There’s a common misperception that integrative and alternative techniques such as naturopathic medicine are somehow not scientific because they are not ‘proven’ through research.
When I hear these criticisms, it takes me back to my grade school days, when I was told that, according to science, it was impossible for a bumble fee to fly.
“It’s impossible for bumble bees to fly”
Back when I was in grade school, we were told that, according to all the available knowledge in aerodynamics at the time, bumble bees shouldn’t be able to fly. If one measured the size and speed of the bumble bee’s wings, and compared it to the weight of the bumble bee, mathematically, it was impossible for the creature to fly.
It turns out that in time, and after some advances in high speed photography, new calculations were able to be made. Scientists were able to see that the wings of the bumble bee fill up like a parachute on the down-stroke, greatly increasing the surface area of the wing.
Taking this new information into account, scientists were able to redo their calculations and declared that the bumble bee could indeed fly, much to the relief of bumble bees around the world.
Working in natural health care is an exercise in following research and looking at “bumble bees”.
In asthma, for example, there is a fair amount of research that shows that a good diet, antioxidants, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids can all help improve symptoms. In addition, we are getting great results from giving betaine hydrochloric acid, improving digestion, providing adrenal support and recommending chiropractic adjustments to people with asthma, even though there is not a lot of research to support it.
Colleagues of mine that are locked into the medical model are fond of saying things like, “The research just isn’t there; you really need to be more scientific.” I often point out that this statement is contradictory on two fronts: 1) science encompasses much more than just research and 2) much of medicine is not based on research or science.
The difference between science and research
There is a difference between science and research. Anecdotal information, clinical observations, statistics, research and other information are all part of science. Science forms theories based on earlier observations that can then be tested to provide additional information and insight.
For instance, if you know that research shows a strong correlation between oxidative stress and asthma symptoms, and you know that poor digestion leads to oxidative stress, it is not much of a stretch to expect that improving digestion will help improve asthma symptoms. The science indicates an approach that has a high probability of achieving the desired result.
Research entails testing a theory to determine if there is a cause and effect relationship between a variable (in our case, improving digestion) and an outcome (in our example, asthma symptoms). However, there are several reasons why this type of research-reliance is inadequate for gathering meaningful data when it comes to health care.
One of the problems with this approach is that people diagnosed with diseases have a wide variety of symptoms and underlying causes. Medical practice is fond of using diagnoses as a way to characterize symptoms into discrete disease diagnoses; this allows them to follow a scientific method (i.e. grouping symptoms) to arrive at an endpoint (i.e., a diagnosis) that allows them to provide a solution (i.e., a drug, surgery, etc.).
This approach assumes that everyone with that disease is similar in some significant way (they all have the same or a similar set of symptoms) that will allow the medical provider to use a single course of action to help alleviate those symptoms. This is a mainstay of medicine, and also one of its greatest downfalls.
Everyone is different, so no diagnosis should be the same
This simple, well known fact is lost in the medical-research-based mentality. What we find in practice is that every person that comes in with a diagnosed disease (i.e., asthma) has a unique set of underlying imbalances leading to the symptoms that lead to the diagnosis.
Because of this fact, each person needs a unique program to help correct their specific underlying imbalances. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ medical-approach simply doesn’t work in the majority of these cases.
Let’s use our example of asthma for illustrative purposes. Research has shown that many people with asthma respond favorably to a diet rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and/or magnesium. This is because deficiencies in these substances can lead to asthma-symptoms in many people.
However, some, but not all people that have asthma also suffer from improper digestion. Those that have improper digestion will experience relief from asthma symptoms if they receive therapies to improve digestion. Those that do not have improper digestion won’t see much benefit from these therapies.
If you then conduct ‘research’ over a cross-population of asthmatics where a significant number do not suffer from improper digestion, you will not find a significant benefit in symptoms by taking steps to improve digestion. The ‘research’ would lead you to believe that improving digestion is not beneficial to relieve asthma symptoms.
Everyone is different and needs a tailored approach.
Medical approaches not based on science or research
There is a common misperception that medicinal approaches are built upon a solid scientific basis. This is often not the case.
Statin drugs provide a great example. Statin drugs are a $25 billion per year industry. However, if you look at the research, these drugs really don’t do a lot to prevent heart attacks. In most studies, the death rate in the placebo group and the statin group is about the same, even though the drugs may decrease overall and/or LDL cholesterol.
What’s going on? Why are these drugs being sold to prevent heart attacks?
One reason: incomplete information. The premise with statin drugs is this: high LDL cholesterol is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, statin drugs decrease LDL cholesterol, so therefore it is assumed that statin drugs decrease heart attacks.
This is a viable theory. It is scientific. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.
If statin drugs ONLY decreased LDL cholesterol, this theory might hold true. But these drugs do a lot more than that. In particular, these drugs prevent the formation of and cause the destruction of coenzyme Q10, and low coenzyme Q10 levels are known to be a predisposing factor to heart failure.
It is also known that one of the side effects of statin drugs is muscle destruction. Since the heart is a (very important) muscle, statin drugs will adversely affect its function. Thus, while statin drugs may decrease LDL cholesterol, which benefits the heart, they also deplete a very important nutrient essential for its function and can lead to its destruction.
Looking at all the available information provides a more complete picture.
Naturopathic medicine uses all available information
Science incorporates lots of sources of information, including (but not limited to) research.
Many natural therapies have a long history of use and scientists continue to discover new mechanisms of action. As a natural health care provider, we use the latest available information to provide recommendations that address each persons unique underlying imbalances to remove obstacles to health and provide the building blocks necessary to rebuild and repair those imbalances.
It is all based on a scientific approach using the best information science has to offer.
Is it complete? Not yet.
Is it proven? Nothing is.
Is it based in science? Absolutely.
Does it work? In most cases, it works exceptionally well. And the reason it works is that it is based on the fundamental truth that if the underlying imbalances are identified and addressed, the body will heal.
Our clinic has the tagline, ‘Where Healing is a Science’ for our clinic because we stress a scientific approach in our clinical work. We design our recommendations incorporating the most recent research and understanding about the healing therapies we use. We stand by them because they work.
Truth is truth, whether the research has caught up to it or not. After all, bumble bees flew long before we could prove it was possible.
(NIDA – “The term “science-validated” means that these programs have been rationally designed based on current knowledge, rigorously tested, and shown to produce positive results.” – National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, NIH Pub. No. 07-5605, Printed April 2007.)