T Minus Two Type Two Diabetes and Other Passions

25Jul/133

It’s Not All Snake Oil, But…

My father, who was an agricultural engineer specializing in farm building design, used to say that the science of modern agriculture was figuring out why what Grandpa did worked. So, I was introduced early to the idea that not everything of value comes out of a scientific study.

Since medicine became a science during the 20th century, what Grandpa’s doctor did doesn’t have much of a place. On the whole, this is a good thing, but the old sawbones did know a trick or two. So did the medical practitioners in cultures around the world.

That’s one reason I don’t dismiss “alternative medicine” out of hand. "Alternative medicine", as I understand it, is a group term for approaches to health care that lie outside of the Western medical tradition, from chiropractic to aromatherapy to vitamin therapy. It's not a slur, and many medical organizations have units devoted to its study. I have written so strongly about whackos and snake oil salesmen that you might think I have no use for any of it. But the trouble with alternative medicine is not that there’s nothing of value, the trouble is that it’s so hard to tell where the value is.

A number of years ago, when cinnamon was being trumpeted as being useful in the control of blood sugar, I had a chance to ask a Certified Diabetes Educator about it. She responded that there did seem to be some effect, though it didn’t seem to be a major effect. But, she added, there didn’t seem to be any harm in trying it.  The "won't hurt/might help" standard might be a good one to use in approaching alternative medicine, but how do you know what meets that standard?

How do you tell the whackos and the frauds from the approaches that won’t hurt and might help? I wish I knew. By and large, I try not to get health information from sites that are selling what they recommend. I try to look for evidence (beyond persuasiveness) that the person is qualified to offer their opinions. And the more important the information is, the more cautious I am. The whackos, however sincere, can be as dangerous as the snake oil salesmen: passionate belief and anecdotal experiences do NOT constitute medical evidence.

Recently, I went looking for information on a particular type of exercise. Oh, boy, did I find a lot of stuff. But almost all the sites that wanted to answer my questions seemed to lack the level of expertise I want to reduce the risk of injuring myself. Many of these sites were aimed at body builders - I dismissed these immediately, because even if their information was good it might not be good for me.

Somewhere in the vast world of all the Doctor Feelgoods and all their Miracle Tonics, there is knowledge worth having, knowledge I won’t get from my doctor. Do I know how to find it?

No. I wish I did.

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. When I wonder about the effectiveness and safety of a “complementary and alternative medicine” remedy, the first place I go is the Science-Based Medicine blog.

    Unfortunately, I don’t recall seeing much there about exercise. They do have a search box.

    -Steve

  2. Excellent post, Bob. It would be nice if there were some reliable place to go to learn about alternative medicine. Unfortunately, it just takes a lot of research with a small dose of faith (or intestinal fortitude).

  3. I grew up with Western medicine, Chinese medicine and local plants (roots, barks, leaves, fruits and vegetables), as they were all available in our household. Each has its uses and limitations. Thus, I have a healthy view and a healthy skepticism for all of them. What I am very much against are the snake oil peddlers who prey on desperation, ignorance, and mistrust of conventional medicine. I especially dislike those who sell non-existing cures for diabetes.


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