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Making the Right Medical Choice

by Sebastian Pole(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 160 - July 2009

It can be such a minefield knowing how to find the best medical solution to a health problem. Should you go the natural less invasive route, or follow conventional medicine and take drugs or have surgery? What works? The choice is always yours, but in this commercially orientated, pharmaceutically dominant, MRSA rife, information age the decision can be complex.

Don't get me wrong; if I break my leg I am off to hospital, or if I have pain in my chest, I am off to my doctors. But if I have a cough do I really need anti-biotics, does my Dad really need to be on those cholesterol lowering Statins even though he has no history of heart problems, and does my friend really need to be on the pill for her painful periods? Having been brought up in a 'conventional' modern world where vaccinations, anti-biotics and pain-killers are the medical norm, how can we be responsible for our own health when we are under the influence of a culture that favours interventionist pharmaceutical medicine?

There are of course a myriad of alternative health choices, but when evaluating modern medicine it is helpful to compare it with another type of medicine that uses internal remedies.  As I am a herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner, mostly I know about traditional herbal medicine, and so let us look at what it has to offer.

Traditional Herbal Medicine (THM)

Herbal medicines are one of the oldest and safest forms of medicine known to humans. But do they work? The simple answer is 'yes', when used in the right person at the right time at the right dose. This is the magic equation that connects the person, the plant, the time and the place.

One of the best things about traditional herbal medicine is its ability to personalize treatment for you. If you see a qualified practitioner, they will make an individual formula that is tailored to your exact needs based on your precise 'energetic' pattern, age, sex, time-of-year and digestive strength. This is the art of traditional medicine. There is a saying in Chinese medicine 'same disease different treatment, same treatment different disease', meaning that three people with 'headaches' might be treated differently, but also that one herb or formula might treat different diseases. For example Ginger is good for digestion, as an anti-inflammatory, and for increasing circulation, and is also used for treating bloating, arthritis and Raynaud's syndrome (where you get freezing cold hands). However, the art of herbal medicine, takes things a bit deeper so that not everyone with say arthritis will be given Ginger; they may be given Turmeric or Boswellia, or a combination as required. A skilful herbalist can determine which herb combination is the right one for you.

In fact, it is this ability of herbs to target so many different parts of our complex body that makes them so effective. Plants contain literally hundreds of chemicals that they have produced to protect themselves from invading funguses, bacteria and other invaders. Like us, they are very complex. And continuing this theme, most chronic diseases are also very complex. So it makes sense that a complex disease will need complex medical treatment to fix it. This is why herbs work in the majority of the common degenerative diseases that are so prevalent today. They are multi-dimensional, multi-tasking and multi-skilled. They work in numerous chemical pathways, on a wide range of enzymes and in different organs to bring about true healing.

As a practicing herbalist I am frequently humbled by a plant's ability to adjust the body and mind back into balance. It sometimes appears like they know just what to do and are consciously thinking out a solution. How does a dry old root do that? I don't know how, but I do know that the same herb can stop bleeding in one person, and increase circulation in another (like Gotu Kola), or raise blood pressure in one body, and reduce it in another (like Garlic), or give energy in one and calm energy in another (like Ashwagandha).

Herbs are regulators, balancers and modulators. They are herbal-foods that are digested by the body and nourish the under-nourished or over-worked parts of it. They feed the part of the body that is trying to help us return to balance. For example, the famous flu herb Andrographis does not just kill bacteria and viruses; it helps the immune system increase its protective army to kill the invaders. It therefore not only removes the symptoms (pain, fever, irritation), but also the cause (low immunity).

Backing up this artful tradition are now hundreds of scientific studies showing how effective herbs and herbal medicines are. Some of my favourite studies show how Ginkgo leaf is beneficial for dementia, or how St John's wort can alleviate mild depression or how Chinese medicine is beneficial for eczema or IBS. There are some valuable studies showing how certain Ayurvedic plants are very effective; Andrographis for the treatment of upper respiratory infections, Boswellia for the treatment of osteoarthritis, Gotu kola for assisting micro-circulation and Turmeric as an anti-inflammatory and for treating IBS.

Despite what the pharmo-media and certain pharmaceutical sponsored academics might lead you to believe, herbal research does stand up to scrutiny. Recent research by a group of Swiss scientists concluded that many human clinical trials conducted with herbal preparations are of equal or superior design quality compared to studies of conventional pharmaceutical medicines. So, science supports the tradition of herbal medicine as effective.

On top of your personalized formula, a visit to a traditional medical practitioner will give you an assessment of your lifestyle as appropriate for you. What sort of exercise is appropriate or how you can constructively approach any destructive emotional patterns? Mind and body are one in traditional herbal medicine. You will also be recommended a dietary solution to improve your digestion and nourish your taste buds. Traditional medicine is both delicious and effective. I know this is a lofty claim, but lots of herbs taste delicious.....ginger, peppermint, roses, thyme, elderberries, liquorice....and they work.

