘healer’, and there emerged an ambivalence between interventionism and acceptance. In this climate, prayer and sacrifice were accepted treatment strategies.

HippocratesThe history of the ‘healing profession’

In Ancient Greece around 460BC Hippocrates began the ‘professionalisation’ of healing, reducing the religious element and shifting the onus of responsibility from the patient to the doctor. However, medical knowledge was later hindered by the Church’s ruling against dissection, and anatomical knowledge was poor. The use of Latin amongst its practitioners made medicine even more exclusionist and further removed responsibility from the patient. The development of the microscope in the 18th Century led to the misguided belief that being able to understand the smallest components of the body would reveal why disease developed.


The body is like a hologram

The ensuing emphasis on structure and biochemistry has been taken to the extreme resulting in the compartmentalisation of the body and the specialisation in different body systems and organs. This is reflective of the assumption that the body is a collection of separate systems and parts, and is at variance with the holistic (meaning ‘whole’) view of the natural medicines practitioner. Modern research has shown that the body is more like a hologram with information being transmitted faster than the speed of light, and much faster than could be conveyed by chemical messengers alone, suggesting an interplay between energetics and biochemistry. In order to maintain health the body is in a constant state of adaptation which is known as homeostasis and disease can result from chronic adaptation to an abnormality, such as toxicity or poor diet etc.

Working with the body rather than against it

Symptoms are regarded by allopaths as an aberration – something ‘bad’ that needs to be removed, hence the development of medications that suppress symptoms, and the surgical removal of dysfunctioning parts. However, the natural medicines practitioner regards symptoms as an adaptation to a problem, and a signpost to what is wrong. The recognition of an innate intelligence that regulates bodily functions and which carries a blueprint for healing is fundamental to all natural medical traditions, so working with the body rather than against it forms the basis of all natural medical philosophies. The removal of a symptom by a drug is therefore not regarded as curative but suppressive. The ‘Law of Cure’ states that symptoms affect the least important organ first (– i.e., the skin, and this is why suppression of eczema can sometimes lead to the later development of asthma); that healing takes place in reverse order and starts at the top of the body and works downwards. Allopathic medicine regards symptoms as random. However, medical research has recently discovered that every cell contains its own intelligence and makes functional decisions based upon changes in its environment. A cell can sacrifice itself if it is damaged in order to preserve the whole. Allopathy is often directed at symptomatic relief rather than attempting to treat the underlying imbalance.

Individualising the treatment

Allopathic medicine targets treatment against the ‘disease that has the patient’, rather than on the ‘patient who has the disease!’ This means that there are standardised treatment protocols for specific diseases which are applied to every patient presenting with the same problem. Natural medicines practitioners individualise the treatment according to the individual patient, and aim to stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms. Functional Medicine research endorses this methodology as it appears that end-stage pathology (i.e., the diagnosis) may not be as relevant as is currently assumed. This is because the process may be the same even if the disease is different. For example, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer and arthritis are all characterized by inflammation and increased oxidative (free-radical) stress. Inappropriate diet and lifestyle choices may invoke the expression of genes which might otherwise have remained dormant, and the pattern of gene inheritance would then determine the subsequent manifestation of disease in an individual.

Taking responsibility

Natural medical treatments encourage the patient to take responsibility for his own health rather than hoping that someone else can ‘fix’ it for him, and great emphasis is placed on empowering the patient. In fact, the original meaning of the word ‘doctor’ is ‘teacher’. The patient may therefore be required to make lifestyle changes, which can be challenging for the person who has been encouraged to be the recipient of prescriptive medicine.

Dominion over Nature

Allopathy relies upon external factors to heal whilst natural medicines attempt to stimulate internal healing processes. Allopathy is the product of mechanistic thinking – i.e., dominion over Nature – which is expressed through chemical intervention in agriculture, and drug suppression in the body. Many examples of this permeate our lives today. This is a hangover from the 18th Century belief in empire and has influenced the development of the allopathic model and, in particular, the way the discovery of germs was integrated into medical beliefs. A militaristic medical model has emerged with the development of anti-inflammatories, anti-biotics, anti-depressants, anti-pyretics, etc., and the immune system is perceived only as a defence system.

Existence of the meridians

There is no official recognition in allopathy of the energies which animate the body although research using radioactivity has verified the existence of the meridians used in Chinese medicine, and researchers such as Popp and Benveniste have demonstrated the actions of homoeopathic remedies on plants.

Natural medicines – a genuine alternative

So if you describe your treatment modality as ‘alternative’ or complementary’ you are immediately defining it in relation to another system of medicine – i.e., allopathy. This has the effect of relegating non-allopathic therapies – many of which have a tradition going back thousands of years - to a position of inferiority against a perceived ‘gold standard’ of ‘orthodoxy’. In practice, this means that some patients only turn to natural therapies as a ‘last resort’ after allopathic medicine has failed, and healing may be delayed by the necessity of first clearing layers of drug suppression and toxicity.

Therefore natural medicines are not complementary to but provide a genuine alternative to allopathy. That is not to say that the two treatment approaches cannot work together in certain situations – such as an acute crisis or the expedited healing of an injury – but generally speaking, in the treatment of chronic disease they would be working against one other.

For those of us who see the benefits of working holistically every day in our practices, it is vital that we do not inadvertently dis-empower ourselves by the careless use of terminology that does not accurately reflect our philosophy but unwittingly endorses the dominion of the pharmaceutical industry.

by Eve Gilmore
M.Sc (Hons) Natural Medicines, N.D., Dip I.O.N., L.C.Hom., C.B.A.K., Dip Couns., Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor (Intermediate). Naturopath, Homoeopath & Clinical Nutritionist
ARC Healthcare

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