Is Alternative Medicine Just a Placebo?

As someone who supports many forms of alternative medicine, included many alternative medicine practitioners in my integrative medicine practice at the Owning Pink Center, and empowers my patients to seek out treatments based on the guidance of their healing inner wisdom (I call it your “Inner Pilot Light”), this statement in an article on CNN caught my eye:

Rigorous analyses of scientific studies have shown that much of what is known as alternative medicine is bunk, with a few exceptions such as St. John’s wort for mild depression But the simple belief in a remedy carries a lot of weight, according to experts. And when you go to a practitioner of alternative medicine, you’re likely to get someone who offers you more face time and greater sense of reassurance about a therapy than a regular doctor. The positive relationship you form with him or her may have a placebo effect in itself.

So Is Alternative Medicine Really Bunk?

Personally, I take issue with this statement. I believe that some things just aren’t easily studied, but just because we can’t clearly prove it in a randomized controlled clinical trial doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. What I do agree with is the statement that more face time and a positive relationship can heal.

In the new book I’m working on, I define the term “healer” very loosely. In fact, my definition of a healer is pretty dang broad. I’m not just talking about the man who practices the wisdom of native medicine or the “woo woo” practices of a New Age woman in a muumuu. I’m also including some (but certainly not all) Western medical doctors, nurses, and OR techs. I’m including the Chinese medicine doctor, the yoga teacher, the massage therapist, the hairdresser who spends all day counseling her clients, the janitor who genuinely cares how your day is going, and most importantly- YOU!

Healers Abound

You can find healers everywhere.  We are Reiki practitioners, herbalists, and midwives. We are physical therapists, nutritionists, and psychologists. We are life coaches, lactation consultants, spiritual healers, and homeopaths. We are intuitives, therapists, shamans, hynotherapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors. We are Qigong masters, guided imagery practitioners, iridologists, radiology techs, art therapists, music therapists, dance therapists, energy healers, and biofeedback specialists.

We are kinesiologists, chakra balancing therapists, faith healers, NLP practitioners, spirit coaches, soul retrieval practitioners, sweat lodge leaders, 12-step program coordinators, ayurvedic practitioners, and workshop facilitators. We are sound healers, nurse practitioners, astrologers, physician’s assistants, and crystal healers. We are reflexologists, pet therapists, and creativity coaches.

We are the woman who works in your nail salon and notices when it’s been a while since you’ve had your pedicure because she really cares. We are the doorman in your apartment building who knows your name and always asks how your day is going. We are the taxi cab driver who listens to your tearful story and offers words of wisdom and a gentle touch of the back of your hand when he drops you off. We are the housekeeper who isn’t just the housekeeper – she’s part of the family.

We are also store clerks, pastors, lawyers, accountants, writers, mothers, nuns, and artists.

We are every individual who is willing to do the inner and outer work necessary to be as whole as possible so they can hold another person’s heart in theirs. Healers come with varied backgrounds, different belief systems, and unique tools in our healing toolboxes, and yet, we are all still healers. If you work in the service industry in any way – and if you open your heart when you’re serving others – you are helping to heal other people, so own it, baby. You are infinitely powerful. You matter. What you do heals. Period.

In other words, we are YOU, if you’re willing to step up to the plate and claim your title.  We all come to our healing gifts in different ways. Some are born with a gift. Others earn it through years of study. Some just follow the light wherever it leads them. And yet, we all have access to this immense capacity to heal ourselves and others.

What If A Placebo Heals?

It’s true that some of these types of healers have little scientific data to support that the treatments they offer “work,” and many of the rare studies that have been done demonstrate a positive placebo effect, meaning that people get better – but so do those not receiving the real treatment.

Countless studies, including this one just reported in WebMD demonstrate that if you believe something will make you better, it will. In other words, if you give 500 people a real drug (or a surgery or a procedure or a supplement) and you give 500 other people a sham version of the same thing (yes, there are sham surgeries!), sometimes you’ll get a response rate up to 50% for those getting only the fake treatment.

What Does This Mean?

When the treatment effect is no greater than the placebo effect, medical science dismisses the treatment as worthless, which is so misguided to me. How can we dismiss the 50% who get better? I’ve struggled with this for a dozen years now. Should we be denying patients treatments that prove to be no better than placebo? (The medical community would answer yes.)

Or should we honor the amazing capacity within us all for self-healing and offer treatments that work but are no better than placebo? And if we do, what should we tell patients?

Some German doctors think maybe we should hand out sugar pills. According to this article, the German Medical Association started advising doctors to give out placebos, which, while it reeks of snake oil, just might work. I don’t know…It’s fuzzy for me.

What I Think

I think alternative medicine works in part because these practices really work and in part because love (as offered by genuinely caring practitioners who are present and listen, whether they are doctors, acupuncturists, or psychics) activates the self-healing mechanisms within us all. And yes, when you believe you will heal, you’re more likely to do so. Because thoughts manifest. Healing thoughts cause healing. Loving healers help create the sacred space so people can heal themselves.

So call it placebo effect. Call it self-healing. Call it snake oil. I don’t care.

What I do care deeply about is the power we hold within us to make this happen. The reality is that when we believe we will get well, very often, we do.

So what do you choose to believe about your health? Do you need someone to bottle that belief or might you activate your own self-healing without the sugar pill? I’d LOVE to hear what you think!

Believing in your capacity to heal yourself,

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