There was a time when people visited their doctor mainly because they felt ill and were seeking relief. Nowadays, consultations often involve having our ‘numbers’ checked: cholesterol and lipid levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, bone density, respiratory flow, and so on. If any of them happens to deviate too much from the latest ‘norm’, drugs are likely to be prescribed, which frequently have side effects that are treated with further drugs. Doctors feel compelled to follow official guidelines, which typically advocate the latest expensive medications, resulting in escalating healthcare costs.
In his book Pharmageddon, David Healy, an expert on drug treatment
injuries, identifies several key factors that have contributed to the current
state of Western medicine, particularly in the United States:
• First, restrictions on patenting medicines have been relaxed since the 1960s, and companies can now take out worldwide patents on new drugs for a period of 20 years; this monopoly position has led to the emergence of global ‘blockbuster’ drugs (i.e. drugs that make at least a billion dollars a year).
• Second, these drugs are only available on prescription, and doctors have proved to be easy prey for drug companies’ sophisticated marketing campaigns.
• Third, pharmaceutical companies usually do all the testing of their drugs themselves and are not required to disclose the raw data; articles on these drugs trials, mostly ghostwritten by specialized public relations agencies, highlight the alleged benefits of drugs while downplaying or concealing their adverse effects.
The global market for pharmaceuticals is now worth over a trillion dollars a year. The profit markup on blockbuster drugs is up to 2500%, with the top 10 drugs accounting for over $80 billion in annual sales. In the United States, annual healthcare costs have increased faster than anywhere else: from $500 per person in 1950 to $9146 per person in 2013. Yet in 2008 the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States last among developed countries in terms of healthcare quality.
Early 20th-century science discovered antibiotics such as penicillin, which enabled the dying to rise from their deathbeds. Today’s best-selling drugs, on the other hand, are primarily aimed at correcting ‘number disorders’, such as elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, in more and more people. This increases people’s health anxieties and often results in unpleasant side effects, or even an early death. Such drugs are said to ‘work’ merely because ‘the drug produces changes on some measurement of interest to a drug company, rather than indicating the drug saves a life or returns someone to employment, or is better than an older drug in the field, or even makes a person simply feel better’ (Healy, p. 85).
‘Evidence-based medicine’, as it is now called, is based on ‘randomized controlled trials’. In these double-blind drugs trials, patients are randomly divided into two groups, one of which is treated with a particular drug while the control group receives a placebo (dummy pill), with neither the patients nor the researchers knowing who is in which group while the study is in progress. The published results are then incorporated into ‘evidence-based’ guidelines for the treatment of different diseases. The problem is that pharmaceutical companies are allowed to leave inconvenient data or even entire drug trials unpublished and to report only what serves their interests. This makes a mockery of science.
Research shows that around 30% of clinical trials remain unreported, and that 25% of the published trials have been altered to the extent that negative results are transformed into evidence that the drug is safe and effective (Healy, p. 252). Data pointing to marginal benefits are hailed as evidence that the treatments are remarkably effective. Patients suffering adverse effects in the initial phase of a trial are commonly excluded from further participation and ignored in the study calculations.
A drugs trial is considered successful if the drug outperforms a placebo by at least a minimal but ‘statistically significant’ amount on a blood test or rating scale, even if the findings are trivial and cannot be reproduced. In the United States and Europe, only two trials with statistically significant positive results are needed to let a pharmaceutical company put a drug on the market, even though there might be up to 98 negative studies, and even though 5 in 100 studies could give positive results by chance (Healy, pp. 76-7).
This means that a company can claim that its drug is effective even if in 50% of the trials those taking the drug do not benefit more than those taking the placebo, or there are more dead bodies in the treatment group than in the placebo group. David Healy says that this is the case for the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, Cox-2 painkillers, blood-sugar-lowering drugs, beta-agonists for asthma, along with various antidepressants and antipsychotics (p. 74). For instance, antipsychotic drugs increase rates of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and suicides, and reduce life expectancy by decades, not just years (p. 89). The suicide rate among those being treated for schizophrenia has risen 10- to 20-fold since the introduction of antipsychotics (psychologytoday.com).
