My yoga instructor had a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting. He nearly died. The bee's venom easily consumed his body, despite his being generally fit from years of dedication to yoga. Within minutes, his lungs were swollen and he could not breathe.
Although a dedicated follower of alternative medicine and homeopathy, he was easily persuaded by the emergency room doctor to forgo the standard homeopathic treatment, an implausibly diluted solution of honey and water. The doctor instead administered a shot of epinephrine, the standard conventional treatment. Within seconds this fellow could breathe again.
These days, my instructor carries a vial of epinephrine with him for protection wherever he goes, and he relays this story quite humorously to his yoga class. "Alternative medicine," he tells them, "trust me, it's bunk."
A yoga instructor lashing out at homeopathy, aromatherapy, therapeutic magnets and the rest? How could it be? Actually, there's no contradiction here. Yoga, when practiced as the art of stretching and breathing, is solid, conventional exercise with no hocus-pocus. Conversely, so-called alternative therapies are misguided at best, and often fraudulent and hazardous to your health. There should be no confusion between the two.
Yet there is confusion in the United States and in other western countries. This blurred division presents the greatest challenge to modern medicine.
Americans, in particular, are turning their back on the great advances of the twentieth century. We see this in the movement to abandon vaccines or the widespread belief that disease is caused by an "imbalance," a concept that has no scientific meaning. This inexplicable lack of reason -- here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, an era of unprecedented scientific discovery -- has its roots in but a handful of core myths and misconceptions about the nature and the body.
One myth is that we only use 10 percent of our brains. This is the basis of mind-body healing, a concept suggesting that the brain has untapped resources that can cure a body of disease. Magician Uri Gellar -- who has written a book about mind-body healing -- spreads this myth as an explanation of why he can bend spoons with the power of his thoughts, for he claims to use more of his precious brain than the rest of us.
Truth be told, we use 100 percent of our brains, even while watching an inane Uri Gellar magic show. That "10 percent" figure was invented by ad men in the United States during the 1930s hoping to sell self-help pamphlets. "Scientists say you only use one-tenth of your brain," the advertisements went. "Wake up to your true potential."
The mind is indeed a powerful tool. Indian yogi masters can place themselves in trances, lower their pulse rate, and even block out the sensation of pain. Yet none of this is "healing." Diseases are caused by viruses, bacteria, ionizing radiation, cellular and DNA damage, and other physical insults to the body. We learned this about a hundred years ago. Healing begins with chemical agents (foods and medicines, either natural or human-made), surgical procedures, or exercise.
The alleged 90 percent of the brain we do not use cannot heal the body. This is merely a myth born of an era when diseases were thought to be caused by evil spirits or imbalances of indefinable energy flows.
Common sense should tell you that Mr Gellar and the mind-body healing movement is wrong about the brain. Never has a doctor said, "You'll be fine. The bullet lodged in the 90 percent part of the brain you don't use." Biologically, any part of the body will deteriorate without use. Legs shrivel in a cast, and neurons in the brain die as a result of fatal diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia. And if you want proof in pictures, CAT, PET and MRI scans all show that that the entire brain is active.
Magnet therapy is based on the misconception that the iron in blood is attracted to magnets, which can therefore manipulate blood flow. Makes sense, but it's wrong. Iron is bound to hemoglobin, and it is not affected by magnetic fields. This is a good thing, or we would blow up when placed under the powerful magnets of an MRI machine, which are tens of thousands of times more powerful than therapeutic magnets.
Regardless, magnetic bracelets and straps are so week that the magnetic force can't penetrate your shirt, let alone your skin. If you notice redness under that magnetic bracelet you are wearing, that's not magnetism. You merely have chunk of metal irritating your skin.
Homeopathy is based on yet another misconception, a 300-year-old mistake that homeopaths won't admit. Homeopathy's foundation lies on the premises of "like cures like" and "the law of infinitesimals." Diaper rash, for example, is cured with a diluted solution of poison ivy. Bee stings, as a certain yoga instructor will attest, is treated with a variety of bee products, such as honey or venom.
