Natural Therapy?

Dr. Pullen examines the natural - and unnatural - things that patients do to keep themselves healthy.

This article originally appeared online at Dr.Pullen.com.I am amazed sometimes at the things my patients do to (for?) themselves in the name of trying to find natural ways to be more healthy. Even more amazing to me is the incredibly unnatural things they do that they think is natural. We are in a society where doing unnatural things to be more natural is the natural thing to do. Mainstream western medicine is almost by definition unnatural. We try to encourage patients to do what is not natural to them in terms of lifestyle behavior modification(if it was natural to eat well, exercise more, stay thin, etc. we would be doing it). We give medications and do procedures and tests to find and cure natural diseases like diabetes, pneumonia, strep throat, appendicitis …

The increased life expectancy and improved health of first world citizens has come about in large part by unnaturally supplying clean water, unnaturally separating sewer from drinking water supplies, and immunizing against and treating natural diseases. We almost eliminated childhood rickets by adding vitamin D to the bread and mild supplies. We prevent tooth decay by using fluoride containing toothpaste and getting preventative dentistry. As a society we seem behave in a way that supports our belief that preventing diseases and improving health by unnatural means is a desirable goal Yet there is something alluring about the word natural. I see ads for natural makeup, natural foods, and natural medications. Here are some of the most unnatural things I can think of that patients do to themselves, often at the advice of a naturopath:

Enemas of all types: Naturally things come out of the anus, and move from top to bottom on the gastrointestinal tract. Is there much less natural than squirting stuff up your rectum? I hear about coffee enemas, and nearly every web site about naturopathic remedies has an enema product to sell usually priced at $60-80 for proprietary ingredients. The theory is that somehow removing the waste material from the distal bowel improves bowel function and overall health. Does it work? I doubt it, but whether it works or not, it is a stretch to call it natural to squirt coffee up your rectum.

Mega doses of vitamins: Naturally our food contains small to modest doses of vitamins. There is some evidence in this day of eating a lot of refined foods we may miss out on some trace minerals and vitamins. A multiple vitamin daily is probably reasonable for many people. There is some evidence that higher doses of some vitamins, especially vitamin D is beneficial. Yet I see many patients who spend a large percent of their limited income on large amounts of redundant vitamins, usually of a proprietary and therefore expensive brand, in hopes of improving their health. This is both unnatural and of unproven efficacy. I often see patients on a multiple vitamin, two or three types of B-complex vitamins, supplemental vitamins C, D,E, B-12, co-enzyme Q-10, calcium, other minerals, and often also mixtures of so many other ingredients I cannot read all the labels in less than several minutes. This seems nuts to me. Spending this money on fresh fruits and vegetables would be far more likely to help, and would truly be natural.

Natural herbal supplements: Somehow if a substance is derived from plant matter it seems to be assumed to be healthy. Obviously some famous exceptions exist, hemlock, nightshade, etc. I appreciate that Eastern medicine, and possibly native American healers have some basis for their remedies, but I doubt that the sales people at the mega-supplement stores have the expertise to help patients be more healthy, and instead primarily make their bosses more wealthy. Taken at the recommendation of a bonefide naturopathic practitioner or other expert these may be reasonable, but taken at the advice of a retail salesperson they are sketchy at best.

Ed Pullen, MD, is a board-certified family physician practicing in Puyallup, WA. He blogs at DrPullen.com — A Medical Bog for the Informed Patient.