Friday, April 13, 2007

Why I am not an alternative therapist.

First, some news from the world of science.

Have you ever noticed how gravediggers are such jolly, happy people, merrily playing japes upon each other and laughing all the while?

Me neither. But I was reading about the alleged (and this is all very experimental) anti-depressant effects of Mycobacterium vaccae, a common-or-garden soil bacterium. It seems, as far as such things can be determined, to somehow have some anti-depressant effects. It seems to make drowning mice less depressed, anyway, which means it may be a promising therapy for those of us who when depressed feel like a drowning mouse (paws up).

Now, this is obviosly a long way from us opening the psych wards and herding the depressed out into the fields, but I am reluctant to dismiss ideas like this. I have vague ideas about the number of efficacious, cheap, relatively safe therapies we withold in modern medicine, mainly because they can't get through the same set of hoops that, say, the latest product of the multi-squillion dollar pharmaceutical industry can. I have unclear images of the deeply depressed spending time sitting in the sun, psych ward beds like individual rooms, families instead of individuals being treated, therapeutic communities. That kind of thing.

But not the kind of thing you can copyright and run an advertising campaign on, so unless things change, some pendulum swings back, that's the end of that. We are left without alternatives.

I should stress here that I am not talking about alternative therapies in the commonly accepted meaning of the term, crystals and so forth. If by alternative therapties you mean stuff that has been tested and shown not to work, I am not a believer in alternative therapies. No harm to those who are, many fine people, etc. etc. etc., but there is a philosophical chasm between most believers and me that I suspect will never be crossed. The attached philosophical baggage - the whole romanticism versus classicism, the things alternative therapists say about nature, the mind and the self - I can't adopt that.

That's an ugly looking paragraph there, but I suppose what I am trying to say is that you don't have to be tin-foil-hat-wearing crazy to realise that modern medical questions and answers are at the very least distorted and at worst defined by a very sizeable medical/pharmaceutical/economic industry. The industry - and I don't so much believe in conspiracies, I believe in people acting in their own interest, influences the treatments and the illnesses that exist, who gets considered as a patient and what it is acceptable for a doctor to do, and so on - says what questions can be asked as much as what answers will be given.

Having said that, if you tape a magnet onto your belly-button ( I saw this last week, on a woman whose licence I had to take away), it won't make your knee get better any faster. I beleive I know this as much as I know what country I live in, or whether my wife loves me, or a number of other things. And if you sell magnets to people and tell them, or hint to them, or allow them to believe, that they are helpful, you'r not a doctor anymore, you're a charlatan, on the same continuum as those nineteenth century women who pulled muslin from various orifices in seances, or cold-readers who tell grieving widows that they can communicate with the dead.

And don't tell me "They laughed at Galileo, now they're laughing at my new remedy" stuff. They laughed at John Brinkley, too - when he implanted goats glands into men's testicles and told them it cured low libido. And it wasn't because he subverted the dominant hegemony of the pharmacomedical paradigm, or because he allowed the vibrational energies of the glands to cleanse the blocked tissue in a way inaccessible to conventional allopathic medicine, it was because his ideas were crap.

Anyway, my preachy detector just went off. I think I am defensive about this because a sizeable number of alternative therapists over the years have told me how close-minded and docile and unthinking I am purely as soon as they find out what I do for a living. But I have seen a young woman who never used contraception because her chiropractor told her she couldn't have children, and a baby born who would never walk or talk because of the herbs his mother ate while pregnant, and a friend of mine has seen - but I haven't yet - dissection of the carotid artery following chiropractic manipulation - i.e.: a stroke.

Anyway. Enough of this. We need meaning and healing and life, some of us at some times more than others, but trusting people who offer to sell it to us seems dangerous to me. But I better go off and be a slave to the dominant hegemony.

Thanks for listening, and sorry for being such a curmudgeon.


Blogger Camilla said...

The "herbs=natural therefore healthy" thing gives me the cold horrors. I can't believe how many people subscribe to that idea. There are well-trained herbalists out there who know what they're doing, but IMO many people are too ready to trust the person at a market stall without knowing a single thing about their training or experience, just because they're dealing in something that's "natural" that must be therefore somehow "better" than pharmaceuticals. Gah.

We need meaning and healing and life, some of us at some times more than others, but trusting people who offer to sell it to us seems dangerous to me.

Unfortunately, this is not only restricted to alternative medicine. It runs rampant through our culture in the form of advertising, for example. Wear this, drive that, live in the other, and you'll be happy, sexy and successful. And there's no medication for the kind of despair that brings about in the uncritical mind (actually, in everyone's mind - the underlying messages in much of advertising are really insidious and sneak in no matter how hard you try to reject them).

I like the idea of therapeutic communities, of sitting in the sun and playing with animals. Maybe it's not Mycobacterium vaccae per se that makes people happy. Maybe it's just getting your hands in the soil and planting things, or making mud pies or whatever. All the stuff we don't have time for any more in our stupidly fast modern lives.

Blah. Anyway, that's my philosophical rant for the day.


4:54 PM  
Blogger daedalus2u said...

I don't know about the effects of Mycobacterium vaccae, but the extremely common soil bacteria, the autotrophic ammonia oxidizing bacteria do have major physiological and psychological effects via modulation of the basal nitric oxide level. I have found that these bacteria (responsible for the first step of nitrification) can live long term on human skin, nourished solely by sweat residues where they produce NO and nitrite by oxidizing ammonia from sweat, some of which is absorbed. I have started blogging about it, but the focus of my blogs now is on the autism spectrum disorders. I also have posted about the placebo effect.

Raising NO via any mechanism invokes the placebo effect, and so would be expected to improve depression.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous ozma said...

I take herbs because I get sort of desperate for treatment when nothing else works. I recognize their drawbacks.

They have worked. They can also be extraordinarily bad for you, as you mention. I usually avoid them. At least in the U.S. health care is not available to everyone. This is another reason people turn to herbs.

I am not planning on taking herbs when pregnant but can you tell me if you know what herb did that to that pregnant woman? I don't think I want to take anything with that kind of risk even when I am not pregnant in case I do get pregnant accidentally. Also, I would like to tell other people I know who take herbs.

3:30 PM  

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