In the case of Lilly’s antipsychotic drug Zyprexa, the four clinical trials that brought it onto the market gave rise to 234 publications, all advocating its efficacy, with none containing data on the increases in glucose or cholesterol levels or rates of suicide found in these trials that have since become the subject of legal actions. This drug is now being given to children as young as 12 months, even though it produces massive weight gain, triggers diabetes, raises lipids and causes premature deaths (Healy, p. 53). Some clinicians are even contemplating in-utero diagnoses.
Pharmaceutical companies are among the most profitable corporations on the planet and have no problem buying lobbyists and influence. Nowadays, regulatory authorities act as a ‘business partner’ of the pharmaceutical industry, and conflicts of interest are rife. In the past, says Healy, ‘it would have been considered scandalous to find senior regulators sitting down with industry representatives, academics enmeshed in industry, and patient groups that had been sponsored by industry to issue a ghostwritten consensus statement advocating the detection and treatment of disorders in a manner that can only increase the sales of drugs’ (p. 207). But this is now standard practice.
An estimated 90% of those who draw up drug-use guidelines have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry (Moynihan & Cassels, p. 4). Over half of the drug review work conducted by the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) is funded directly by the pharmaceutical industry, and a similar situation exists in many other countries, including Australia, Britain and Canada (Healy, p. 19). In 2001 an editorial in the high-profile journal The Lancet suggested that the FDA had become a ‘servant of industry’.
When faced with evidence that guideline-mandated drugs fail to make a difference, guideline makers sometimes attribute this to a delay in commencing treatment. In 2008 the American Association of Pediatricians recommended screening children as young as eight years old for raised cholesterol levels, and then possibly beginning treatment with a statin. Similarly, advocates of ‘mood stabilizers’ (which can cause brain damage) suggest treating ever younger children. David Healy comments:
there is a growing disenchantment with the Western way of doing things. And there is a growing likelihood that we in the West will be regarded as the new barbarians as we feed antipsychotic drugs to infants and envisage children as young as eight years old being put on drugs like the statins. (p. 263)
Drug-induced injuries are now the fourth leading cause of death in hospital settings and possibly the greatest single source of disability in the developed world (Healy, p. 11). Healthcare providers spend even more on remedying treatment-induced health problems than they do on drugs. Doctors tend to attribute any improvements in a patient’s state to the drug they prescribed and are more likely to blame any harm on the disease than on the treatment. They report only 1 in 100 serious adverse events on drug treatment to the regulator. Such reports are classed as anecdotal and unreliable, even though over 80% have turned out to be correct (p. 252).
Medical journals now self-censor and rarely report treatment risks, to avoid being sued. They rely heavily on drug-company advertising for their revenue and are eager to publish the latest clinical studies. In the 1950s and 60s entire symposiums were dedicated to the hazards of new treatments, whereas nowadays ‘it is as difficult to find mention of a treatment’s hazards at major academic meetings as it would be to find snow in the Sahara’ (Healy, p. 100).
Doctors were once an independent voice, but are now under increasing pressure from insurance managers, hospital bureaucrats, and others to hand out drugs in response to medical problems. The role of the modern doctor, says Healy, is ‘to “educate,” to cajole or coerce us into treatment for conditions we never knew we had, with treatments that in some instances are more likely to injure or kill us than improve our well-being’ (p. 13).
In drugs trials, companies tend to administer the drug in very high doses to reduce the chance of it failing to beat the placebo; that dose is then later given to all patients, even though it is likely to be too high in many cases. Up to half of all medical prescriptions are ‘off-label’, meaning that doctors prescribe drugs for ailments for which they have not been approved, because academic articles sponsored by the manufacturer have convinced them that the drugs are effective for that purpose.
