Philosophy: Characterised by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
Medicine: Characterised by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease
I have a background in traditional sciences, but have come to see the value in tradition. For me, Eastern therapies brought a lot of insight into re-establishing my connection to myself, to others and the natural world, at a time when I needed it the most. They’re still labelled as ‘alternative’ (even in parts of Asia), and perceived as slightly archaic in comparison to our modern marvels, with global trends indicating that sides are becoming increasingly polarised. I’d argue that such practices are highly complimentary, and that we should never forget our roots.
Becoming Mainstream, Without Being Mainstream
‘Alternative’ is perhaps not quite the right word, as it seems to suggest an ‘alternative route’ altogether. It sometimes carries an element of disparagement. As with any industry, there are certainly rogue practitioners that will encourage a devotee to forgo mainstream treatment entirely, in favour of their own.
This is an autonomous choice from the position of the recipient but as a practitioner in a position of trust, this is not best practice – just as persuading a patient to listen to mainstream advice alone, is often not holistically healthy. Our system at present needs unity and the alternative term I’d rather use is complimentary practices.
As an international movement, the marriage of complimentary and mainstream practices has now come to be known as ‘Integrative Medicine’. What has for a long time been seen as the frivolous, is actually more fundamental than we think. It’s principles are as follows:
- A partnership between recipient and practitioner in the healing process
- Appropriate use of both conventional and alternative methods to facilitate the body’s own, innate healing response
- Consideration given to all factors that influence health, wellness and disease, including mind, spirit and community as well as the body and its symptoms
- A philosophy that neither rejects conventional medicine, nor accepts all alternative therapies uncritically
- Recognition that good medicine should be based in good science, be inquiry driven, and also be open to brand new paradigms
- Use of natural, effective, less invasive interventions whenever possible
- Use of the broader concepts of the promotion of health and the prevention of illness as well as the treatment of disease
- Training of practitioners to be themselves models of health and healing, committed to the process of self-exploration and self-development
Essentially it seems like a good balance of – ‘being open minded, but not so much so that your brain falls out’. A poster boy for the integrative movement is Dr Andrew Weil, a physician that makes a point of not endorsing all complimentary therapies in one swift blanket move, but cherry picking those that are deemed to have sufficient scientific evidence by a higher body. Interesting.
However, it is worth noting that it was really not that long ago, that next to none of these practices were deemed to have enough scientific evidence, and hence their place in the mainstream, at all. A similar thing is seen with the Placebo effect, whereby it is a complimentary element that has become an important part of every medical treatment and drug therapy, but never given quite the same credit or investigation as a standalone option. This is something that needs to change.
What is progressive, is that these are two fields that have in the past, often been made to seem entirely at odds and with an Integrative approach to health, we can hopefully start to move away from this division. Just doing a quick search of many alternative practices, you are immediately greeted by labels such as ‘pseudo-medicine’ and even ‘quackery’. Yet at the same time it is synonymous with ‘traditional’, ‘complementary’ and ‘holistic’. The power of language and labelling is a huge problem, especially when anything that is simply not ‘the norm’ gets grouped into the same basket.
There is indeed a lot of questionable material out there, most especially in the era of ‘fake news’ and misinformation (misplaced intentions or incentives). I may not be overly familiar with every area of alternative care, as there are so many – but I can understand why most do not instinctively sit well with those from a more traditional science background.
Many of these practices work from a different framework and model of physiology, which is not a bad thing so long as it doesn’t become harmful and there are individuals that find it works for them. But this is not a mainstream science, it is an alternative science often rooted in ancient wisdom and tradition (most of the ones I enjoy personally have historical eastern roots as opposed to the more modern western concepts).
This appears to be the main issue at the root of many tensions and resistance between the alternative and mainstream worlds, the cross over into each-others territory as it were, disagreement around some fundamental principles and the level of transparency and honesty, as well as willingness to admit error in both.
