If there's one thing I hate its how some people believe Western Medicine is entirely a money-driven, sinister entity controlled by the pharmaceutical industry and the treatments are all toxic. While I agree that the pharma industry is pretty evil, and is driven by profits, and this, in turn, often leads to policies and treatments that are not in patients' best interests, there are a whole lot of treatments we have developed that are valuable and life saving.
These same people tend to be the ones that turn to alternative medicine and assume that if something falls under the category of 'natural' (which is basically a meaningless term anyways) or alternative therapy, than it is safe and the practitioners are both credible, altruistic and trustworthy. Get real folks! There are just as many players in the alternative treatment industry just out to make a buck, and many of the treatments can be extremely dangerous and are not proven to have any efficacy.
Personally, I don't care which category something falls under. What matters to me is: Is there sufficient evidence that the treatment is effective and safe?
So I was thrilled to review Dr. Matilde Parente's book Healing Ways: An Integrative Health Sourcebook, which reviews a broad array of alternative treatments and healing therapies to present readers with an objective overview of what each is, what each is, how much evidence exists about their efficacy, as well as their safety.
She starts by explaining the purpose of the book, which is basically to give readers the tools to navigate the growing world of complementary and alternative medicine in an educated way. She then explains the differences between various health care practitioners and describes their training and scope of practice.
Parente does an excellent job of going through the various treatment modalities and summarizing for what conditions, if any, there is evidence that they are effective. There is a great table on acupuncture that has columns for conditions where the evidence of its efficacy is either supportive (arthritis, headaches, back pain, etc.), moderate (menstrual cramps, allergies, carpal tunnel syndrome), or low/uncertain (IBS, insomnia, smoking cessation). Interestingly, the table doesn't even mention infertility and, yet, almost all IVF patients I see do acupuncture in their hopes of increasing their chance of success. But there really isn't strong evidence it will help you conceive if you do acupuncture during infertility treatment, so its not surprising.
In another section on Mind-Body and Energy therapies, Parente lists to conditions for which meditation can be useful (there are a bunch!) as well as those for which it is unlikely to help (weight-loss, severe psychiatric disorders).
Her findings on homeopathy are consistent with what my own research has found: there is very little evidence that it is effective for treating anything. The same is true for chelation therapy.
Parente includes a discussion about detox/cleanse treatments and, though acknowledges the dearth of evidence of their necessity or efficacy, manages to provide a fairly objective summary of what they are and what to look for if you do choose to try one.
There is a specific section about cancer and associated treatments and supplements. This is important because when faced with a deadly illness, people are often desperate to find something that can cure them, and this is when they often turn to alternative medicine. Parente devotes a whole page to commonly used supplements for cancer care, what they are used for, their safety/side-effects, and the dose found to be effective in the literature. Again, her findings are similar to my own research. The supplements she lists include curcumin, glutamine, vitamin D, fish oil, green tea, etc.
An entire chapter is on self-care and prevention, where Parente stresses the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, rather than just looking for cures once chronic pain or illness has set in. She provides straightforward advice about nutrition, weight-loss, sleep and stress management. Another chapter addresses myths and misconceptions about integrative and alternative medicine, and several pages list different conditions, and what treatments may be best to try if you are looking for something safe and effective.
Finally, there is a glossary that provides definitions of all sorts of associated terms.
This book is long overdue. Its about time people stopped looking at Western medicine versus Alternative medicine as all good and all bad or vice versa. Your decision about whether to use a certain treatment modality should not be based on whether it comes from the pharmacy of the health food store, but on whether there is evidence that it is safe and effective. If you want to be an informed consumer of health services and supplements, I highly recommend this book.
Disclosure: I was sent this book by the publisher, but all the opinions on this blog are my own.