Alissa Kivan - October 07, 2021

When asking a professor or a physician about alternative medical findings, the classic reply to that would be: “first we must establish that they do no harm, and then we can assess whether they do any good.” Interestingly a very mind-tickling question pops up here! How do doctors demand such criteria from alternative medicine when such standard is not demanded similarly from traditional medical practices? All drugs sold in pharmacies have a long list of potential side effects, and almost every surgical procedure carries life-threatening risks.


The medical practice is a highly controlled profession, each procedure shall adhere to regulations established by AMA or other large medical corporations, meaning that only drugs and procedures that have gone through extensive evidence-based research, should be discussed with the patients. There is a huge risk that if a doctor recommends something that is not FDA approved yet, their license would be taken away. So far, this system has proved its efficacy, allowing doctors to trust the published information and to avoid ineffective substances. However, it is no secret that insurance companies and contracts with Big Pharma cause a huge conflict of interest, a problem that recently surfaced to the top. 


The secret to accepting alternative methods of medicine is simple, clinical trials, control groups, and peer-reviewed results. The research community is excitedly hungry for new groundbreaking findings. And when trials pass successfully, alternative medicine becomes medicine. 

But realistically speaking,  are studies on hypnotherapy and traditional herbs being given attention to and funded the same way Big Pharma trials are? 


Before assuming that we will be discussing some placebo or charlatan magic, it’s detrimental to first properly understand the difference between alternative and complementary medicine. An alternative approach is a non-conventional procedure used as a replacement for a traditional procedure. However, a complementary approach is a non-conventional procedure used alongside a traditional procedure.  


One of the most exciting developments in Healthcare has been the combination of traditional and complementary medicine and is currently defined as Integrative medicine (as called by the National Institute of Health.) It features targeting the root reason of pathologies and not only their symptoms. Diet changes, preventative practices, psychotherapy, and classical medicine are all incorporated to treat the patient as a soul-body-mind whole, rather than organ-divided anatomy. And just like cryptocurrency is showing to be the new financial expansion, integrative medicine could the new norm of future medical practices.


One of the many examples of successful integrative medicine practices is the treatment of GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease. It is widely known that anxiety and stress worsen the symptoms of GERD. Clinical trials done by Gao and Bai1 show that acupuncture successfully decreased the irritable symptoms. This completely makes sense both logically and scientifically as acupuncture resolved their back pain, sleep deprivation, and alleviated anxiety. Dr. Wayne, Ph.D., research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical school, published numerous research papers on the effect of tai chi in the rehabilitation and preservation of cognitive and motor potential in older adults2. Yoga, music therapy, nutrition counseling, support groups, and many others are also examples of successfully proven complementary therapies. 

Then why are many doctors hostile towards these new methods?

Alternative treatments are not included in the medical school curriculum, they are even frowned upon. Keeping up-to-date with all these new findings is technically impossible especially with clinician burnout being at an all-time high. As health care professionals, we are extremely pragmatic and we are practitioners, not theoreticians. In light of recent covid events, doctors are frustrated from the amount of voice influence people with no medical training have, mocking and disregarding the efficacy of vaccines. Media is also giving power to charlatans promoting essential oils as an alternative to covid treatments. But are they all really charlatans? Because ironic enough, a study by Panikar et. al3 found out the Eucalyptus and Corymbia oils naturally contain Mpro inhibitor (main protease inihibtor), Mpro being a key enzyme in the replication of the virus. This means that oils from these species can potentially be used for treatment and control of COVID-19.

Ask colleagues and students about spirituality in medicine and it will feel like you have just opened a taboo subject.  Religions and spirituality simply do not fit within the health system implemented now. A reason why there is a flood of patients consulting naturopathic practitioners first, is that they tend to offer more attention to the emotional wellbeing of patients, consultations are more sympathetic and lengthier. Spirituality strongly arises in patients dealing with serious illness, fears like punishment and mortality cause immense anxiety within the patients and their family members. A study found that 78% of cancer patients report that spirituality plays a big part in their illness experience, 51% of which wanted help with overcoming fears and finding meaning4.

Medical professionals perceive themselves more as health managers than human healers. In a book written by Dr. Ronald Epstein, “Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity”, he tackles exactly how physicians can use mindfulness to help build a harmonious relationship with patients. He advises doctors to start with a simple question “what else have you tried?” Non-judgementally opening the conversation through which the doctor can build a proper medical history and get an idea of what the patient needs on an emotional and mental level.  Such conversation can help us replace antipsychotics with deep breathing exercises for agitated patients experiencing panic attacks.

A minimum level of a training program on spiritual and complementary medical practices, even to the non-religious health care professionals, can help overcome this stigma the system has against new findings and create an environment of open-mindedness. It is time we change our approach to medicine. Modern medicine can beautifully join forces with complementary medicine, an offer that gracefully works towards the betterment of health care in a coordinated way.

About the author
Being a 4th-year medical student at the Medical University of Lodz, Poland, Alissa Kivan belongs to the future of Healthcare. She has a bachelor's degree in Biological studies from the Lebanese American University (LAU).
Alissa left Lebanon after the devastating Beirut explosion, an event that flipped around her perception of human life and opened her eyes to how essential incorporating mind-soul-body values are into Healthcare.

BAI, X.-hua, ZHOU, J., & TANG, Q.-shuang. (2020). Acupuncture at the dorsal section of the governor vessel for gastroesophageal reflux disease combined with sleep disorder: A research of case series. World Journal of Acupuncture - Moxibustion, 30(3), 229–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wjam.2020.07.010 

2  You, T., Ogawa, E. F., Thapa, S., Cai, Y., Yeh, G. Y., Wayne, P. M., Shi, L., & Leveille, S. G. (2019). Effects of Tai Chi on Beta endorphin and inflammatory markers in older adults with chronic Pain: An exploratory study. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 32(7), 1389–1392. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40520-019-01316-1 
3  Panikar, S., Shoba, G., Arun, M., Sahayarayan, J. J., Usha Raja Nanthini, A., Chinnathambi, A., Alharbi, S. A., Nasif, O., & Kim, H.-J. (2021). Essential oils as an effective alternative for the treatment of COVID-19: Molecular interaction analysis of protease (mpro) WITH pharmacokinetics and toxicological properties. Journal of Infection and Public Health, 14(5), 601–610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jiph.2020.12.037 
4  Koenig, Harold G. "Religious attitudes and practices of hospitalized medically ill older adults." International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 13, no. 4 (1998): 213–224. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1099-1166(199804)13:4<213::aid-gps755>3.0.co;2-5.



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