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When Alternative Medicine Is Not What It Appears

Alternative medicine.  Holistic therapy.  These are terms tossed around quite frequently in the veterinary and human world of medicine and surgery.  To some, they are the only route to go, while to others, they are often seen as last resorts or even in some views ‘quackery’.  The truth is that we need to take a different look at these options, seeing them for what they are and if so, potentially benefit patients on a higher level.

In the first half of my career as a veterinarian, I was what is termed traditional or even ‘western’ minded in my approach to patient care.  I even had the philosophy,in some cases, that ‘nothing heals like cold steel’, implying that only a surgeon’s touch with a scalpel blade could provide a remedy.  It is sad, really, looking back, but it was the way I was trained in veterinary school and even in my post graduate internship.  Western medicine has its place in healing, no doubt, but given this philosophy, I was not one to utilize herbs, vitamins or even diet in my patient care.  Clients would ask or inquire about my thoughts on various supplements, but I would just politely decline a response or push them more towards something ‘proven’ like a medication for joint pain.  

Now, again, I believe in weIMG00032-20100629-1312.jpgstern medicine and pharmaceuticals, as they serve a vital role in combating infection, stabilizing hormone deficiencies and assisting in the management of many acute health crisis. Surgery can and does save lives.  The problem comes, from my perspective, when it comes to managing long term or chronic health ailments that not only impact you or I, but also our pets and horses.  We all suffer the same fate, aging, and with that aging process, comes deterioration on many levels.  Some quicker or sooner than others.

After the first decade of my career, I faced my own health challenge, one that changed the face of how I practiced medicine.  I became a patient with a diagnosis that most would rather not hear.  In being a patient, I became a victim on a certain level, being led in one direction after another by my physician, then my surgeon, all to no avail in regards to healing, health and recovery.  It was then, after scouring research on my health condition, that my mind changed, my focus was redirected and I became even more educated as a veterinarian, not just on my own health condition, but on many others.  As my own health improved, I applied my newly found knowledge to my patients and more times than not, watched them blossom in their own recoveries.  Things had changed for this traditional, western minded veterinarian.  It was a new day.

So, here’s the thing.  Even to this day, 10 years later, I still am dumbfounded at the research that has been conducted and is still being conducted, but seemingly not applied to benefit the patient.  It has become readily apparent to me that essentially disease and even injury (lameness) are a matter of too much ‘bad’ and not enough ‘good’, to put it simplistically.  What does this mean?  Essentially, what we have to realize is that the body is a machine on a certain level, but an alive machine, living and breathing.  Given this fact, we have to understand that it has requirements to keep it running and operating smoothly.  If we have a plant, but don’t water it or provide adequate fertilized soil for nutrients, it will die.  So, why do we see our bodies as being different?

In 2006, I began our first research trials in equine patients, evaluating the impact of Curcumin and other herbs on the pain response in cases of arthritis. After 10 years of ongoing study, I see things much differently, especially when it comes to chronic health conditions, of which likely 80% or more fall into this category in both humans and animals.  

I despise the term ‘alternative’ and ‘holistic’, honestly.  “Complementary’ medicine is likely a better fit.  I think these terms give herbs and nutrition a bad connotation, one that is not well received by many, often seeing it as a last resort, a ‘cute’ option or even quackery.  Since when, in all honesty, is nutrition and supporting the body an ‘alternative’?  We don’t see water and good soil as an alternative when planting crops, so why do we see it as an alternative in our own healthcare?  

The irony here is that most do not look upon herbs and nutrition as being important, but in reality, many herbs have been the focus of human clinical research for decades if not longer.  They have been used as actual medicines in various cultures around the world before we even created actual medications.  In fact, a high percentage of all medications on the open market are often created to mimick the activity of herbs.  True statement.  So, if this is the case, why do we not give them more credance?  I don’t have the answer to this, but can only speculate.

I mentioned before about the idea of too much ‘bad’ and not enough ‘good’.  This is true on many levels.  As an example, many of us consume various carcinogens on a daily basis, from smoking to processed foods or even in our water source.  They are there, often unknown and undetected by us. The good news is that our bodies are equipped to handle and process most of these, converting them to less toxic substances via the liver and excreting them through the kidney and urine.  The bad news is that the body that processes these chemicals needs to be fed properly, receiving not only vitamins and minerals, macro and micronutrients, to do its job, but many foods (herbs) actually have other medicinal properties.  In many cases, these other properties are to serve as antioxidants, helping to quench harmful free radicals that are produced leading to cellular damage, but they can also modify or impact potentially harmful pathways such as unregulated inflammation that develop often as a side effect of lifestyle, aging, diet and other stressors.  

The question here is whether if we are actually supplying our bodies not only with what it needs to survive, but to thrive?  Are we truly taking advantage of what is in front of us to not only help us to excel through each day, but to potentially reduce the incidence of disease and even injury?

Now, in speaking for myself, in the first half of my career, I was doing neither for myself, my family or my patients.  I wasn’t trained to take nutrition or even herbs into consideration for use in therapy.  The only importance they really had was for the patient that was not eating or maybe one that was losing weight, or maybe the case of kidney disease in which we were taught to modify diet.  Despite this, we were more or less instructed on what to do, no real thought put into it, just do what you are told to do.  I certainly mean no offense to my colleagues or even to the colleges, but what I request is that we widen our scope of vision, look deeper and not just see the patient as the disease it presents with, but think and start to put together the pieces. This can be hard for some, but once that bulb gets lit, the room becomes much brighter.

So why do most run away from these options or dismiss them?  This is purely speculative, but I can speak from my own experience.  In most of these cases, the veterinarian or physician is leary of them because of fear, which stems from lack of education on that subject.  One has to remember that this information is not generally touched upon in veterinary or medical school, and in most cases is left up the individual doctor to pursue in regards to information.  We fear the things we do not understand and in most cases, we simply do not believe there is sufficient research or documentation to back up their usage. This actually couldn’t be further from the truth.  Not all herbs are heavily researched and we don’t have all of the answers when it comes to nutrition, but one thing is for certain and that is in most cases herbs and nutrition are overwhelmingly beneficial to the patient with minimal to no side effects.  Compare this to most medications on the open market.

What I propose, as a veteriarian and researcher, is that we apply what we know, using the best of both worlds together to benefit the patient.  I think or believe that this is especially applicable to the patient afflicted with a chronic disease, which is impacting quality of life. Countless times, I have come across patients in my career that could have benefited from a change of diet or even the use of herbs, but unfortunately their primary care veterinarian did not utilize them or the client simply did not see the merit in their usage.  The research is there, we just fail to apply it.  The longer we wait, the more damage done and the harder to get the body to heal. That is our fault and no one else’s. 

In the end, I believe that I have become a better veterinarian for my patients by thinking outside of the box.  I wish I had discovered this sooner, as my own health and that of many others, could have been positively impacted potentially.  We don’t seek to cure any condition, as nothing in the world of herbs or medicines does this, aside from maybe an antibiotic used to fight infection or surgery in an acute condition. Surgery and medications have a role and a place in health, but we need to look deeper. In reality, what we are doing is providing for the body, the magnificent machine that it is, helping it to function correctly, defending itself and healing itself.

Just my thoughts.

Tom Schell, D.V.M.

Nouvelle Research, Inc.

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