So herbal medicine has stood the test of time and the test of science. It sounds like it should be on your list of government provided health choices.........

Conventional Allopathic Medicine

So, how does allopathic medicine stand up to the mark? Well, according to our definition of good medicine, it is debatable. Good medicines:

  • Effectively remove the causes and the symptoms of suffering and disease
  • Improve health and vitality
  • Are safe, with minimal or no side effects or risk from harm
  • Are practical to use for the duration of the required time they take to be effective
  • Are affordable for the individual and for society

Of course, many drugs do meet these requirements. When used in the right way, many drugs are life-saving. For example, anti-biotics are a case in point; they can remove the bacterial cause and the symptoms of a disease, are relatively safe, only need to be used for a short duration and are cheap. Most of us will have experienced the incredible healing effects of anti-biotics. But when used in excess they cause harm, as we are seeing in the array of side-effects that they can contribute to including digestive disorders, compromised immunity as well as resistant strains of bacteria. So, the 'magic bullet' acute remedies of allopathic medicine are often symptomatically very effective. But is this a real 'cure' or real 'healing'? Do we all need to just be prescribed more pills or is there more to what true health and real healing is?

Allopathic medicine does not contain the multi-dimensional depth of THM. It is very specific. And whilst this specificity has a use, it also means that the medicine is not able to treat different levels of disease at the same time. A pharmaceutical drug is usually a single chemical entity that acts on the body and forces it to do something.  It is targeting one enzyme, one chemical pathway, one virus. This is not a problem in itself, just in the context of treating some diseases this might not be appropriate.  Allopathy is functional, mechanistic and quantitative medicine. THM is holistic, energetic and qualitative. They both have a place. The problem is that allopathy is fraternized by government, medical regulators and commerce, to the detriment of our society's health. Patients only get the mechanistic, not the holistic. This leads to confusion and less good health.

It is clear that whilst many of the drugs and treatments available today can benefit some acute problems, many do not meet our requirements of 'good medicine'. That is because they do not remove the cause, they can cause harm, they are extremely expensive and they interact with other drugs. There has been a recent flurry of research revealing that a range of drugs from Vioxx for arthritis, to Statins for heart disease, to Prozac for depression, are not as effective as we (Medical Doctors included) have been led to believe. Therefore when choosing which medical path you want to go down, be aware of your alternatives and options.

The Conclusion

As allopathic medicine appears to be good at treating acute problems, accidents and emergencies why not save it for those incidences? Many doctors I know are entirely frustrated at their inability to help long-term chronic problems, as the medicines they have and the 'medical model' they work within does not allow for the correct environment for this to happen.

Chronic problems need complex treatments involving diet, life-style, nutritional supplementation, emotional assimilation, often physical rebalancing (acupuncture, osteopathy etc) and herbal remedies. These should be the mainstay of your everyday living as well as a part of treatments to correct imbalances.

There is a vast amount of conflicting information surrounding our health. We have a National Health Service that we all contribute taxes to that is biased towards a mechanistic approach to health. The doctors and nurses working within this system are under incredible pressure. We have a dominant pharmaceutical approach to disease treatment that is commercially driven. There are a huge amount of 'alternative' therapies available. The health pages of the magazines brim with healthy suggestions. So, what should you do? My simple advice on navigating this medical assault course is whenever you have a health problem;

  • Always get the advice of your doctor. They are highly trained and skilled in their profession. A doctor sympathetic to other medical methods other than their own is a good start if you want a 'rounded' opinion;
  • If any surgery or long-term medication are suggested, get a second opinion;
  • Have a consultation with a traditional herbal medicine practitioner. They will have a good overview of your total health needs and can either support you whilst using pharmaceutical drugs or help avoid the need for them;
  • Educate yourself about your health. You are responsible for your health, and whatever has brought you to this point, you are responsible for your future.

And in order to stay in the best of health

  • Don't eat 5 types of fruit and veg a day, eat 9 types
  • Take a multi-vitamin, get enough healthy oils (omega-3s), eat wholegrains
  • Eat organic foods and use organic cosmetics
  • Learn how to meditate and relax
  • Have a regular massage/body work
  • Make your exercise fun, not a chore
  • Only take pharmaceutical drugs if you have to
  • Use herbal remedies as your first line of strengthening your system

References

See a longer and fully referenced version of this article on www.pukkaherbs.com under latest articles.

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About Sebastian Pole

Sebastian Pole Lic OHM Ayur HC MAPA MRCHM MURHP is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Herbal Director of Pukka Herbs which offers 100% organic Ayurvedic remedies and teas, produced to high ethical standards, from herbs grown by farmers who are paid a fair wage. For more information, see www.pukkaherbs.com  or Tel: 0117 9640944. Sebastian's clinic is Tel:  01225 466944 or see his website for more information www.sebastianpole.com/

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