Doctoring Without Drugs

By Lydia Denworth,Daniel Glick,Anthony Duignan-Cabrera | May 1991 | Newsweek | Topics: Parenting and Family, Science and Health

Alternative medicine is based on the theory that the body has a natural healing ability

Arline Merola’s 2-year-old son Matthew had a classic case of chronic ear infections.  And he was treated in the classic way: antibiotics most of each winter and the threat of surgically implanted tubes to drain his ears.  Last October Merola decided to try something else.  She went to Paul Mittman, a naturopathic physician in Mystic, Conn., who took Matthew off dairy products and gave him both an herbal preparation and a homeopathic remedy.  Matthew hasn’t had an ear infection since.

Whether or not it was Mittman’s treatments that cured Matthew is the subject of much debate, but more and more parents have decided the results speak for themselves and are giving alternative medicine a try.  Homeopathy, which is so popular in Europe that one third of the French public as well as Queen Elizabeth of England use the remedies, is growing by about 20 percent a year here.  And chiropractors reported a 21 percent increase in patient visits per week over the last decade.  “There is a growing sense that regular medicine gives drugs too readily, is too expensive and too dangerous,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., a Tucson, Ariz., physician and author of “Natural Health, Natural Medicine.”

The alternatives, which include homeopathy, naturopathy, herbal medicine, chiropractic and acupuncture, appeal not only to parents who distrust the medical establishment but also to those whose children have not been helped by it.  Bill and Alison Keller of Mill Valley, Calif., were skeptical of homeopathy, but after pediatricians and specialists failed to help their 18month-old daughter’s digestive problems, they took Adrienne to Dr. Ifeoma Ikenze, a Marin County, Calif., pediatrician who uses homeopathy in her practice.  Within one month Adrienne’s diarrhea and vomiting abated and her digestion began to improve.

All alternative medicine is based on the principle that the body has a natural healing ability and that doctors simply help the process along.  Practitioners also claim to treat the cause of disease, not the symptoms.  Once that’s done, they work at preventive medicine — having patients lead healthier lives so they won’t get sick in the first place.

Alternative medicine has many critics among conventional doctors.  Homeopathy is the hardest (or them to swallow.  It is a system of natural remedies based on two laws: “Like cures like” and “Less is more.” The first says that remedies should be chosen according to a patient’s symptoms and not for a particular disease; they should be remedies that would induce in a healthy person the exact symptoms the sick person is experiencing.  Rather than give all children with ear infections amoxicillin, homeopaths give a child whose infection causes a fever a remedy which brings on fever in a healthy child.  A child with different symptoms gets a different remedy.  The second law says that the less there is of a remedy, the more potent its effect.  This is the most controversial aspect of homeopathy because the resulting remedies are so diluted that by the standard laws of physics and chemistry there should be virtually nothing left of the original solution.  “It’s no better than taking a drink of tap water,” says Stephen Barrett, M.D., primary author of Consumer Reports’ “Health Schemes, Scams and Frauds.”

Conventional doctors want scientific evidence that alternative medicine works, and there’s not much.  Most patients recover on their own, so it’s difficult to prove that it was the homeopathic remedy or the chiropractic manipulation that helped.  The placebo effect could also be at work: if a patient believes something works, it might.  “Treatments for children should be based on rigorous clinical observations and scientifically based information,” says Dr. Ralph Kaufmann, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Drugs.  “The best scenario for [alternative medicine] is that it’s an innocuous intervention that can do no harm.”

Alternative medicine can do harm if practitioners or patients rail to recognize its limits.  “Obviously homeopathy is not the path to take if the child has a fever of over 100 and a stiff neck.  He or she may have meningitis,” says Richard Shames, a San Francisco physician who practices nontraditional medicine.  Most alternative practitioners suggest that parents who visit them also have a regular pediatrician for their children and have the kids immunized.  And parents must beware the quacks who do exist.  “With any kind of medicine, you have to look critically and sort out what’s good from what’s not good,” says Weil.  He recommends conventionally trained doctors who use alternative medicine.  For manipulations, he refers patients to osteopaths rather than chiropractors.  There are also accredited schools of naturopathy and chiropractic, the best or which require graduate work similar to that of traditional medical school.

Scientific justification for alternative medicine may not be far off.  Homeopaths rejoiced when the British Medical Journal recently published a paper which reviewed homeopathic studies and said that while many were of poor quality, 81 percent showed positive results.  The journal’s editors concluded that “there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homeopathy.” Until strong results are in, the debate will continue.  In the meantime, no doctor would quarrel with the importance of a healthy diet for children.  And if pediatricians are prompted to substitute more natural methods for drugs where possible, the trend toward natural healing for children may have some healthy consequences — even if it doesn’t have scientific proof.