Weighing Western and Alternative Medicine

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Preparing Chinese medicine prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy on Grand Street in Manhattan. Preparing Chinese medicine prescriptions at Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy on Grand Street in Manhattan. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Susannah Meadows writes the Newly Released column for The New York Times and wrote a personal essay in The New York Times Magazine this weekend. She discusses weighing western and alternative treatment options for her son.



Susannah Meadows

Comments [33]


Informative, the jury is out there, some of the alternative therapies are currently being explored (green tea, curcumin, turmeric, neem) as effective therapies due to the anti oxidative, anti inflammatory properties. Time will tell, it will be good to have alternative therapies hopefully with favorable toxicities profile.However at this time one should be cautious to be very vigilant and tell the health professional of all the intake as the interactions are unknown with conventional therapies.

Feb. 09 2013 11:03 AM

PS Doctors should not be allowed to be making decisions when any kind of corporate politicking sways their decisions, attitudes or actions. That should be illegal.

Feb. 06 2013 10:28 PM

Seems to me that people will eventually go for what works - but that's not going to happen till they get some perspective on Allopathic medicine - it is NOT the last word - the way it sees and treats the body is crude and brutal and whatever its merits, it needs to be seen among choices (modalities and points of view) which everyone has to be responsible for boning up on. My father was a doctor who made house calls in the country on Sundays and said, "If you're sick, go to bed," meaning that my body knows how to take care of itself if I give it the chance. He also could tell how much weight a patient gained or lost just by looking at her - I saw it confirmed on the scale all the time. He rarely gave us any meds. Shots whenever but that was not often like today. He didn't charge people who were strapped.

Now I would say after two years of cancer treatment that "Doctors are the new lawyers" in many cases. (And they are clueless, believing their own corporate hype, thinking what they are doing is noble!!) My doctor, I was sorry to learn, is nothing but a suit. The last generation of private practitioners is retiring - after they are gone, it will be the corporate model all the way. It will be all about keeping numbers up and nothing to do with patients. Recently there was a piece in the Times about huge monster hospital consolidators are undermining what's left of private practices and forcing them to sell out. So you are really going to have to know your options - and not as defined by what some narrow minded person fears might be seen as "kooky."

Feb. 06 2013 10:19 PM
carolita from nyc

All my life my doctors just prescribed me allergy meds. That's all they could offer me for relief for my debilitating hay fever, which lasted three to four months every year. So, one day I decided to try a gluten-free diet, because a friend of mine claimed that an unexpected side effect of his GF diet was that his hay fever disappeared. So, guess what? It worked. After nearly forty years of hay fever, all I did was change my diet. (I also eliminated sugar and cow milk). You don't know what it's like to just go outside and think, wow. I'm not sneezing! I'm not itching. It's amazing. It's like having a new life.

I never go to doctors anymore. I wouldn't go unless I had a broken arm that needed setting. I've been able to take care of myself for the last 20 years without seeing doctors, except for a dermatologist now and then for thingsI didn't know how to handle myself. Western medicine is brutal, and I avoid it to the utmost extreme. Not only that, but here in the USA, the doctors are such money grubbing leeches that I've even been told I had problems which I didn't have, just to get me back and paying money to them. I don't trust them at all.

Feb. 06 2013 09:37 PM
StCheryl from New York

At 41, I had 3 miscarriages (none of the pregnancies were the result of fertility treatments) and had spent two fruitless years at a world-renowned fertility clinic in NYC, one in testing and one in treatment. I never got a diagnosis for my inability to have a healthy pregnancy. In an attempt to detox from the very powerful drugs I had been taking, I went to an acupuncturist and herbalist (who is also a NY-licensed MD) on Canal Street. Six weeks later, I was pregnant with my son. I suspect that it was more about relaxing then about unverifiable energy flows, but it worked. I also got rid of chronic headaches with acupuncture a few years earlier when my neurologist's suggestions failed to work.

Feb. 06 2013 06:43 PM
davie from New Jersey

Many of the improvements cited by the guest and callers are more likely due to a placebo effect. If Alternative Medicine truly offered a provable amelioration of symptoms there is no doubt it would be embraced by more conventional medicine and insurance carriers. Generally speaking the backbone behind all these treatments are the use of a flood of vitamins and herbs in which many are contraindicated with conventional prescribed medication. The true improvements are probably more due to lifestyle changes and greater dietary discretion.

Feb. 06 2013 03:55 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

John A wrote,

"I would say the need for profits in medicine corrupts everything."

Absolutely. And this applies to "alternative medicine" as well.

Dr. Marcia Angell is also an outspoken advocate for universal, single-payer health care.

