Alternative Medicine and American Paranoia

February 13, 2013

12 Feb (MSFLOURISH) – Last weekend I read The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints , a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Susannah Meadows, the mother of a boy who suffered from a pediatric form of arthritis. Unsatisfied with the pharmaceutical options offered by their doctor, Meadows explored traditional Chinese medicine, and found a treatment that put her son’s arthritis into remission.

The article doesn’t trash Western medicine, and Meadows is careful to point out that this worked for her son, but it won’t necessarily work for everyone. Meadows, following a regiment that worked for another child, removed gluten, dairy, refined sugar, and nightshades from her son’s diet, and added cherry juice and omega-3 fats. She also gave him a traditional Chinese remedy called four marvels powder.

Meadows learned about leaky gut syndrome, a constellation of problems that relate dietary habits to autoimmune diseases. Leaky gut syndrome is commonly discussed in alternative medicine circles, but isn’t a medical diagnosis as such.  Six weeks after beginning the alternative regimen, Meadows’ son was experiencing much less pain and is now pain-free.


Not to be outdone, I suppose, our friends at Slate published a reactionary response to Meadows’ article later in the week. Don’t Take Medical Advice from the New York Times Magazine , urges Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor. She thinks Meadows was too trusting of Chinese herbs, questions Meadows’ reliance on a non-physician friend recommending the treatment, and, tenuously, suggests that Meadows was swayed by the powder’s name, which sounds “warm and friendly,” and “safe,” not chemically, like the drugs offered by the rheumatologist, of which Meadows was so skeptical. Francl’s thesis is that Meadows, and many Americans, are chemophobic, by which she means afraid of chemicals, not afraid of chemotherapy, as I initially thought. She points out that chemicals are everywhere! We breathe in a gazillion molecules all the time!

Francl is right, that Chinese herbs are not free of side effects. Just like Western drugs, Chinese herbs are chosen for their active ingredients, which are, of course, chemicals.


I’m slower to dismiss traditional Chinese medicine than Francl is, because my confidence in Western medicine isn’t as high. Chinese medicine treats the whole person- its focus is on curing disease. Western medicine focuses on symptoms and injuries. We’re not as good at curing diseases.

I’m skeptical of scientists who insist that double-blind trials are the only way to “prove” anything. Drug companies fund these trials all the time, and just don’t publish unfavorable results. Drugs get pulled off the market all the time when nasty adverse events are reported that didn’t arise in the approval process.

Chinese medicines aren’t subject to the same “rigorous” testing that the FDA insists on for American drugs, but many Chinese remedies have been in use for thousands of years. Not all of them, sure. Chinese medicine isn’t necessarily a static field any more than Western medicine is. All the same, I think “proof” and “rigor” of different scientific methods can be in the eye of the beholder.


When it comes to autoimmune diseases, there are also a deeply troubling set of incentives for drug companies. Drug development costs an average of $4 billion these days, and takes easily about 10 years, and often much longer, from synthesis in labs to animal trials, studies, clinical trials, and the approval process (apart from intellectual property concerns). Development costs, along with limited exclusivity windows (a topic for a later time) are a large part of why drugs can be so expensive. The companies want to recoup their investment.

 What makes a drug profitable? Two things. Either everyone needs it, like many vaccines, antibiotics, and treatments for common illnesses, or fewer people need it, but they take it for a long time.

Yikes. The drug companies will make less money if they cure us. They make money by telling us our diseases are incurable and offering pharmaceuticals to help us “manage” our symptoms. We can even take other drugs to manage the side effects of the first drugs. The drug companies certainly win in this scenario. I just think it would be nice if the patients could benefit too.