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I believe strongly in an individual’s right to make personal choices and this is particularly true when it comes to things like religion, politics, and medical treatments. And choices on medical treatments include whether you embrace what we’ve come to consider as “Western” (pharma) treatments or “alternative” treatments or some of both.

One of my friends (who also happens to be an outstanding voice in the RA community, http://thelifeandadventuresofcatepoo.blogspot.com/) embraces the Paleo diet as part of her overall health regimen. While controversial in some circles, it has provided amazing results for her. Another one of my friends is a walking encyclopedia of natural supplements and has a deep understanding of how many of them are metabolized and used by the body. They both see positive benefits of these “alternative” treatments.

I don’t normally discuss personal beliefs in a public forum (because they are, after all, personal), but I tend to come down on the side of Western pharmaceuticals. I bring this up now because there was a recent article in the New York Times by Aaron E. Carroll, MD, MS entitled, “Labels like ‘alternative medicine don’t matter. Science Does.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/11/upshot/labels-like-alternative-medicine-dont-matter-the-science-does.html?_r=0) This article states my views/concerns/beliefs more eloquently that I probably can. In this article, Dr. Carroll points out that we need to reframe the discussion. There aren’t therapies or “alternate therapies”, there are just therapies. They either work or they don’t.

The primary difference is that there are (usually) lots of scientific studies behind Western medicine and, while there might be thousands of years of anecdotal evidence behind “alternative” treatments and medicines, there often isn’t objective, scientific research done on them. This doesn’t mean they’re not valid. This doesn’t mean they don’t work. And this certainly doesn’t mean (in my personal opinion) that an individual shouldn’t incorporate them into his/her personal treatment plan if they believe they will help. But it does mean that a licensed physician may be unwilling or unable to prescribe something to a patient without documented evidence from recognized clinical investigation that it is both safe and effective. And while there are naturopath and homeopaths and other “alternative” health practitioners who do prescribe them, Dr. Carroll points out that “mainstream” doctors can and do regularly prescribe “alternative” treatments that have shown merit after clinical investigation including such things as diet, exercise, folic acid for pregnant patients, and even things like acupuncture and massage.

I’ve wandered a bit off course here, but Dr. Carroll’s point is that we need to quit separating therapies into mainstream and alternative categories and simply separate them into therapies that have been studied and proven to work vs. those that have not, regardless if the therapy has its origins from a pharmaceutical company or from historical practice. (As an aside, many pharmaceutical miracles have come about because scientists started with research into folk medicine, discovering the elements that were effecting the positive results and refining them.)

I take supplements. For example, on a daily basis I take lysine to help control the massive fever blisters I get and I also take cinnamon to help blood sugar levels. But the supplemental therapies I use have two things in common. First, they have been clinically studied and shown to be effective. Second, and very importantly, they do not interfere with the other therapies I’m on, which include things life-saving prescription blood pressure medications and powerful biologic medication for my RA.

My friend, who loves me, will occasionally send me information on a new supplement or natural product or other therapy for RA. Her goal is to make my life better and I am very blessed that I have someone who cares that much about me. (And yes, she subscribes to this blog so she knows I’m talking about her.) My concern is that neither she nor I have any way of knowing if one of these approaches will in some way interfere with the delicate balance of the drugs I’m on because it doesn’t have the clinical trials behind it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, but it does mean it could have disastrous results for me.

Even with alternative/natural/homeopathic remedies that do work, there are issues. Generic drugs have, for example, time and time again, been shown to not always be the equivalent of the original. And generic drugs have met FDA standards and are produced in tightly controlled environments. Supplements and alternative medicines are not subjected to these standards. So if generics are a step away from the original, how far away are supplements that are produced without oversight or regulation? I am not saying that supplements are bad. I am saying that if you make the personal decision take them (as I have), then you need to also take the personal responsibility to do your research on who produces them and how they are produced. You want to get the safest most effective supplement you can.

I’m not a big fan of labels. Race, gender, age, sexual preference all tend to be labels that divide us, sight unseen. But some labels, such as the nutrition labels on food, can help us live better, healthier lives. So I’m all for taking of the “Western”/”alternative” labels off and going for the “proven”/ and “yet-to-be investigated” approach instead.

I hope whatever therapies you are on – Western or alternative, proven or yet-to-be investigated – that they help make a happier, healthier you. Thanks for checking in.