Feb. 06 2013 02:44 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

Some of the most common fallacies when it comes to alternative medicine:

1.) Equating "natural" with "harmless", "healthful", "wholesome", etc.

Some of the most lethal substances known to man are completely natural.

2.) There is really nothing "natural" about most nutritional supplements. Substances that occur naturally in _foods_, isolated, produced in a lab, put in pills, often in quantities far greater than could be consumed from even an ideal diet.

-Vitamin and mineral pills should be treated as medicines and subject to the same standards (at least in mega doses).

- Supplements cannot be considered substitutes for proper diet.

Supplements can only provide _known_, specific nutrients in isolation. In contrast, each _food_ is made-up of _numerous_ components and substances, in unique combinations and proportions. Who knows how many yet-undiscovered nutrients may be in any given food.

3.) Equating _correlation_ with _causation_.

An illustration is found in something that I recall hearing acclaimed food-writer Michael Pollan say on either this or the Lopate show (or perhaps both).

Pollan noted a seeming paradox:
-Studies finding that taking nutritional supplements, at best, has no effect on health, and, at worse, may even be harmful,
-Studies finding that people who take nutritional supplements tend to be healthier than people who don't.

Pollan suggested that the explanation may be that people who take nutritional supplements are generally health-conscious and therefore more likely to also eat better, exercise, avoid smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol, etc.

Feb. 06 2013 02:30 PM

My 11 y/o daughter was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlotters in her knee, which happens with young athletes and growth plates, thus causing swelling. The orthodedic specialist said she would have to stop running for several months, wear a brace and take anti-inflammatory medication. I spoke with her coach and he agreed to give her a brief rest from competing, but thought that the doc was over reacting. I then took her to my acupuncturist, and she began weekly sessions, which she enjoyed and which offered relief. During the course of her season we made a few adjustments, like running in more cushioned shoes. Anyway, long story short, she excelled in state, regional and national junior olympics, finishing 5th in the US in 3000 meters and won several awards. In short, had we followed the doctor's advice none of this would have happened, and she's fine now (and still competing and setting personal bests).

Feb. 06 2013 01:14 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Amy from Manhattan - If taking a blood test could predict potential reactions to all meds, we'd all be taking them these tests, and wouldn't have any side effects, death from certain vaccines and other Rx remedies. Complete malarky!

Feb. 06 2013 12:39 PM
Sherri Oustalet from New York City

I'm an ARCB certified feet and hand reflexologist in NYC. In my 8+ years of practice, my clients have shared and I've witnessed tangible long and short-term health benefits post-sessions. Reduced: anxiety, sleeplessness, joint pain, migraines, pregnancy swelling of feet and ankles, nausea and discomfort from chemotherapy, IBS & GERD symptoms, pre-and post-op stress, among other chronic health issues. Increased: energy, relaxation, sense of well-being, motivation, connection, positive thoughts and hope. I've seen heavy metals released from the body through the feet post-chemotherapy - a silvery sheen on my hands after providing a foot reflexology session with a client; hands-on evidence of the power of reflexology to support the body's natural de-tox functions. I've seen wondrous and real changes in people dealing with a myriad of imbalances - body, mind, and spirit. Reflexology and many of the complementary therapies and integrative medicine modalities support western medicine in often miraculous ways. So much so that major NYC hospitals and health facilities nationwide and worldwide are incorporating them into their health services and practices for patients, caregivers, and staff.

Feb. 06 2013 12:37 PM
Noach from Brooklyn


1.) Can you cite any actual evidence to back-up your (unqualified) claim that avoiding carbohydrates helps arthritis?

Carbohydrates (from wholesome sources such as whole grains, potatoes, fruits in moderation, etc.) are a necessary part of a wholesome, healthful diet. (Even if _some_ people may thrive from restricting carbohyrdrates.)

2.) "If you don't eat products made of wheat or rice, you avoid gluten."

Since when does _rice_ contain gluten?!

Even PURE _oats_, it has been discovered, do not contain gluten. (The problem is cross-contamination from other grains during processing.)

Feb. 06 2013 12:34 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

Gregory Shuey from Midtown - What's your doc's name?

My acupuncturist is also an MD in pharmacology (at a teaching hospital, no less), but got her acupuncture and herbal training in her native Shanghai. It IS the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, I have to schlep out to NJ to see her, but she's worth every inconvenience!

Feb. 06 2013 12:34 PM
thatgirl from manhattan

That the word "kook" came up within the first few paragraphs of the NYT article helped me understand how little contact this family had with anything outside of phama-based solutions. It was also clear that the author has only scraped the surface as to the myriad issues associated with a huge upswing of autoimmune "disease" in the U.S. in recent years.

