Most of you already know that the way I practice medicine is with the goal of integrating both allopathic/modern-day conventional medical diagnostics and treatments with those that are more integrative/holistic. Striking a balance between the two is a challenge and an art, and one that I’ll be honing for the rest of my career. But I believe that both approaches have their value and their use.
The more I practice integratively, however, the more I notice a pervasive myth about holistic/complementary medicine that’s beginning to bug me: at some level, nearly all of us believe the holistic approach is generally slower, more subtle (or weaker, depending on how you choose to phrase it), and safer than the conventional approach.
While there are good reasons for this broad-stroke generalization (surgery and antibiotics, after all, can certainly act quickly when truly needed, and acupuncture, for example, has a remarkably low risk of side-effects), they’re not completely true. While the holistic approach is often gentler and more, well, holistic, than the conventional approach, that doesn’t necessarily make it weak. Or slow. Or even, in some cases, safe. In fact, in some cases holistic options can be faster, stronger, or even more dangerous than the conventional approach.
This first story is, not surprisingly, one about myself and one of my dogs. If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know one of my dogs is an arthritic 15-year-old named Simon. He’s doing quite well, but about a year ago, he happened to fall off the bed and hurt himself. Whereas a young dog might jump up after a fall like that and act like nothing happened, an arthritic dog won’t come out of it as easily.
When Simon fell, I heard him hit the ground from across the house. He righted himself after a few seconds, but he limped as he did so. I examined him and found nothing seriously wrong, but I knew the limp would get worse if I didn’t do something about it. I had a choice between starting with conventional pain pills or starting with herbs. Interestingly, as much as I liked the idea of using gentle herbs, at that moment I really just wanted my dog to be out of pain. Thinking that the pills were stronger and would work much more quickly than herbs, I gave Simon a couple of pills.
But he didn’t get better. Instead, as the night wore on, his pain continued to escalate. Within two hours of taking the pills (after which point they should clearly have kicked in), Simon was unable to place any weight at all on his hurt leg, and he was starting to whimper. Which of course made me desperate. It was too soon to safely give him any more of the drugs he’d already taken, but I did have herbs handy, so I figured what the heck…. I made up an herb concoction, hid it in some food, and fed it to him.
And, within 30 minutes, he was walking on all four paws again. Not completely normal, mind you (did I mention he’s 15?), but dramatically better. Intrigued, the next morning I decided to treat him only with herbs for a few days, and see what happened. In response, he recovered far more quickly than I expected, and was ready for his morning walk again within just a couple of days.
There was still a part of me that didn’t want to attribute this to the herbs. After all, maybe the drugs just happened to kick in just after I’d given the herbs. Or maybe the injury wasn’t as severe as it had at first seemed. I didn’t really want to experiment on him if doing so would cause him pain, but I also really wanted to know what was helping. So, once he seemed to have recovered, I stopped the herbs abruptly. Within a day, he was limping again. I re-started the herbs, and the limping stopped.
That was the end of my experimentation in that particular case. I treated Simon for a couple more weeks, and gradually weaned him off the herbs much as I would have weaned him off of pain meds. But, lest I give the impression of learning this lesson completely on the first go-round, I assure you that this was only the first of a string of similar experiences with a variety of patients. Lesson (eventually) learned: while it can be true that herbs and other ‘alternative’ modalities can take longer to kick in than conventional drugs, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the opposite is actually true.
I don’t have a personal story about this one, but I do have some historical context to offer. There’s an idea that alternative modalities are, in general, so gentle that they cannot possibly cause any harm. In particular, many people are under the impression that herbs and supplements come devoid of side effects. Which isn’t true.
Remember how Socrates died? That was an herbal brew.
Also, before the development of modern anesthesia, physicians would sometimes rely on herbs like poppy (opium) and mandrake to render their patients unconscious for surgery. While this was certainly preferable to brute force, consciousness-altering herbs are notoriously dangerous, and it can apparently be difficult to strike a balance between inadequate anesthesia and death.
And, lest we think herbs are devoid of side effects, some people and animals have died or been maimed with the use of herbs. The numbers are likely not nearly what they are for conventional drugs. However, to say that herbs are harmless is to overlook their complexity and very real medicinal power. They need to be used as responsibly as any drug.
Conventional medications can certainly be potent, and they have their place. But in many of the patients I see, it happens that alternative modalities work BETTER than conventional drugs. Sometimes this is because the alternative treatment is stronger. Usually, though, it’s more the case that the action needed by a particular patient just isn’t available in the drug categories to which allopathic medicine is limited.
I have several patients who, like my own dog, HAVE been on conventional drugs for chronic pain, but it turns out that they find more relief with alternative modalities.
This is often the case with chronic immune dysfunction as well, such as allergies, recurrent infections, and autoimmune diseases. Whereas conventional medicine is typically limited to potent immunosuppressive drugs, the immune-modulating effects of certain foods, herbs, and supplements are typically far more nuanced, and as a result can sometimes be far more effective.
That was certainly true for Tootsie, pictured below. After struggling for nearly a year with conventional medications to try to control an autoimmune disease that affected her face, she switched to herbs and has been able to keep disease flares to a bare minimum. Looking at her now, you wouldn’t even know anything is wrong.
Holistic/integrative modalities have good reason to be widely considered more gentle, slower, and more subtle in their actions than many conventional drugs. Often, this is the case. But to think of themonly in these terms is inaccurate. Really, holistic modalities are just different than conventional treatments.
If we can be a bit more open-minded about them, and think of them more as additional tools coming from a different perspective, we can be better prepared to seek out the help our pets need when problems arise.