Prescription for Confusion
My husband and I were watching a report on how some older movie stars are fighting the aging process. Their guru was, ostensibly at least, a trained physician who, after running a series of diagnostic tests on them to the tune of $5,500, designed custom-tailored regimens of vitamins, herbs, nutrients, diet, and exercise to meet their individual needs (a service apparently not covered by my HMO). Nonetheless, among the supplements mentioned were growth hormone and testosterone. I commented that one of our friends-a youthful, extremely active 65-year old-took both of those, but that we could never get them from our doctor.
Which of course, made my husband ask, "Why not?" If they really work, why can't we just go to our doctor and say we want them?" "Well, first of all, who knows if they really work," I started to reply, " and besides, ...." Well, eventually my attempt to answer him became so convoluted that it was obvious I had the beginnings of a column, so here goes.
What has happened to our once revered family physician? Why are western doctors so resistant to almost any alternative concepts or remedies? How can anyone distinguish the latest fad from something truly helpful and therapeutic? And how is a regular person supposed to know whom or what to trust?
Might as well start with the doctors. Most of us grew up with the idea that our family physicians were somewhat akin to omniscient gods; certainly our parents seemed to treat them that way. Whatever they said to do, we did, without question. That began to change for me as I grew older, and discovered that; a.) doctors were just human beings with a different degree from mine; b.) getting a second opinion was usually the same thing as getting a different opinion; c.) doctors made so many mistakes in both diagnosing and prescribing that it was pretty much hit or miss with them. It's horrifying, really, but in my family alone I can think of at least four major operations that were avoided, with no ill consequences, by getting a second opinion after the first doctor had declared the surgery absolutely necessary, and one totally unnecessary surgery performed because the person involved did not have the resources to get a second opinion until after her uterus had been removed at the age of thirty-two.
And the mistakes, over-medicating, inability to make a diagnosis, carelessness? Most would probably go unnoticed by the average patient, but I am not the average patient. At least not anymore. After experiencing everything from irresponsibility to negligence, incompetence to malpractice, I no longer trust most doctors with most decisions, unless it's an emergency situation and I have no choice. For the most part I research every prescription and every diagnosis thoroughly on the internet and then decide whether or not to "go along" with whatever the doctor prescribed. I figure any person arrogant enough to walk into a room where I sit naked under a paper dressing gown and say, "Hi, Lynn, I'm Dr. Fullofhimself," when he's clearly twenty years younger than I and has never met me before should be forced to withstand the full brunt of my skepticism. After all, it's not like one of them has ever actually cured me of anything.
Which is why, I guess, so many alternative remedies start to look appealing. Like the traditional Chinese herbs I now take for my irritable bowel syndrome that actually work! No western doctor has the slightest idea what to do for IBS, even though it affects close to 25% of all women. They all know which expensive tests to run in order to rule out other diseases. And they all proceed from there to ask if you're under any stress (just in case they ever run into anyone who is actually NOT under stress) and then either suggest a modified diet, tranquilizers, or some other chemical that does absolutely no good. Yet, if I were to suggest to my doctor that perhaps he should look into the efficacy of Chinese herbs he would undoubtedly look at me as though I were some child-like creature to whom he should be especially patronizing (despite my use of the word efficacy.)
What are they so afraid of? Well, first of all, anything not found in the Physicians Desk Reference or handed out by the various pharmaceutical companies with whom they are in obvious collusion. Secondly, anything that might make their patients less reliant on the "system," which thrives on running expensive tests, writing millions of prescriptions, performing unnecessary surgeries, and basically, making sure there's always a waiting room filled with "the chronic pain people." They are, after all, the bread and butter of the family physician, without whom he couldn't possibly triple book every time slot in his appointment book or take Wednesdays and Fridays off.
So, let's say you're disgusted and you want to take at least a portion of the responsibility for your health and well-being into your own hands. Maybe you want to try an "alternative" approach. Herbs, or supplements, vitamins or hormones or whatever. Great. So, depending on what month of the year it is, you may or may not run smack into the latest trendy remedy...L-tryptophane comes to mind. There was a time about a year ago when everyone who was anyone was taking SAM-E, and today the latest fad seems to be 5-HTP. I'm not entirely sure what either of them actually does, although I've read the claims, but I know some people who swear by them. And depending on the source, I know I should be filling my body with anti-oxidants, folic acid, L-carnitine and a wide variety of other vitamins and nutrients without which my body should not be functioning properly. I'm just not sure how much or which ones. If I wait long enough maybe they will all have been replaced by another trend. Or maybe, if I take them all, and also get ahold of that growth hormone stuff, I'll live to be 102. Not so sure I want that though.
The fact is, even if you don't follow the trends and simply want to eat right and exercise you're in deep trouble. Good grief, even the food pyramid is in question! Fruit is wonderful, but what about all those hidden carbs? Broccoli's terrific, if you're not prone to indigestion. One day tomatoes are considered indispensable to our well-being, and the next day we're advised to avoid them. Margarine used to be the healthy substitute for butter; now butter is better, which is a good thing since I always hated margarine. In the past couple of years I've learned that wine and chocolate can be good things. A breakfast of eggs and bacon, considered a good healthy breakfast by my mother, became anathema to the heart and cholesterol people, but is now actually recommended by the zone folks. I love it when they make a bad thing good again if it's something I like. I still have serious doubts that cigarettes will ever reappear on the good list, although I keep checking.
It can all seem pretty amusing, but it's really not. How is anyone supposed to know whom or what to trust? I know a woman who spent a year clinically depressed while relying on St. John's wort. She actually needed an anti-depressant of the chemical kind, and when finally persuaded to ask her doctor to prescribe one, her depression lifted and she hasn't felt this well in years. I also know people who are swallowing a combination of prescription drugs that should be considered criminal, but are prescribed by their doctors either to shut them up or drug away their symptoms so the doctor doesn't have to try to figure out what's really wrong with them.
Right now I'm relying most heavily on the anecdotal experience of people I trust. If something has worked for them, especially if they've tried other things first, and they can prove it to me, I'll most likely be open to trying it. That's how the Chinese herbs entered my life. Otherwise, I go with my instincts. They're usually pretty good, but I've been honing them for years. I worry about those who trust too much, jump on any new bandwagon, don't ask questions, ignore warning signals. On the other hand, my great-aunt smokes a pack a day, never drinks water, hasn't ever taken a vitamin, ignores her doctor's advice, has never heard of alternative medicine, can't even pronounce gingko biloba, and gets hostile instead of depressed. She's eighty-five and healthy as a horse. Go figure.
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