Of course, science still has many mysteries of its own. And I love the more intuitive elements of certain historical concepts, nature’s own medicines, the lost wisdom and practices of the ancients, their philosophies and the ways in which their principles tie into modern day practices like mediation. But most of all, the concept of the mind-body connection – which mainstream medicine often ignores.
There are many figures with institutional backgrounds, that share how alternative ancient principles can be weaved into the science we know today such as Dr Gabor Mate. They face uncertainty, the difficulty of differentiation from, and dilution by the noise that still permeates the environment, as well as intellectual snobbery. I love that they are about exploration over protecting 10 year grants or subscribing to a closed minded paradigm.
Whatever the underlying theories may be, the fact of the matter is that some of these therapies are showing a therapeutic benefit that can no longer be ignored. They continue to grow in popularity and are often less invasive and cheaper than daily drug regimes. Most practitioners assist in sustainable, life-changing, lifestyle decisions, prioritising prevention over cure – an aspect that our Pharma-friendly system has often included as a footnote until more recent times.
The Evolution Of My Own Mixed Views
My own, personal views on certain Complimentary Therapies have overall done a pretty big U-turn on the surface of it, in the space of around just 1 to 2 years. By background I studied and trained medically for over half a decade, but dropped out a few years after my Bsc, having experienced the emotionally extended saga of feeling at conflict with both myself and where I found my feet in the system.
Like many others before me, I picked medicine because having done a bit of googling at the time, most ‘adulting’ looked lacklustre (half the jobs that are around now had not even been breathed into existence yet), I didn’t want a desk job, I was interested in health, I wanted something fulfilling, it seemed secure, made my parents (and even strangers) proud, I was 16 and not in a position to know what I really wanted from ‘the real world’ I knew little about, or what it needed of me.
I chose both the sciences and the arts for further study at school, being interested in chemistry and biology along with english, modern languages, musical and creative hobbies and the philosophical component of the International Baccalaureate. The running joke at medical school was often that an emphasis is placed on desiring holistically ‘well rounded’ candidates, only so that they can proceed to kick it out of you during your time there. It’s a cut throat and competitive environment, especially in a place like London and as someone who was quickly swept up into the fiercely ambitious atmosphere of it all, I sidelined all my other interests in a move that I felt would be the only way for me to stay afloat, let alone get ahead.
Perhaps it is as an instinctive or innate result of growing up with a Korean mother, but looking back, some of the gentle, traditional, Eastern remedies even then, always found their way into my life through some natural inclination or curiosity. I had regularly irregular menstrual patterns and would often peruse the isles of WholeFoods looking for different tinctures and herbs (Agnus Castus is one I like for this), initially slightly reluctant just to be immediately placed on the contraceptive pill for this specific issue, with all its potency and side effects.
I enjoyed learning about nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices, something that was not overly present in such a large curriculum, and I always found it interesting that our treatments, including some of those considered novel or cutting edge, had explicit roots in more natural, traditional, ancient practices: from the faecal transplants used by the Egyptians, to the benefits of turmeric in cancer treatment, aspirin from willow bark, using ginger syrup to treat nausea in chemotherapy, even the development of some modern day antibiotics. In the race towards technological advancement, modern medicine may have ostracised its origins and in forgetting its roots, we have lost the value from the context provided by what we stripped away. It’s a consistent theme that plays out in so many aspects of our lives today.
During my time on the course, alternative practices were almost always synonymous with cowboy practices, and one was to look down their nose upon such things as nothing but ‘sham’ or ‘financial exploitation’. I still remember the emotionally-charged language used when doing data analysis on homeopathy and acupuncture, the latter of which is now offered on the NHS today.
I came to feel that I had to pick a side on the us against them, health vs harm battle ground. Alternative practices went hand in hand with ‘preying on the worried well’, it was simply the ‘domain of bored housewives’ or a gross ‘exploitation of the terminally ill and desperate’. Coming from a family of well-meaning doctors that relay what they’re taught themselves, I grew up in a household of similar attitudes.