Getting people off their medications has been found to reduce hospitalizations, cut costs and save lives, but doctors who take this approach are likely to be accused of withholding effective treatment and risk being sacked.
The marketing strategies of the world’s biggest drug companies now aggressively target the healthy and the well. The ups and downs of daily life have become mental disorders, common complaints are transformed into frightening conditions, and more and more ordinary people are turned into patients. ...
At a time when many of us are leading longer, healthier, and more vital lives than our ancestors, saturation advertising and slick ‘awareness-raising’ campaigns are turning the worried well into the worried sick. ...
With many health problems, there are people at the severe end of the spectrum suffering genuine illness, or at very high risk of it, who may benefit greatly from a medical label and a powerful medication. Yet for the relatively healthy people who are spread across the rest of the spectrum, a label and a drug may bring great inconvenience, enormous costs, and the very real danger of sometimes deadly side effects. (pp. ix-x)
It’s been known for 50 years that very high cholesterol levels can be a risk factor for heart attacks. In some cases this condition could be identified without a blood test by the ‘clinical gaze’ alone – from cholesterol deposits around the eyes (though nowadays doctors may spend more time looking at their computer screens than at their patients). The key risk factors for heart attacks and strokes are: obesity, a history of heart attacks or other cardiovascular events, smoking, and lack of exercise. Raised cholesterol is only a risk factor when one or more of these more serious risks are also present. So the best course of action is to lose weight, get fit and stop smoking.
In the 1990s statin drugs became widely used to lower cholesterol levels.
As guidelines on cholesterol management began to recommend ever lower cholesterol levels, results that would not have been seen as problematic only a few years previously, began to trigger panic in doctors. ... While the cholesterol-lowering statins grew to become a $30 billion a year market in the late 1990s, it was also becoming clear that simply lowering cholesterol did not provide a person much benefit. (Healy, pp. 169-70)
Some countries have adopted cholesterol and lipid level norms which imply that 94% of the population is abnormal – which is good news for Big Pharma.
Clinical trials show that statins increase overall mortality if the patients have no other significant risks for heart attacks.
In just the same way clinical trials suggest that Dianette or Ro-accutane for acne, beta-blockers for hypertension, beta-agonists (reliever inhalers) for asthma, blood-sugar-lowering agents for diabetes, rimonabant for weight loss, and varenicline or buproprion for smoking cessation can all trigger death, suicidality, or psychosis ... (Healy, p. 183)
As with cholesterol, ‘high’ blood pressure has been redefined over time in a way that has resulted in more and more healthy people being classified as ‘at risk’.
The number of people now said to be suffering from depression is thousands of times higher than the number diagnosed with melancholia in the past. Clinical trials with antidepressants, such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), show that only 1 in 10 patients responds specifically to the antidepressant, whereas 4 in every 10 treated with a placebo show a response. The idea that depression is caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical serotonin is completely mythical; it was invented by the marketing department of SmithKline Beecham, the maker of Paxil (an SSRI) (Healy, pp. 83-4).
Antidepressants are associated with serious side effects and higher mortality. They used to be rarely prescribed prenatally but are now among the commonest drugs given in pregnancy, despite convincing evidence that they double the rate of birth defects and miscarriages (Healy, p. 178). These drugs are used to treat a wide range of conditions, including seasonal affective disorder (depression associated with late autumn and winter), compulsive shopping disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, autism, and a severe form of premenstrual syndrome.
The US leads the world in pill popping. It accounts for 5% of the world’s population but consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. Many elderly people are on 10 drugs or more. There are more overdose deaths in the US from prescription drugs than from street drugs. 20% of the population regularly pops one or more psychiatric pills (psychologytoday.com; wired.com).
