Book Review

Alternative Medicine:
The Definitive Guide

Burton Goldberg, ed.
Future Medicine Publishing, Inc., 1999, 1087 pp


Many patients are frustrated with the conservatism and dogmatism of conventional medicine. Conventional physicians are trained to diagnose specific diseases and treat them in a standardized way. Many physicians, when faced with a set of symptoms they cannot explain, will conclude that the problem is not real, or is imaginary or psychiatric in origin. Others will prescribe inappropriate medications (such as antibiotics or sedatives) hoping the problem, and the patient, will go away by itself. Since physicians are continually threatened by legal action or revocation of their license should something go wrong, they are also generally unwilling to consider etiologies or treatments unless they have been published in the medical literature. And modern pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques often create new conditions that are worse than the original problem.

This has created an ecological niche for an 'underground' movement of alternative and herbal medicine that uses remedies from traditional folk medicine and embraces offbeat, even weird, ideas.

Many of these ideas, such as acupuncture, are gradually being accepted by the establishment. Others are being debated, while some are being ignored and ridiculed. Even so, over half of all patients have tried one or more alternative treatments. These treatments may drastically alter the patients' chemistry or symptomology, perhaps even curing some of them, yet physicians are almost totally unaware of these treatments. Thus, there is a great need for a book that has detailed, authoritative information on alternative medicine.

However, most authors of books on alternative medicine, and indeed many practitioners of alternative medicine, are lay people who have a limited understanding of the scientific controls and methods needed to evaluate a treatment. In many cases, the active constituents of herbal medicines are not known, the dosages are not standardized, and anecdotal stories are used instead of double-blind experiments. In others, treatments are based on inaccurate knowledge or on a misunderstanding of physiology or chemistry. For example, according to Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, one practitioner uses injections of camphor to treat cancer, theorizing that the nitrogen in the camphor molecule feeds the cancer cells, and that this releases their inhibitory effect on the immune system. This theory, interesting as it is, is impaired by the fact that the camphor molecule does not in fact contain nitrogen, and even if it did, there is no reason to believe that cancer cells would be starved for nitrogen. Thus, if camphor works, it must be acting by some other mechanism.

The first half of the book gives details on various alternative therapies, such as chelation therapy, herbal medicine, light therapy, and environmental medicine. The second half discusses specific diseases such as AIDS, allergies, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and women's health, and makes specific recommendations, usually qualified with warnings about the sometimes serious risks of these alternative treatments. The credibility of this section is, however, undermined by its excessive advocacy of treatments such as colonic irrigation and vitamin C (sometimes intravenously) to treat almost any medical problem, its assertions that candidiasis (yeast infection) and mercury amalgam dental fillings are major sources of chronic illness, and most importantly, by an almost complete lack of skepticism on the part of the authors.

There is a continued emphasis on organic food throughout the text. To be honest, I never believed in organic food until one occasion when we tried to cultivate pond snails, which feed on lettuce, in our laboratory. On one occasion, we switched to non-organic Romaine lettuce from a local grocery store. Within 24 hours, all but two of the snails had died. After we switched to organically-grown Romaine lettuce, the survivors slowly recovered. We can only speculate about what toxic constituents were present in that grocery store lettuce.

Some of the more offbeat treatments described in the book, such as the use of magnets to cure cancer and fight infections, use of aroma therapy and acupuncture for pets, homeopathic medicine (in which a pharmacological agent is diluted until no molecules of it remain) as a cure for almost everything, the claim that acid rain causes osteoporosis, and (my favorite one) the recommendation of taking a bath in Clorox to remove toxins from your system, are easy to ridicule. Some, such as homeopathic vaccinations for pets, the treatment of cardiovascular disease by intravenous injections of hydrogen peroxide and ozone, and treating viral infections by hyperthermia, are plainly dangerous.

Nonetheless, some of the information in this book is accurate and useful. The authors do an admirable job of explaining basic nutrition and the need for exercise, good posture, adequate sleep, and avoidance of smoking. There is also a wealth of mostly accurate, practical medical information, written in an understandable style, that would greatly benefit any patient. Moreover, non-standard information (such as the use of vitamin C to remove lead by chelation, and beta-carotene to treat acne), is not available in conventional textbooks on nutrition. I would recommend this book to any patient who can maintain a healthy skepticism. All general practice physicians should also read this book, if only to find out what their patients are doing.

For a better understanding of nutrition, books by the famous biochemist/nutritionist Adelle Davis, while old, are packed with useful information readily accessible by laypeople. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease is an excellent but long (1,951 pages) orthodox textbook, and is more detailed and complete than Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Also recommended is Essentials of Native Herbs in Color (彩色本草備要, or Cai Se Bencao Beiyao), which has a good description on Chinese traditional pharmacology, with color pictures and descriptions of each herb; unfortunately it is written in Chinese.

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