The patient’s environment matters…

A week or so ago, a friend sent me this “Atlantic” article, published in its July/August 2011 issue: I found it absolutely fascinating, even though I can’t help but disagree with some parts of it (you can imagine which…). I just hope that some day those who vehemently and, in my opinion, blindly oppose any sort of “alternative” approach will learn to soften their unyielding positions and become more open-minded…like Dr. Gertz, a Mayo Clinic hematologist (see page 3)…

Lots of food for thought in this article. Here are a few of my random favorites:

  • YOU MIGHT THINK the weight of the clinical evidence would close the case on alternative medicine, at least in the eyes of mainstream physicians and scientists who aren’t in a position to make a buck on it.
  • In many cases, the drugs used to treat the most-serious cancers add mere months to patients’ lives, often at significant cost to quality of life.
  • THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY knows perfectly well what sort of patient-care model would work better against complex diseases than the infectious-disease-inspired approach we’ve inherited. That would be one that doesn’t wait for diseases to take firm hold and then vainly try to manage them with drugs, but that rather focuses on lowering the risk that these diseases will take hold in the first place. “We need to prevent and slow the onset of these diseases,” says Blackburn. “And we know there are ways to do that.” Aside from getting people to stop smoking, the three most effective ways, according to almost any doctor you’d care to speak with, are the promotion of a healthy diet, encouragement of more exercise, and measures to reduce stress. [Blackburn = Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco and a Nobel laureate. ]
  • Studies by her and others have shown that stress is linked to the shortening of telomeres, and shorter telomeres are in turn linked to aging and cancer. “We tend to forget how powerful an organ the brain is in our biology,” Blackburn told me. “It’s the big controller. We’re seeing that the brain pokes its nose into a lot of the processes involved in these chronic diseases. It’s not that you can wish these diseases away, but it seems we can prevent and slow their onset with stress management.” Numerous studies have found that stress impairs the immune system, and a recent study found that relieving stress even seems to be linked to slowing the progression of cancer in some patients.
  • Numerous studies have found that stress impairs the immune system, and a recent study found that relieving stress even seems to be linked to slowing the progression of cancer in some patients.
  • Hippocrates put it this way: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”
  • Many medical students start out with a healer mentality, but few retain it. “It gets beaten out of you by the system,” says Brian Berman, noting a study showing that medical students score progressively lower on empathy tests the further they get into their training. Berman himself was a conventional M.D. until, at age 33, he took up the study of traditional Chinese medicine—which, like many alternative approaches, is largely focused on patients’ lifestyles, feelings, and attitudes, and which emphasizes stress reduction, healthier eating, and regular exercise, as well as encouraging the patient to believe in self-healing. “I saw how much more I could do to help people,” he says. “For the first time since medical school, I felt like a healer again.”
  • randomized trials have by and large failed to show that alternative treatments work better than placebos.
  • To be approved by the FDA, a drug has to do better than a placebo in studies—but most approved drugs do only a little better, and for many drugs the evidence is mixed.
  • “The randomized trial is a very high bar,” he says. “Eighty percent of what I do here isn’t based on randomized-trial data.” [“he” = Dr. Morie Gertz, Mayo Clinic]
  • The beneficial effects of alternative therapies on Mayo Clinic patients, he says, have been observable in shorter hospital stays, in lower levels of self-administered painkillers, and in reduced tissue inflammation, which is a general indicator that the immune system is better holding its own. [“he” = Keith Lindor, a liver specialist & also dean of the Mayo Clinic’s medical school.]

Okay, I’d like to end with a personal experience, which is (sort of) relevant. Last week my yukky cough returned. Ugh. No wonder, since I’ve been exposed to chronic germ factories all winter = my students, who cough and sneeze almost non-stop (and sometimes even come to work with a high fever, hellooooo!!!). In fact, given my almost non-existent immune system, I’m really surprised that I haven’t gotten the flu (yet!). Could that be because of my Nigella sativa intake? No idea. Anyway, back to the point: THE COUGH. It soon blossomed into what I normally judge as “a cough that needs antibiotics”: yellow phlegm and a low-grade fever.

But I decided instead to try Manuka honey with a high MGO. I mean, I felt okay, and this occasional cough, similar to what I had last fall but not as violent, didn’t stop me from being active. So I figured, “oh why not? I’ll try it…and keep a close eye on my symptoms.” After a few days, what I was coughing up wasn’t yellow anymore. No kidding. Even I was impressed. Now, I’m not suggesting that this honey will work for everyone. Last year, in fact, it didn’t work for me (although I should mention that I ran out of the high MGO honey and had to take a low MGO one). Boyohboy, though, it would be amazing if I could avoid taking antibiotics…at least on occasion!

And so my question of the day is: do I need to see the results of a randomized controlled clinical trial before taking Manuka honey as soon as I feel a cough coming on?

I think you know my answer…

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