Applied alternatives

The Best Alternative Medicine
by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier
Simon & Schuster, $26, 449 pp.

In late 1991, while walking through the lowlands of the Austrian Alps, two hikers found the body of "Ice Man" at the foot of a receding glacier. Encased in ice for 5,300 years, the perfectly preserved Ice Man was immediately acclaimed as a scientific treasure trove. He has since become possibly the most heavily researched human body in history.

Scientists concluded that the Ice Man used a variety of natural remedies to treat several ailments that remain common today. He used fruit oils and a powerful laxative to fight painful abdominal parasites. He also had "tattoos" over several joints damaged by arthritis. They were made, according to researchers, by cutting the skin and filling the incision with an herbal poultice, after which the wound was cauterized.

In the opening chapter of The Best Alternative Medicine, Dr. Kenneth Pelletier uses the Ice Man as a sort of poster boy to illustrate the long history of alternative medicine. Though tales of robust laxatives and packing open wounds with bits of root and weed may be a daunting introduction to those unfamiliar with alternative medicine, the book goes on to provide a comprehensive and clear guide to what works, what doesn’t work, and what is in the works – all based on the growing number of studies from around the world on therapies ranging from traditional herbal medicine to mind-body medicine to acupuncture.

The mainstreaming of complementary and alternative medicine – called CAM by those in the know – is well under way.

Almost one-half of Americans have visited some sort of CAM practitioner since 1997, up more than 25 million people since 1990, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite that CAM has become a $27 billion-a-year business, few comprehensive references exist for either consumers or CAM practitioners.

Pelletier, a professor of medicine at Stanford School of Medicine and the director of the National Institutes of Health CAM Program, seeks to provide just such a resource in this book.

He breaks down the complex variety of CAM treatments into 12 groups of most common practices and evaluates each. He then throws in sections on mind-body medicine, supplements, Western herbal medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy and the healing applications of spirituality to boot.

The book also includes an A-to-Z list of common ailments – from AIDS and arthritis to osteoporosis and varicose veins – with bulleted points referencing potentially beneficial CAM therapies for each, though many of these lists seem a bit too abbreviated.

Three years ago Pelletier wrote Sound Mind, Sound Body: A New Model for Lifelong Health. Both books have been criticized by the old guard of the medical profession, which continues to dismiss alternative health care as less than scientific medicine.

On the other side, the more radical factions among alternative practitioners are critical of mainstreaming alternative medicine and see a marriage with the reductionist treatment philosophies of Western medicine as unholy.

In this book Pelletier takes the debate head-on by acknowledging the strengths and limitations of both, and does an excellent job of bridging the gap.

John Smock is a freelance writer based in New York. E-mail [email protected]
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