I’ve been a huge fan of holistic medicine for some time now, I must admit. It’s not that I dislike the NHS or anything because I don’t – in fact, I think it’s one of Britain’s greatest inventions and one that has done wonders for the health of the nation in general, and women’s health in particular, since it was set up in 1948.
Having lived in California for a couple of years around the turn of the Millennium, I saw first-hand what not being able to afford healthcare via a private insurance scheme meant. And the concomitant fear of getting sick, or losing your job, and not being able to afford help made me value the Health Service even more – although things have undoubtedly got better over the pond since the introduction of Obamacare, otherwise known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, in 2010.
Only 9.2% of the US population are now not covered by any health insurance compared with 15.7% when the Act was signed into law, although the Medicaid scheme continues to be available for the most vulnerable and those on the lowest incomes.
Anyway, one of the reasons that I started looking for alternatives to allopathic medicine was the fact that, in many instances, it seemed like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And the side effects, in my experience anyway, were sometimes almost worse than the original condition.
A more holistic approach taking in mind, body and spirit also made intrinsic sense to me seeing as each of us comprises all of those things and all of them inevitably interact with each other.
So over the years, I’ve tried a goodly assortment of natural or complementary health remedies ranging from homeopathy and Five Elements acupuncture to applied kinesiology and Reiki energy healing, generally to positive effect, no matter what the sceptics say.
But there will always be a special place in my heart for herbal medicine. Not only do I love plants, but the practice has also been part of our culture and heritage since time immemorial, handed down from generation to generation long before pharmaceutical drugs came on the scene.
Moreover, many of these drugs are simply the synthesised versions of active ingredients found in plants anyway – only they don’t usually contain the range of compounds that buffer and counteract some of the worst side effects of chemical pills and potions. Examples of such active ingredients include aspirin (to treat pain, fever and inflammation), quinine (for malaria) and ephedrine (to relieve asthma and hay fever).
But I’m not the only herbal medicine fan, it seems. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 20% of the British population opt to use herbal products at some point in their lives, while around three million people consult herbalists each year.
Anyway, I recently decided to take it just that little bit further and start a home-study course on the subject, which although difficult to squeeze into a hectic work and social schedule, has so far proved fascinating.
Sadly though, herbal medicine does seem to have been a practice under siege for some time. The introduction of the European Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive in 2004, which took full effect in the UK some seven years later, required all mass-produced herbal remedies to be authorised for sale by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority, which also licences pharmaceutical drugs.
The move followed reports of harm having been done to people by herbal products manufactured on an industrial-scale as they were believed to have contained dangerous herbs, the wrong constituents or toxic contaminants. This situation led to the banning of specific herbs and the licensing of mass-produced products, although trained herbalists were still permitted to create and dispense their own concoctions – if they had the facilities in place, that is.
The next inevitable step though was to explore whether herbal practitioners should be regulated or not and whether it made sense to list authorised personnel on a statutory register. But an enquiry led by Professor David Walker, former deputy chief medical officer for England, concluded in a report published in March last year that they shouldn’t.
The quality of research around herbal medicine was insufficient to prove that it actually worked or not, he attested, making it impossible to set standards of good practice. But opinion in the herbalist community and elsewhere was split over whether the outcome was a good or a bad thing.
Some worried that, because any Tom, Dick or Harry can currently set themselves up as a practitioner, failure to regulate could put public health at risk and/or bring the profession into disrepute. Others were concerned, on the other hand, that it could act as a stepping-stone to banning herbal practice entirely.
Just before Christmas though, it seems, the government chose to quietly drop the entire matter rather than make a ruling one way or the other – and so that, for the time being at least, is that.
Homeopathy and the placebo effect
Another complementary practice that is also seemingly under threat, however, is homeopathy. Ministers are now planning to hold a consultation later this year on whether to place it on a blacklist of treatments in order to prevent GPs in England from prescribing it.
The move followed warnings last year from the so-called Good Thinking Society, a campaigning group that promotes “scientific scepticism”, to take their vocal case against homeopathy to the courts – at which point Department of Health legal advisers told the BBC that ministers had decided a consultation was in order.
But the NHS itself is sceptical as to the efficacy of homeopathy anyway, it seems. On its website, the body cites a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, which stated that such remedies perform “no better than placebos”. The report also claimed that the principles on which homeopathy are based are “scientifically implausible” – a view likewise held by chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies.
But, even if the Good Thinking Society were to get its way, the result of any consultation would only have an impact on the small number of GPs who currently prescribe homeopathic drugs anyway. These cost the NHS an estimated £110,000 per year, a tiny fraction of its overall whopping £15 billion annual drugs bill.
It wouldn’t make any difference to the people who either buy homeopathic treatments over the counter or go to private practitioners or homeopathic hospitals, which make up the bulk of the sector’s trade today.
Just to return to the concept of the placebo effect for a moment, however. Although it is generally talked about in a rather sniffy way, it always seems to me that it doesn’t actually matter too much where healing comes from as long as it’s effective.
In fact, I’ve often thought that one of the reasons complementary medicine possibly does work so well for so many is that practitioners actually take the time to talk to and nurture people who are all too often lonely, unhappy or simply don’t feel listened to in lives that often demand much and seem to give little in return. It’s a much broader definition of caring than is often dished out, but in my experience a smile and a kind word can go a long way to promote healing.
Another consideration is that if people believe they are getting pill-shaped help, it can often have a massive impact on their physical health. Thoughts and beliefs, it appears, can materially change our physiology and make a huge difference to our physical wellbeing for positive or negative as we effectively start to heal ourselves.
Which, perhaps counter-intuitively for some, does actually make a strong case for a more holistic mind, body and spirit/emotions approach after all.