Of course, you do not have to witness these things for yourself, to know that they do exist in isolated cases. Whatever industry you are in, there is the potential for corruption. But many such criticisms are arguably hypocritical. I spent the majority of my time at Chelsea Westminster Hospital, where even as a student, I was offered the private services of a gynaecological consultant after confiding in him about some of my menstrual concerns – ‘do you have insurance?’ is usually the opening line…
As for the ‘bored housewives’, this sounds similar to the dismissal of ‘old wives tales’, many of which are actually rooted in some element of truth when you really delve into their history and origins. In fact through little fault of our own, most of us are often so caught up in stressing about work, paying bills, worries for the future, tuning out through entertainment or getting caught up in sensational headlines, that doing independent reading and research into topics of interest is not high on the agenda.
After a long day at work we are left with the surface opinions in the newsletters we sign up to, the TV we watch, or the feeds we scroll through as evidence enough. Sometimes the most qualified and institutionalised amongst us are the most guilty of this. So any time we meet someone who may have spent a little more time investigating for themselves, regardless of their subjective position in society, perhaps we should make a conscious effort to override any pre-conditioned assumptions enough to hear them out. To be happy to find comfort in the uncertainty and flexibility of our own ever-evolving views. And in my experience, no one in the world cares more than a mother on a mission.
Finally, the exploitation of the terminally ill and desperate: quite a criticism, coming from a Pharmaceutical industry that would theoretically have little incentive to find a one-off cure for a disease, when they could more readily profit from monthly or daily doses – from diabetes to cancer, many a chronic illness has become a gold mine today. Following the developments of the legalisation of Cannabis in the states has been of great interest. Despite showing real potential in the relief of chronic pain and conditions such as epilepsy, Pharma mostly continues to support the anti-cannabis lobbyists where they can.
This article is not about arguing for one side over another, or even recommending any particular practices over another, as I think everyone finds their way towards whatever works for them and in the hail of information from the bigger picture, there are huge benefits and drawbacks to be felt under both umbrellas. Solutions are not often found in the extremes of either side. They usually lie somewhere in the middle of all the discourse, in the agreeable cross over and creative compromise, not at the destructively stubborn polar ends. From a philosophical standpoint, polar opposites simply lie at different points along the same spectrum, as with temperature – there is no definitive point at which cold becomes hot, it’s subjective.
Does an orchestra need the oboe? For most pieces, for most audiences, most of the time, you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone. But take away one more instrument, and then another, and pretty soon, we’ll stop listening. The little fillips, the extraneous extras, the dispensable nice bits–they count for more than we know. – Seth Godin
Complimentary therapies brought a new meaning to my life. Holistic methods of healing brought with them more freedom to express, more autonomy over my health, a more positive outlook and calming context, a revival of the lost value in tradition and ceremony, as well as an increasingly compassionate and more understanding approach in both my interactions with others and the self. It also sparked the realisation that we should constantly question what we know and remain open minded. I also re-established my connection with nature. Having grown up in the concrete confines of London, I was becoming increasingly cut off from the effect that nature itself can have on our consciousness – something that is reflected back at us in the state of our planet at present.
I have a wonderful friend who is a GP; she tells me that she increasingly sees so many people who have booked in for emotional concerns, people struggling to cope with stress or grief and often seeking therapy or medication. The dips in life are unavoidable, and we reach an age where almost everyone we know has experienced their own ‘worst moment’. When the chaos inside, is reflected externally, it may seem like there is only so much that family and friends can really do. And we each have a responsibility to ourselves for our own lives, regardless of the circumstances, every day that we open our eyes – it’s a choice. Mourning is an almost unavoidable part of life but as the indigenous cultures of our planet almost universally highlight, death is synonymous with rebirth.
