Needed: A New Medical Breakthrough

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If you are of a certain age, you may be taking a number of prescription drugs. If so, you spend time waiting at the drug store for your prescriptions to be filled. (And will be spending more time there, now that Uncle has decided to pick up at least a portion of the tab for drugs!) The next time you’re so occupied, notice the large number of non-prescription supplements offered for sale. Vitamins, minerals, herbs — you name it. There are dozens — maybe hundreds — of do-it-yourself remedies.

Or check out "alternative medicine" on the Internet. Tens of thousands of web pages devoted to treatments that are not likely to be ordered by your family doctor. Is there some significance to this? In my opinion, the significance is that people are dissatisfied with orthodox medicine, and seek treatments that are cheaper and, hopefully, better. This, of course, opens the door for quackery of all types, but it would be irresponsible to tar all alternative medical practices with that brush.

Consider drugs. They are a mainstay of modern medicine. Physicians, especially in non-surgical specialties, prescribe them frequently. Indeed, it might be said that prescribing drugs is the heart of many medical practices. Doctors learn about new drugs from drug salesmen — the so-called "detail men" — and from articles in medical journals. Naturally, it is to these drugs that physicians turn when the patient’s illness would seem to indicate treatment by such drugs. Drug companies have even begun advertising directly to patients, who, I suppose, are expected to request that their doctor prescribe this new and wonderful pill!

Do physicians ever advise their patients to take substances that are NOT drugs? Well, perhaps vitamins, or mineral supplements. And, of course, food and water. But other, non-prescription remedies? Rarely, if ever. Why not? Probably because they’ve never heard of them. When I was practicing medicine, I prescribed eye drops to lower ocular pressure in people with glaucoma, or who were apt to develop it. If a patient whose pressure was difficult to control appeared with a remarkably improved pressure, and attributed it to a tea that she had brewed from dandelion greens from her back yard, I would have been intrigued, but not apt to recommend it to other patients.

Why not? Well, for one thing, I wouldn’t know exactly what the patient was putting into his/her body, upon my recommendation. And, surprise!, malpractice concerns rear their ugly head. Malpractice is defined as deviation from the standard of care in the community; and I assure you, dandelion tea is NOT the standard of care for the treatment of glaucoma! And besides, doesn’t the very idea of sipping a tea made out of garden weeds seem ridiculous?

That’s what I thought when I learned of the Budwig diet, popularized in Germany some years ago. It has been used — with reported success — in treating cancer, but how can it possibly be of benefit, since it consists of a mixture of cottage cheese and flax oil! Laughable! Cancer is a terribly serious disease. Are you going to cure it with a few dollars worth of stuff from the grocery and the health-food store? Ridiculous!

But then I stopped laughing and started thinking. Yes, cancer is a terribly serious disease. But are you going to cure it with horribly expensive and sickening chemicals created in a lab? If that were possible, cancer wouldn’t be the scourge that it is. And why do people get cancer in the first place? Is it because of a lack of some sophisticated artificial molecules in their diet? Of course not. If a lack of these elaborate chemicals doesn’t cause cancer, how can ingesting them cure it? I realize that this is not a scientific analysis, by a long shot, but if cancer can be thought of as caused by some defect in our biochemistry or metabolism — some lack of a vital nutrient, for example — then treating it should consist in supplying that nutrient, not bombarding the body with toxic substances.

And it dawned on me that simple substances can cure, or prevent, serious diseases — and, in fact, do so every day. Scurvy, if untreated, is invariably fatal. A cure can be achieved with fruit juice! Beri-beri is also fatal in a high percentage of cases. A simple change in diet is curative; no complex artificial chemicals required. Rickets can cause severe deformity and crippling in children: sunlight will prevent and treat it!

And the lady who successfully treated her glaucoma with dandelion tea? I made her up. But the scenario is not altogether implausible. In the late 18th century, Dr. Wm Withering, one of Britain’s most esteemed physicians, was confronted by a patient with severe heart failure, to whom he had little to offer. His death was expected. However, the fellow decided to try the 18th century equivalent of alternative medicine: he found a gypsy healer who brewed him some tea, and he improved remarkably. Withering was intrigued, and finally tracked down the gypsy and learned her secret. Her remedy was a concoction based upon the purple foxglove, digitalis purpura. Withering incorporated it into his practice, and revolutionized the treatment of heart failure. The active ingredient of foxglove — digitalis — is still used today.

What medicine needs today is more Witherings! Of course, in his day, malpractice wasn’t a problem, and powerful drug companies didn’t produce sophisticated chemical concoctions touted to treat and cure. Nor did the government dictate what was, or wasn’t, the practice of medicine, which it then regulated.

The Budwig diet, or apricot kernels, or other alternative treatments, may not cure cancer. Do conventional, orthodox, drug treatments cure it? I think if I were diagnosed with cancer, I’d prefer cottage cheese and flax oil to expensive drugs that would sicken and impoverish me! At least I’d like to be free to choose, without being regarded as a crackpot.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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