Sunday, August 5, 2007

Traditional medicine

One of the most tempting trends that keeps coming around is traditional medicine, as in herbal/holistic/etc., as opposed to "standard" "Western" medicine. At least, it's tempting for me. I am a big believer that proper nutrition and holistic care of the body makes for a much healthier person than medicating every point of physical, emotional, or mental difference... or even illness.

When there are scares about things like anti-bacterial cleaning products, antibiotics just toughening up pathogens, building up resistances to life-saving drugs, and so on, I lean even harder in this direction.

The fact of the matter is that your body is a machine that obeys the law of "garbage in, garbage out." If you eat animal fat, your arteries are likelier to clog. If you don't eat enough fiber, you will get diverticulitis (earlier). If you eat a lot of carcinogens, you're likelier even than the rest of us to get cancer. Eat fats, get obese. Eat sugars, get diabetes. Drink alcohol, get arrested. Everything in moderation ... and moderation doesn't mean "'til I don't wanna anymore," it means, "in the quantity and proportion necessary to my maintenance." Do I do it right? Oh, God, no. I try, but no. And I don't try hard enough.

But here's the thing. There is no such thing as magic. Homeopathic medicine is probably less effective for the treatment of illness than is Western medicine... although it arguably has a place in both therapeutic and maintenance regimens.

For instance, I am a big believer in oatmeal. Oatmeal is pretty neat... it's a low-fat high-fiber whole grain, so if you eat it it cleans you up and out. It's a demulcent so it helps upset tummies and esophagi. It's very soothing on the skin and if made into a poultice it can dry out a nasty wound (poison oak, spider bite, etc.) I've attributed a brown recluse bite healing to an oatmeal poultice and I would apply one again today, were a brown recluse to test my faith.


If you are sick, go to the doctor. If they give you medicine, take it. Do not take half doses of it because "my system isn't used to it." Do not quit taking it halfway into a prescription because "I feel better." Do not self-medicate with quackeries.

Here's the deal about traditional medicine, the honest to goodness raw deal.

If you go to another country, say a poor, third-world country like, oh, say, Peru, you will indeed find people ill unto dying with the same kinds of diseases we have here: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. (You will also find them ill with special, poverty-exacerbated illnesses like goiter, cholera, tapeworms, and so on. Also of purely social causes, like sepsis or bleeding to death after at-home illegal abortion attempts, or relatively unexplained infant mortality.)

You might go up to them and ask them how they are doing. "Better, much better," they say. Almost any sick person round the world will tell you they are feeling better at any given moment. But let's say you believe it. "What are you doing for it?" you ask.

"Well, I am on a special diet... five fruits and vegetables, liquidated in the blender, and I drink that twice a day. Instead of breakfast, instead of lunch. And I am drinking a tea made of the leaves of a special plant."

"Really? And it's working?"

"Oh yes! My sister was sick with the same condition, and she did this, and it went away, by the grace of God she no longer has any illness..."

We want to believe. Somebody who is sick wants to believe, too, that what they are doing is efficacious to remedy their conditions. You're not being lied to, you are being preached to by starry-eyed hopefuls. And yes, some of these treatments have some basis, sure, but they're not the "magic bullet" that will cure you of your bad habits and/or diseases. A half a cup of oatmeal won't cure you of a daily diet of beef fat, Doritos and Twinkies. A ginkgo biloba gelcap won't cure you of carelessness. Even when we get all scientistic about it... the antioxidants in that cup of green tea won't cover the damage caused by the sucralose and aspartame in the bottle (and maybe not by the exudates from the plastic.)

In many cases, Western medical facilities of diagnosis are available... What a fucking shame that Western medicine is not also available to treat what is diagnosed. The realities of the Third World is that this is where factory seconds are sent to die. Factory seconded condoms from the First World. Medicines that have been discontinued due to obsolescence or safety concerns. Medicines that were factory seconded... or past their expiration dates. Most often, these things are being doled out in single-dosage portions by the wives of the people who open Farmacias and Boticas... diligent and hard-working women whose spouses might even have attended an undisclosed amount of medical or pharmaceutical schooling... but who are never on premises.

They do diagnoses, too.


Sometimes with questions, sometimes with a glance, sometimes according to the client's wishes, sometimes with a sacrificed guinea pig and colored smoke.

Stop flinching, it's traditional.

Of course people treat their illnesses anyway, in any way they can. Drink the special tea, drink the smoothies, pray. All of it helps, because it sure beats doing nothing... and nothing is all you (or your clinic, or sometimes your whole country) can afford unless it's tea and fruit, well, you go with the tea and fruit. And prayer is generally free.

Traveling optimists carry the news. "I met a man in the Third World who was dying of cancer, and he drank a tea made of this leaf... it cured him!"

You left out other parts of the equation. In the absence of Western medicine, he ate a special diet, drank a special tea, and prayed a lot. Did the prayer cure him, O optimists of traditional medicine? Or was it the tea?

If the doctors who diagnosed the sufferer had the means to treat him, you'd better believe it wouldn't be with maca and horny goat weed and garlic capsules and fish oil. And if he were offered affordable, standard Western medicine, your friend would be in a hospital bed faster than you could say "snake oil."

Just a word of caution that I promised to a friend about a month ago... and written at this long-delayed juncture very poorly.

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