I was diagnosed with lupus (with the year plus of all associated tests and several years with increasingly severe joint pains and much-reduced immune system), I knew that the NYU rheumatologist's recommendation of starting NSAIDs (and limiting exercise!) was a dead-end. Take a liver-robbing treatment for pain when the underlying symptoms should be addressed? A few days reading online through communities of sufferers told me all I needed to know: no one on the Rx route felt "better," and there was plenty of victimhood I didn't want to join.

Having had great results for migraines via a Chinese acupuncturist/herbalist years back, I came to rely more on that, as well as the advice of a naturopath I knew. She sent my blood work to a biochemist, who confirmed I'd be tethered to NSAIDs for the rest of my life--increasing dosage, plateauing, switching to different therapies that would rob my liver and immune system. She told me I must do the hard work of getting off coffee, gluten and most grains, sugar, and animal proteins, dose with fish oil daily, take an enzyme, and a good daily dose of probiotics. Coupled with work with my acupuncturist, she felt I could overcome my diagnosis.

Everyone I knew thought it was "severe" and that I would "suffer" from dropping so much from my daily intake of these things, but I did it, religiously, for a year and a half. I didn't "suffer." I thrived, and had my blood re-tested by the NYU rheumatologist, who was amazed by my progress. When I shared how I was "treating" myself, she simply nodded and said, "If that's how you want to handle it, fine."

No doubt so many think that making these choices constitutes becoming a "problem" for friends and family, but we need to keep in mind that our food supply is loaded with manufactured garbage "food," which offers little nutritional value, and is difficult for many to assimilate on a long-term basis--at least before autoimmune, allergic and other reactions emerge. Our dependence on scientifically-modified grains and unhealthy animal sources is coming home to roost here--to say nothing of children like the author's who've taken several courses of antibiotics before the age of three!

The blind trust we continue to put in the only "choice" the insurance industry gives us vis a vis care has to stop. Only when western/allopathic medicine fails us do we feel compelled to search "alternatives;" stop relegating sound, ages-old practices of healthy intake, acupuncture, and the like to the "alternative" corner. It works.

Feb. 06 2013 12:25 PM
Noach from Brooklyn

Former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell, M.D. on "alternative medicine":

From a 1998 NEJM editorial (via Wikipedia):
"It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride... There cannot be two kinds of medicine — conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted."

Alternative medicine--the risks of untested and unregulated remedies. Angell M, Kassirer JP. N Engl J Med 1998;339:839. (requires pay)

Feb. 06 2013 12:13 PM

The best article I've ever read which discusses alternative medicine, its effectiveness and how it relates to science based "Western medicine" was in the Atlantic Monthly. You can find the article online at:

Feb. 06 2013 12:11 PM

Wait! I think that Robert had more to say! The book that he mentioned "Healing Psoriasis, The Natural Alternative" (Pagano)is an incredible method to eating and thinking healthy. I had severe psoriasis for over 25 years, and after reading the book was able to COMPLETELY RID all of it in the course of three months. After years and years of risky drugs treatment and ointments as well as years of light treatments, this is the ONLY thing that worked. Healthy eating, exercise and saffron tea worked... Please look into this book if you or anyone you know wants to get rid of psoriasis. It is not a skin condition, it is a bowel and immune condition.

Feb. 06 2013 12:05 PM
Amy from Manhattan

The question is how representative the successful cases are. Of course you're going to hear about those, but if they're only a small percentage of those who use an alternative treatment, it doesn't indicate that it will work for others.

And for the caller whose son's doctor wanted to do blood tests before prescribing a drug that could have dangerous side effects, the tests are to find out if he has a high risk of getting those side effects. If he's not, it could be safe for him to take the drug. Sounds as if the doctor didn't make that clear enough.

Feb. 06 2013 12:01 PM
Hal from Brooklyn

Whenever I get a cold (which is rare) I go to a local voudou shaman here in Crown Heights. I ALWAYS get better after a few days.

Feb. 06 2013 11:57 AM
John A

Was faced with a $14K bill for testing. I insisted on knowing the charges beforehand; not getting stuck later, involved some work BTW. Ignored this and just improved personal fitness and did a much simpler ultrasound. Restored to health 1.5 years later as verified by second ultrasound.
I would say the need for profits in medicine corrupts everything.

Feb. 06 2013 11:57 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Please don't stop taking antibiotics without asking your doctor 1st. You could be promoting the growth of resistant bacteria.