Time is the best healer because nothing in life is permanent, travel is a good healer because it confronts us with perspective, being comfortable with our own company is a good healer because introspection is the path to wisdom, re-connecting with mother nature is a good healer, finding what we share in common with people is a good healer, consistent meditation is a healer and sometimes an insightful process, showing ourselves love and value through diet and exercise is a good healer; as are things like aromatherapy – the uplifting benefits in something as simple as a scent, gentle herbs and tinctures, spiritual involvement (even just a good book or workbook). Soulful elements that re-establish a healthy sense of faith – the understanding that what we see is clearly not all there is to know about life, the list goes on! But we do not find any of these things at the doctors office.
This does not immediately apply to the most severe cases: the acute life-threatening scenarios – but to the recovery process afterwards, and to individuals that are crying out for things like change, re-connection or time. What % of the latter have truly and sustainably benefitted from being medicated on a pill like prozac – an anti-depressant that has become one of the world’s most over-prescribed drugs, increasingly at such shockingly young ages. Recent studies now reveal that this comes with a whole host of withdrawal side effects, not limited to a down regulation of the individuals own receptors with longer-term use. In some cases, this can prolong the low when medication is stopped, incentivising such people to make a return trip to the doctors office and begin the whole cultural, coldly clinical and circular process all over again.
It is encouraging to see that mainstream medicine is beginning to open its arms and embrace it’s long lost relative, so that hopefully, there can be more nurturing and time spent delving into the emotional depths of things over empathic decline, a greater focus on the individual over a ‘one-size-fits all’, and a greater value placed on the power of the mind, connection and imagination, over the ease of a pill. Medicine is a marvel when it comes to the physical life-death situations, but for a long term, healthy and sustainable recovery there is an individual-lead benefit from many aspects of the holistically complementary realms.
‘Sonder (German Word) – the realisation that each passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness. An epic story that continues invisibly around you, like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed. In which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.’
I have so much respect for mainstream practitioners of all levels and roles, it takes guts of steel to be able to witness and handle responsibility for some of the cases that they are faced with on a daily basis, high self-esteem to persist through an often toxic hierarchy, an unwavering sense of vocation to navigate through an often nonsensical level of bureaucracy, and the technological advancements that continue to be achieved through research always astound me.
If I was hit by a bus tomorrow, it is without a doubt the mainstream door that I’d be knocking on. It is an increasingly complicated and multifaceted issue but I do think that it’s a great shame that these people are the ones who are let down the most, by a system that increasingly does not give them the respect or time, to take what they do to the level that they could, and to enhance their own lives in the process, because one cannot sustainably pour from an empty cup. The next time you see a petition going around, as many have in recent years, whether it be for the NHS closures, consultant pensions or junior doctors working conditions, I would consider giving it a signature. Ultimately their health, is our health and ‘self-care is not selfish’.
It was my own journey that brought me back to my roots in the end, it helped me to fill the remaining half of my world view and begin to feel more whole again. Leaving a pre-determined path to follow my intuition and prioritise the evolution of my own sense of health and wellbeing was most certainly not an easy route or choice. There is often a level of guilt that accompanies leaving a profession like medicine behind and a part of me often felt like I had failed the clinical world, and that it had failed to help me myself. But I truly gained so much more from my own personal, relative, experiences and experimentation, whether it be founded in tradition or traditional sciences, than I ever have from simply following the popular protocol, or pouring over a textbook.
No matter what stance we are encouraged to take in life, whatever labels we subscribe to, political parties we resonate with, or mantras we live by – it is good to remember that there is always benefit in looking further into what’s considered to be the opposing side and the things we thought we would never try. There are nuggets of ‘truth’ to be found everywhere, in all aspects of life; but we first have to be willing to explore ourselves – in both senses of the word, to understand, or to question. To clinically cure is one element, but to holistically heal is more important now than ever. Be the scientist in your life.
‘Ninety percent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their virtues. Most of us go all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves’ – Sydney H. Harris