Alternative medicines gaining legitimacy and popularity

Acupuncture, herbal remedies, homeopathy – what really works? In the world of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), it just depends who you ask.

‘CAM,’ loosely defined, refers to any treatments – from herbs to massages – that are outside the norms of traditional medicine. Generally, they are less expensive, easily obtained and scientifically unproven.

And even as members of the medical community remain skeptical of their usefulness – and sometimes of their safety – more and more people are willing to try them. The Wall Street Journal reports that 36 percent of American adults are using some form of unconventional medicine, spending about $30 billion a year. And the industry is only growing. Today, Americans spend nearly as much out-of-pocket money on CAMs as they do on traditional medicines.

Kathleen Warren, director of Media and Community Relations at Bastyr University in Washington State, said in a “culture that’s quick-fix oriented,” people are beginning to look deeper into their physical problems, asking “What’s going on with my life and my body?”

Bastyr is one of the nation’s top natural science schools, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in naturopathic studies and other fields of CAM. Founded in 1978, it is a leading researcher in a field that, according to Warren, is “based on the body’s innate powers to heal itself.”

The effects of CAMS are visible at the College as well. Just look at Jesse Maline, a freshman art education major who takes Echinacea to better deal with cold symptoms.

Cindy Neely, a Hopewell Township resident, credits intravenous glutathione – one of the more popular CAMs on the market – with changing her life and boosting her energy levels. “Our bodies are phenomenal things,” she said. “God made our bodies to repair themselves.”

In 1992, responding to the growing popularity of CAMs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) formed the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). With an initial budget of $2 million, the OAM began researching and testing the validity of CAMs.

And two studies reported in The Wall Street Journal are showing the results. One found that selenium, previously used to prevent skin cancer, actually helped in the prevention of prostate cancer; the other showed that acupuncture may increase a woman’s chances of fertility.

Still, the conventional science community remains largely unconvinced.

“It has not been scientifically tested and its advocates largely deny the need for such testing,” Marcia Angell, M.D., and Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D. said, in their 1998 editorial in the “New England Journal of Medicine,” widely renowned as one of the most reputable scientific publications in the world.

Though the article is six years old, it underscores the disparities between traditional and non-traditional physicians that remain at issue today.

One study reported in the Wall Street Journal showed that beta carotene, once thought to prevent lung cancer, actually increased its likelihood in those who used it.

And in any study, scientists must consider the placebo effect. Most drug studies include a control group whose subjects take a placebo, or sugar pill, rather than the drug being tested. Invariably, 30 to 40 percent of those taking the ‘placebo’ get better simply because their minds tell them that they should.

Scientists must ask – are people getting better because they’re taking herbal remedies or are they improving because their minds are playing tricks on them?

“What about the FDA? Shouldn’t it be monitoring the safety and efficacy of these remedies?” Angell and Kassirer asked in their editorial.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently classifies herbal remedies – the most frequently used CAMs on the market – as dietary supplements. Because of this they are not subject to the same testing, safety evaluations and general scrutiny as over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol or Aspirin.

In part, that’s why the market is flooded with herbal remedies that either don’t do what they say or don’t do anything at all.

St. John’s Wort, for instance, often used to treat depression, can cause severe adverse reactions. It speeds up metabolism, diluting the effects of other drugs in the human body. So, if a patient suffering from HIV took St. John’s Wort to combat depression, his or her HIV medications might be rendered ineffective.

More research needs to be done. And the OAM, renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 1999, is trying to do it. It is spending $117.4 million in 2004 and will spend an estimated $121.1 million in 2005 on just that.

Modern medicine is evolving to include unconventional methods and, as Warren said, those who don’t accept it are “dinosaurs.”