In 2004, more than a decade after antidepressants first appeared on the market, the FDA finally issued warnings that they might lead to suicide in children, and later extended the warnings to adults. It was shamed into doing so by public hearings at which the mothers of children who had committed suicide while on the drugs spoke out against the pharmaceutical industry’s dishonesty and the FDA’s complicity. The FDA has since issued suicide warnings for anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and various drugs for smoking cessation, acne, flu, asthma, weight loss and urinary incontinence (pp. 228-31).
Manic-depressive illness was once a rare, serious condition affecting 10 people per million, who invariably had to be admitted to hospital. It has now been replaced by ‘bipolar disorder’, which is supposedly a global epidemic, affecting up to 50,000 people per million. TV advertising in the United States and patient educational material in Europe encourage people to complete self-assessments and then ask their doctor whether they require medication for bipolar disorder. There are even clothes and accessories available for those who want to celebrate their ‘bipolarity’. Moreover, ‘efforts are now underway to persuade primary care clinicians that a wide range of the minor nervous problems they see are indicative of underlying bipolar disorder rather than anxiety or depression, and that these patients should be treated with newer and more costly mood stabilizers ..., rather than older and cheaper antidepressants or tranquilizers’ (Healy, p. 37). The drug Depakote, for example, has become a billion-dollar global blockbuster, even though no controlled trials have ever demonstrated its effectiveness.
Based on the latest diagnostic criteria, there has been a huge surge in the number of children being diagnosed with behavioural disorders, including bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, Asperger’s disorder and depression. Overactive and fidgety children are now classed as suffering from ADHD, and feeding them pills to correct supposed ‘chemical imbalances’ tends to take precedence over more traditional, psychotherapeutic approaches. In the United States, 9.5% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. One critic remarks: ‘Vast sums of money are wasted on expensive ADHD drugs that would better be invested in smaller class sizes and more physical education’ (psychologytoday.com).
Young adults are by far the fastest-growing group of people taking ADHD medications. In 2011 nearly 14 million monthly prescriptions for the condition were written for Americans aged 20 to 39. Dale Archer writes: ‘Practitioners are handing out Ritalin and Adderall like it’s Halloween candy, and perfectly healthy young men and women, be they the college student cramming for a test or the football player looking for an edge on game day, are becoming addicted to stimulants with tragic consequences.’ For example, Richard Fee, an American student, persuaded his doctor to prescribe Adderall (an amphetamine) for ADHD; his growing addiction led to a downward spiral of delusion, anger and depression, and he hanged himself in 2011 (nytimes.com).
We’re turning all kinds of individual traits into medical conditions. ... Like everything else, [ADHD] exists along a continuum from 1 to 10. At the 9 and 10 and 10+ extreme, it may well require meds, but for those lower on the scale we need to mandate the inherent advantages of the trait. A love of multi-tasking, resilience, high energy, willingness to take risks, outgoing, optimistic and doing well in times of turmoil are just a few of the many positives that may be seen with this trait. (psychologytoday.com)
Taking amphetamines will improve the concentration of virtually everyone, even horses, but that does not automatically mean that it is a wise choice. Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels say that it is an obscenity that billions are spent every year diagnosing and medicating children whose symptoms include ‘often fidgets with hands or feet’ and prescribing lifelong amphetamines to adults who ‘drum their fingers’ while every year millions of children and adults die early from preventable and treatable life-threatening diseases (p. 81).
Nowadays, one-third of postmenopausal women are said to suffer from osteoporosis and to be at greater risk of fractures. This is because scans show that bones in some part of their body have densities that are a certain amount lower than the densities found in women in their twenties. Women who fall in between the supposed optimal bone state and the new diseased state are said to suffer from a new condition known as osteopenia (literally, ‘less bone’). Like so many other ordinary aspects of life, the thinning of bones that goes with age has been transformed into a widespread disease. Bone density makes only a minor contribution to the risk of fractures; campaigns to encourage physical exercise and prevent falls among the elderly are far more cost-effective than prescribing biophosphonates. These drugs can cause pain, gastric distress, bone death, eye problems and cardiac problems, and can also increase the risk of fractures (Healy, p. 174).