The mistake is in the law of infinitesimals, which states that the "poison" serving as a cure works best when highly diluted. These cures were created before the concept of atoms, molecules and dilution capacity. As a result, the dilution levels are implausible, diluted to a point where there is no longer any medicine in the medicine.
A typical dilution level is 30X, which is homeopath-talk for 1 part medicine in one quintillion parts solution. Quintillion denotes the figure 1 followed by 30 zeros. You would need to drink 30,000 liters of solution to get one molecule of medicine. A more common dilution level is 30C, which means one part medicine in one quintillion-quintillion part solution. You would need an entire solar system worth of matter to mix with one molecule of medicine.
Homeopathy only "works" for those ills that go away naturally, such as colds and sore eyes. Strep throat, diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis? Forget it. Much research has been conducted on the topic. An interesting trend in research shows that as homeopathy is tested more rigorously, its reported benefits become fewer and fewer.
Humorously, if one employs the theory of homeopathy, all drinking water would cure cancer. After all, chlorine-treated water contains cancer-causing chemicals in minute quantities. If "like cures like" and "the law of infinitesimals" apply, then no one would get cancer.
Americans fall for homeopathy because it is said to be natural, and natural is safe. This is a profound misconception that Indian readers may find hard to believe. Clearly, the most toxic substances on earth -- botulin, hemlock, puffer fish poison -- are all nature's blessing. Americans, grossly removed from nature, do not get this point. As a result, the United States chooses not to regulate herbal remedies under the pretext that they are "natural" and are therefore food.
So what is alternative medicine? Actually, the sweetheart therapies in the alternative medicine movement are not alternative at all. Herbs aren't alternative. The very nature of pharmacology is to isolate compounds in plants for their medicinal value and establish a safe dose. That's how we got aspirin from willow bark. Yoga and tai chi are not alternative. These are merely calisthenics that happen to be from Asia. Stretching is good; we know this.
Music therapy and meditation are not alternative. These are merely two of countless forms of "rest and relaxation" that mainstream doctors have recommended for years. Vitamins are not alternative. The discovery of vitamins was a major scientific advance, leading to food fortification and vast health improvements.
What's alternative is homeopathy, aromatherapy, magnet therapy, touch therapy, distance healing and other practices that defy physics and have no medical value. This is why responsible members of the health community frown on alternative medicine. As my yoga instructor, facing death, finally realized, they are all bunk.
Remarkably, many Americans subscribe to Ayurveda, a movement popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Deepak Chopra. The practice involves questionable herbal remedies, candle burning, chants, mind-healing, and astrology. This is no longer the medicine of choice for an impoverished Indian farmer only. Chopra charges thousands of dollars for Ayurveda seminars. He claims he can reverse aging and improve one's golf game.
The same myths and misconceptions apply to Ayurveda: natural must be better than a human-made medicine; disease is caused by imbalances in vata, pitta and kapha, not viruses; health is determined by stellar alignments, not medical intervention. The sad reality is that none of these health gurus promoting alternative therapies live any longer or healthier than most people, provided there is access to clean water and conventional medicines.
Americans turn to alternative therapies because they have simply forgotten how miserable life was before the advent of modern medicine and the germ theory of disease, as little as 100 years ago. They also don't know that half of the world still lives in a medical Dark Age, unable to reap the benefits of medical advances that have increased life expectancy elsewhere by over 30 years.
Those wishing to abandon vaccines for a "natural cure," for example, do not understand that 85,000 people in Afghanistan will have died this year from diseases treatable with vaccines, with 35,000 of those deaths from measles, according to UNICEF. Those turning to Ayruveda do not understand that millions in India die from foul water and air, which could be treated with modern methods.
That's the real world. Children die. Vaccines work. Homeopathy? Well, it cannot even treat a bee sting.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of Bad Medicine (Wiley & Sons, New York).