Alternative Therapies, from homeopathy to hypnotherapy, we look at some well-known alternative therapies and medicines — revealing which can work and which to avoid.
Alternative therapies is the umbrella term for a diverse array of treatments, which have little in common other than not being accepted by most conventional healthcare professionals.
So any general judgments about their effectiveness are somewhat nonsensical. Very few alternative therapies are supported by sound evidence, and, to the best of our knowledge, none works better than the conventional treatment available for a specific condition.
Why then are they so popular? One reason is that – rightly or wrongly – conventional clinicians are often unable to build therapeutic relationships with their patients that are as empathetic and compassionate as those of alternative practitioners.
In other words, the current popularity of alternative medicine is also a poignant criticism of modern health care.
Most of us think that alternative treatments are natural, and hence risk-free. This is dangerously wrong because nature is not necessarily harmless, and seemingly innocent treatments, such as homeopathy, can become potentially life-threatening.
For example, if a cancer patient forfeits conventional treatments in favor of some homeopathic remedies, their life is in grave danger.
So, the take-home message is to be cautious and study the evidence carefully and critically. If an alternative therapy sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
THE GOOD Side of Alternative Therapies
Alternative treatments with encouraging evidence that they work Herbal medicines clearly fall into this category.
They usually contain many pharmacologically active ingredients, so it’s hardly surprising that some of them are effective.
Perhaps the best researched herbal medicine is St. John’s Wort, which is used mostly for mild to moderate depression.
The most recent systematic review showed that St. John’s Wort extracts were “superior to placebo” in treating depression, as effective as conventional anti-depressants, and “associated with significantly fewer dropouts because of adverse effects.
.”Having said that, St. John’s Wort interacts with around half of prescription drugs, so it should be taken with care.
If herbal extracts can be that good, why not isolate the active principle from the messy concoction of ingredients and market them as pure compounds?
This is precisely what many scientists try to do, sometimes with huge success. Aspirin, for instance, has been derived from the willow bark and has become one of the most successful drugs of all time.
But for other herbs, such as St. John’s Wort, this approach is not viable because one single ingredient from the whole range of active compounds in the extract turns out to be far less effective than the full plant extract with its multitude of ingredients.
Hypnotherapy is being promoted for many conditions, including pain, anxiety, and smoking, but for none is evidence stronger than for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
A recent review summarised the findings from 25 clinical trials. It concluded that “collectively this body of research shows unequivocally that for both adults and children with IBS,
hypnosis treatment is highly efficacious in reducing bowel symptoms, and can offer lasting and substantial symptom relief for a large proportion of patients who do not respond adequately to usual medical treatment approaches”.
This might be on the optimistic side, but it is nevertheless clear that hypnotherapy shows some promise.
Some experts might object because they would not categorize hypnotherapy as an alternative treatment.
They might have a point: one of the most notorious problems with alternative therapies, in general, is that, once a therapy has been shown to work, it will be accepted by health care professionals and thus ceases to be ‘alternative.
THE BAD Side of Alternative Therapies
Treatments that are ineffective Few treatments fit better into this category than homeopathy.
It was invented 200 years ago by the German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, who thought that ‘like cures like.
This means that if your eyes start watering when you cut an onion, a homeopath will use the onion to cure conditions associated with runny eyes.
But homeopaths don’t just administer the onion; they dilute the extract many times until typically not a single molecule of it is left in the remedy they prescribe.
Of course, such features render homeopathy utterly implausible. So, it is hardly surprising that the 300-odd clinical trials, which have tested its effectiveness for various conditions, fail to show that homeopathic remedies are more than pure placebos.
Science is normally a poor tool for proving a negative, but in homeopathy, the evidence is now fairly dear (it is only homeopaths who refuse to accept it).
The most thorough homeopathy assessment has recently been published by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.
The conclusions of this austere panel could hardly be more straightforward: “…there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.
Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious or could become serious?’
Meanwhile, spiritual healing is the term often used for treatments such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, and other para-normal healing methods.
Healers claim to channel healing ‘energy’ into a patient’s body, where it allegedly stimulates their self-healing mechanisms.
There have been numerous studies of these treatments, and the most rigorous of them seem to agree that the effects are due to placebo.
A recent study was aimed at testing the effectiveness of energy healing on the wellbeing of 247 colorectal cancer patients.
Compared with other patients who had not been exposed to the healing ‘energy’, no overall healing effect was noted on quality of life, depressive symptoms, mood, or sleep quality.
However, the authors concluded that the healing effect on well-being was related to factors such as self-selection and a positive attitude toward the treatment.
Potentially types of alternative therapies that should be avoided
Asian herbal remedies are notorious for being adulterated with synthetic drugs, and some investigations have shown that more than a quarter of Chinese herbal creams contained potentially damaging corticosteroids.
While many herbal medicines, such as St. John’s Wort, contain pharmacologically active ingredients, some herbal medicines can also harm.
Many plants have been shown to contain toxic substances – causing damage to the liver, kidneys, or other organs.
Other herbal medicines have the potential to interact with prescribed medicines.
For instance, St John’s Wort interacts with about 50 percent of all prescription drugs, and so the blood level of the prescription drug can become too low to have the desired effect.
In turn, this can mean that a prescribed anticoagulant no longer protects a patient from a potentially deadly blood dot or that a woman gets pregnant despite taking oral contraceptives.
And then, there is the risk of contamination or adulteration.
Recently the UK regulator recalled a large quantity of St. John’s Wort tablets because they were contaminated with a liver-toxic compound originating from another plant that inadvertently made its way into the remedy.