Impotence in males and frigidity in females have been replaced by erectile dysfunction and female sexual disorder respectively, which – predictably – have become far more prevalent than they ever used to be. Experiments with rabbits have been used to study the effects of poor blood flow to the female genitals, and drug-company campaigns have suggested that nearly half of all women suffer from female sexual dysfunction (Moynihan & Cassels, pp. 176, 184-5). As for ‘restless legs syndrome’, this disorder was conjured up to provide a market for GlaxoSmithKline’s Requip drug.
The upsurge in asthma over the last 30 years went hand in hand with the growing use of peak flow meters (for measuring respiratory flow). The norms adopted mean that many people are now diagnosed as asthmatic who would not have been diagnosed as such 40 years ago. As a result, says Healy, ‘many of us are now only one bout of wheezing or coughing away from our GP discovering we have reduced peak flow rates and then putting us on inhalers’ (p. 160). There is little or no research into how our diets, lifestyles or environments might be contributing to the rise in asthma diagnoses; there is no pressure to research a disease that is not usually fatal and for which the drugs available are so lucrative.
After antibiotics had largely banished ulcers, some companies started promoting gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD) – yet another disease that has now become widespread. However, many digestive discomforts might be better handled by changing diet and lifestyle. Healy comments:
Quite extraordinarily GERD has even spread into infancy, incorporating colic, a disorder that lasts a few months and responds to care in the real sense. The first drug treatment for GERD in infants – Prepulsid (cisapride) – killed significant numbers of children where colic had never been known to kill children before. (pp. 53-4)
The side effects of drugs have triggered a string of lawsuits. For example, Lilly has settled over $2 billion worth of claims concerning Zyprexa (a mood stabilizer), because it raises cholesterol and causes diabetes and other metabolic problems. But side effects also allow pharmaceutical companies to sell ever more drugs to manage the problems caused. For instance:
Avandia and Lipitor are given to manage the diabetes and raised cholesterol triggered by a guideline-mandated drug like Zyprexa rather than rejecting this newer drug and returning instead to older, off-patent, less expensive drugs that would be much less likely to cause these problems. (Healy, p. 238)
Lipitor is a statin, with all the hazards such drugs entail. Avandia is now known to increase the risk of cardiac events and death, but the manufacturer (GlaxoSmithKline) managed to conceal this evidence for years (pp. 232-3).
The mission of medicine is to help the sick and dying, restore function, and eliminate diseases wherever possible. However, drug companies would suffer a drop in revenue if they were to develop innovative treatments that eradicated a condition for which they have profitable on-patent drugs that manage it to some extent. When the patent on a drug runs out, a company can simply make a minor change to it and repatent it under a new brand name. Large pharmaceutical companies like Lilly and Pfizer now spend more on marketing than on research and development. They are interested not so much in saving our life or improving our quality of life, but in inventing new disorders and giving us a treatment for life. As David Healy says, the pharmaceutical industry’s main aim ‘has increasingly been to protect its patents and its profits’ (p. 61).
Allopathic medicine focuses primarily on treating disease rather than on promoting health and thereby preventing disease. In The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno explain that natural medicine seeks to facilitate and enhance the body’s innate healing power by means of safe, natural, nontoxic therapies. It adopts a holistic approach, seeing an individual as a complex interaction of physical, mental, spiritual, social and other factors. The aim is to identify and treat the underlying causes of a disease – whether physical or mental-emotional – rather than simply suppress the symptoms, which are expressions of the body’s attempt to heal itself. Naturopathic physicians encourage patients to assume more responsibility for their health by adopting a healthy diet, lifestyle and outlook. They apply a variety of healing techniques, including clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy, acupuncture, massage, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, counselling, and minor surgery.
Murray and Pizzorno write:
The fundamental difference between naturopathy and allopathy is that the allopathic physician tends to view good health primarily as a physical state in which there is no obvious disease present. In contrast, naturopathic physicians recognize true health as the state of optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. ...