Feb. 06 2013 11:57 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Arthritis is a degenerative condition for which there is no cure, and no understanding what is its root cause. No cure, but it can be managed. Proper diet and exercise are all part of managing inflammation and pain. Avoiding carbohydrates, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, et al are all helpful. If you don't eat products made of wheat or rice, you avoid gluten.

Feb. 06 2013 11:56 AM
"Anonymous" from NYC

Based on our experience, if you are middle-aged and are thinking of Viagra, think again: see an alternative physician and take Chinese herbs instead.

Really; they work. I won't post the list of herbs but -- the doctor's advice failed; the herbalists worked w/i a few days.

Feb. 06 2013 11:56 AM
Jf from The future

I love all the news reports on youtube showing children that have had tumors and other cancers cured totally by cannabis oil when the doctors predicted a soon death.

Feb. 06 2013 11:55 AM

My father was diagnosed with arthritis in his spine, and decided to go with a combination of Western and alternative treatments. His Western doc was not pleased, but Dad went ahead and scheduled acupuncture in conjunction with the doc's meds and physical therapy. He felt immediately better after the first acupuncture session. Now he's in great shape!

Feb. 06 2013 11:54 AM
Gregory Shuey from Midtown...

Best combination:
A real MD, who also happens to be an herbalist and accupuncturist. Wonderful Chinese doctor, in Chinatown.

Feb. 06 2013 11:53 AM

i stopped eating gluten in October. 3 days later i feel 10 years younger.
my doctor still doesn't understand

Feb. 06 2013 11:50 AM
Paul from Boston, MA

I wish I could remember who said, "My idea of 'alternative medicine' is a doctor who didn't go to Harvard."

Feb. 06 2013 11:47 AM
Lezlie from Brooklyn

I'm a community herbalist in Brooklyn, and so grateful for this conversation and for the article this weekend. I wanted to point out that the forms of medicine and traditional healing marked as "alternative" are actually much older and more tested than allopathic or "Western" medicine. For example TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Ayurveda (the Indian "Science of Life") have been around for *centuries* and are used around the world. These traditional forms of holistic medicine take into account not only the physical body, but also the mental, psychological, and spiritual bodies as well as the environment. Western alternatives isolate perceived problems and treat disease in a singular way, which often result in many "side effects" (or, as they might more accurately be called, "effects") that exacerbate overall health. We might best rethink indigenous and traditional forms of healing as the norm, with hundreds of years of trustworthy results. Though it is hard for us to think outside the box of the medical industrial complex, Western medicine might better be understood as the real alternative, a mere baby of less than 200 year in the US. I hope as this conversation unfolds, we can talk about how racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of bias shape how we think about legitimate/effective and illegitimate/ineffective forms of healing and care.

Feb. 06 2013 11:23 AM
Josh from Watchung , nj

1. For sinus troubles, allergies and avoiding colds -- does the doc "prescribe" a saline nasal rinse ? My gp litmus test.

2. Why no "alternative" or natural-oriented dentists in n or central nj?? So many parents are fed up w these fluoride/X-ray/1-minute cleaning hacks -(at least in dentist hub of westfield and surroundings) but there seems to be no alternative. Definitely feel guilty for submitting my kids to the seamier, less learned side of an industry that too-frequently attracts the kind of people you wouldnt even choose as your bookie.

Feb. 06 2013 11:13 AM

A few years ago I was feeling pretty hopeless about chronic wrist pain from an old volleyball injury. I'd tried surgery, months of physical therapy, and all sorts of painkillers and steroid shots, all to no avail. So one day I decided, what the heck, I'll try acupuncture. Went to Chinatown, paid $60, and one week after the acupuncture treatment, the pain was GONE. No idea why or how it worked, but I've been nearly pain-free for a year.

Feb. 06 2013 11:10 AM
Jf from Ny

I always use alternative medicine. I look up instructions online. You can get all the medical knowledge o. Download sites, and natural home remedy sites. The doctor does not keep everything they learned in their head. They search a database with symptoms and follow instructions. Ive watched them doing this, even listening to an audiobook while seeing me at woodhul hospital. I have fixed many complicated infections and done stitches and made a splint perfectly, rather than pay doctors ransom they dont have to pay in england, canada, and many countries. But now i need to pay 2000 $ anyway or get insurance.j

Feb. 06 2013 10:26 AM
RoseAnn Hermann from Washington Heights

I sent my blood work results to my daughter, an ND, doctor of natural medicine, in Seattle. She was surprised that my MD said nothing other than checking off all was in acceptable ranges.
She then prescribed increased doses of Vitamin D, fish oil, and added B12 and fiber. 2 weeks, and I notice my mood has improved significantly. That was something I hadn't even considered with regard to my physical.

Feb. 06 2013 10:16 AM

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