A naturopathic doctor tends to use treatments designed to enhance the immune system, while most conventional doctors tend to use treatments designed to kill the invading organism. (pp. 7-8)
The obsession with infective agents began with the 19th-century physician Louis Pasteur, the father of the germ theory of disease. Other contemporary scientists, however, such as Claude Bernard and Élie Metchnikoff, argued that a person’s susceptibility to infection was more important than the pathogen itself. The best way to deal with infectious disease was therefore to focus on enhancing the body’s own defences. To demonstrate this, Metchnikoff and his associates consumed cultures containing millions of cholera bacteria; none of them developed cholera thanks to their robust immune systems.
There is no doubt that advances in conventional medicine can produce life-saving results when used appropriately. This applies, for instance, to antibiotics, but overprescription of them has led to the development of ‘superbugs’, which are resistant to all currently available antibiotics. Murray and Pizzorno believe that the need to restrict the use of antibiotics will force conventional medical thinkers to look more closely at how to enhance resistance against infection. In doing so they might discover the healing power of nature; a growing body of knowledge supports the use of whole foods, nutritional supplements, and a healthful lifestyle and attitude in improving our immunity (p. 9).
The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine provides thoroughly-referenced information and advice on numerous medical conditions. The differences between allopathy and naturopathy can be illustrated by how they tackle osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease (Murray & Pizzorno, pp. 9-10). The main drugs used to treat osteoarthritis are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are associated with side effects such as gastrointestinal upset, headaches and dizziness. About 7000 Americans die every year from ulcers produced by the older NSAIDs, while newer versions increase the risk of death due to heart damage, and carry a significant risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Over 60,000 people in the United States may have died from side effects in the first five years after these drugs were approved. Clinical studies have shown that in the long run they may accelerate joint destruction and block cartilage repair.
The natural approach to osteoarthritis, on the other hand, facilitates the body’s natural healing process. Glucosamine sulfate, for example, increases the rate of cartilage formation and improves the health of the cartilage, thereby reducing symptoms such as pain, and helping the body repair damaged joints. Comparison studies with NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen, piroxicam and celecoxib) have shown that glucosamine sulfate provides comparable or greater benefit, while having no side effects. NSAIDS provide faster symptom relief, but within a few months glucosamine sulfate results in greater symptom relief.
More than 5.5 million children in the United States take amphetamine-type drugs for ADHD every day. While these drugs relieve symptoms, studies have failed to demonstrate long-term benefits. In fact, these drugs are associated with a high prevalence of adverse effects, such as decreased appetite, sleep problems, anxiety and irritability. The role of nutritional and environmental factors in causing ADHD is increasingly being recognized, and various nutritional supplements have proved to have beneficial effects (Murray & Pizzorno, pp. 345-6).
Over 28 million Americans take antidepressant drugs, yet 25% of them do not have depression or a diagnosable psychiatric problem. Moreover, these drugs do not work in most cases and can increase the likelihood of suicide in both adults and children. One of the most powerful techniques for helping depressed individuals is teaching them to be more optimistic. Increased participation in exercise, sports and physical activities also decreases anxiety and depression. Over 25 double-blind studies have shown that St John’s wort (a herbal remedy) is at least as effective as standard antidepressant drugs and has significantly fewer side effects (Murray & Pizzorno, pp. 499-500).
Allopathic and naturopathic approaches can be used together.
In addition to being used as primary therapy, naturopathic medicine is valuable as a complementary approach to conventional medicine, especially in severe illnesses that require pharmacological and/or surgical intervention, such as cancer, angina, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and trauma. For example, a patient with severe congestive heart failure who requires drugs such as digoxin and furosemide can benefit from the appropriate use of thiamine, carnitine, and coenzyme Q10 supplementation. Although there are double-blind studies demonstrating the value of these agents as complementary therapies in congestive heart failure, they are rarely prescribed by conventional medical doctors in the United States. (Murray & Pizzorno, pp. 10-11)
The reason for the strong bias against natural medicine is that
many doctors are simply not educated in the value of nutrition and other natural therapies. In fact, most were told during their education that alternative medicines are worthless. Many doctors are not aware of, or choose to ignore, data on beneficial natural therapies such as diet, exercise, and dietary supplements, even if the data are overwhelmingly positive. (p. 13)
[S]cientific studies and observations have upheld the validity not only of diet, nutritional supplements, and herbal medicines but also of some of the more esoteric natural healing treatments, including acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation, and homeopathy. (pp. 16-17)
Even in mainstream medicine there is a trend toward using natural substances rather than synthetic drugs, including compounds naturally found in the human body such as interferon, interleukin, insulin and human growth hormone.
According to Murray and Pizzorno, the body has two internal mechanisms to maintain health:
The first is the inherent internal healing mechanism, vital force, chi, or primitive life support and repair mechanism that operates even in a person who is asleep, unconscious, or comatose. The second mechanism involves the power of the mind and emotions to intervene and affect the course of health and disease in a way that enhances or supersedes the body’s innate vital force. (p. 19)
The placebo effect – where a patient reacts positively to a placebo as if it were an active medication – is initiated by the mind but leads to a series of measurable physiological effects. Studies have shown that both the placebo effect and particular emotions produce demonstrable changes in brain activity. For example, expectation or hope can stimulate a part of the brain activated by pain medications and associated with pain relief. The placebo effect produces numerous changes in chemical mediators of pain, inflammation and mood. In clinical trials about 32% of patients respond to a placebo, but in some real-life clinical circumstances the figure may be as high as 80 to 90%. As Murray and Pizzorno say, ‘Rather than discounting and trying to avoid a placebo response, modern medicine should be more intent on developing techniques and practices designed to stimulate the same healing centers within patients as noted in these studies with placebos’ (p. 20).
The placebo response depends on the belief and expectation of both the patient and the physician, and on how these two individuals interact. The opposite of the placebo effect is known as the nocebo effect, where negative beliefs and expectations adversely affect our health. Patients of a warm, caring physician will experience better results and fewer medication-related side effects than patients of a cold, uncaring physician. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the effectiveness of faith, prayer and meditation in healing. Prayer and meditation can evoke the body’s relaxation response, which involves decreases in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, and sometimes blood pressure. Over 50 studies have shown that religious practices can help decrease the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes (Murray & Pizzorno, p. 24).
‘Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.’ (Chinese proverb)
Life is full of events that are beyond our control, but what we can control is how we respond to the challenges we face. A positive frame of mind is the real foundation for optimal health. Positive emotions, such as joy, happiness and optimism, tend to boost our immune system, whereas negative emotions, such as depression, sadness and pessimism, tend to suppress it. Over 150 clinical studies have shown that stress impairs the immune system’s ability to fight infection and contributes to the development of poor health and disease. However, stress can be controlled or overcome by, among other things, learning to manage time and communicate effectively, good nutrition, regular exercise, and learning to calm the mind and promote a positive mental attitude (pp. 217-8).
‘If you want to have a healthy immune system,’ say Murray and Pizzorno, ‘you need to laugh often, view life with a positive eye, and put yourself in a relaxed state of mind on a regular basis’ (p. 173). The first step is to take personal responsibility for all aspects of our lives.
Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels, Selling Sickness: How the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are turning us all into patients, New York: Nation Books, 2005
Michael T. Murray and Joseph Pizzorno, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, New York: Atria Books, 3rd ed., 2012 (e-book) (Google Books)
Reclaiming our health: germ theory exposed
Health and disease: theosophical quotations
Vaccination and homeopathy
Malignant medical myths
HIV=AIDS=Death: a killer myth
Ozone, influenza and the causes of disease