How to Sort the Facts from Fiction about Alternative Health

How to Sort the Facts from Fiction about Alternative Health

Alternative health is a controversial topic; conventional medicine treats many other professions as unscientific and inferior, while many patients report miraculous results. So how do you sift through the chaff? How can you tell which claims are bogus and which are legitimate?

One of the first things to understand is what actually qualifies as “alternative medicine.” Technically speaking, anything that isn’t done by an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine), an osteopath (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) or physical therapist is considered CAM—short for Complementary and Alternative Medicine—with some of the most well-known parties including Chinese medicine, chiropractic, and homeopathy.

Unscientific Treatments

But alternative medicine is a much broader term than that; it counts everything from Reiki masters to massage therapists. Many of these treatments have not been subject to the scientific scrutiny that is the standard in the medical world (via randomized controlled trials, peer review, systemic review, etc.).

Treatments without a strong evidence-based background are where you can get into the most trouble. Evidence, in this case, boils down to clinical experience, patient testimonials and practitioner claims. That does not mean that said alternative treatments aren’t effective. The absence of evidence is certainly not evidence of absence.

Instead, you must become a researcher of sorts. Social media is a surprisingly good way to find people that have experienced the treatment in which you show interest. You can do your own “review” of their cases to see if it’s something you should consider. You may be surprised by how many people out there are willing to share their knowledge.

But be leery about so-called “fact checking” or “skeptical” websites. Though some points are legitimate, many exist solely to negatively advertise against any professions that fall outside of traditional western medicine.

Some websites may even be risky. It’s always advisable to browse unfamiliar sites behind the safety of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). We don’t mean to suggest that skeptical websites are necessarily dangerous, but that fake websites do exist and frequently pose as real pages to steal information. Hiding your device behind the encryption of a VPN can minimize your risks.

Limited Funding = Limited Research

The commonality you’ll quickly discover in the field of alternative medicine is a lack of funding. Because other fields frequently don’t have the support of Big Pharma, government grants or major universities, their published research may exist but in a far more limited fashion.

One example is the field of chiropractic. Despite having successfully existed for over 100 years, it still has comparatively little research behind many of its treatments. It isn’t for lack of trying; there are quite a few well-documented studies published, but only in very limited areas of the profession and with considerably fewer systematic reviews than might be seen with a new drug, for instance.

Take limited research seriously; if you find a treatment that has evidence behind it, read the studies carefully. PubMed is a great place to find peer reviewed works as is the NCBI. Google Scholar also does a good job of making the search for legitimate evidence much easier than in the past.

As with the “unscientific treatments,” be ready to do some non-peer reviewed research as well. Even treatments utilizing newer drugs may have very little evidence; the experimental phase can last years before a treatment is picked up as mainstream and regulated by government agencies.

Just don’t be afraid of products or services that come with the disclaimer: “This (treatment/product) has not be evaluated by the FDA. Consult your doctor…” You’ve no doubt seen this on supplements or in the corner of advertisements. All that really means is that a product or service hasn’t been officially adopted. It makes no claims about the effectiveness one way or the other.

At the same time, quality control can sometimes be an issue.

Open Market Supplements

New fads and pseudoscientific claims are abound in today’s internet. One of the biggest markets to take advantage of this is the supplements market, or what some doctors cynically call “nutriceuticals.”

The claim is that many of these supplements can stand in for deficiencies in our diet. Entire stores exist to peddle the army of different products. But the issue here is twofold:

  • Consistent quality
  • Nutritional need

The first is arguably the most problematic. So many products exist, but not all products are manufactured equally. Many supplements on the open market can make no guarantee that pill A contains the same nutritional dosage as pill B. Supplement companies are sometimes very small and while their intent may be to better the health of their customers, they simply lack the facilities to maintain a consistent product.

Both to protect their customers and to foster a relationship with doctors, several of the higher quality supplement producers offer their products exclusively through providers. This is to solve both the first and second problem.

The second problem is just the difficulty with which a customer can have deciding what is actually in their best interest. Without training in nutrition, blood tests to compare with, and understanding of chemical interactions, it becomes a major challenge to take a supplement and get the desired effect.

That’s why it’s best to take supplements under the advice of a professional. You’re considerably less likely to end up taking a toxic dosage and much more likely to find supplements that are synergistic and actually helpful to your condition. Take potassium as a classic example. Eating bananas is the “common advice,” but taking too many potassium supplements could actually prove fatal. A practitioner that’s licensed in nutrition is going to know that, but the average person may not.

Sticking With Licenses

Despite the added cost, the safest way to really determine what alternative health methods are worth their salt is by looking at licenses and scope of practice. Be sure the type of doctor you’re visiting is even qualified to help with your problem. Know that licenses vary in scope depending on where you live.

Lastly, know that the best professions have licensing boards to oversee practitioners in an effort to cut down on abuse and incompetence. You can always look up or call a licensing board to see what their members are qualified to do.

How do you sort fact from fiction? Is there a trusted source you use? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author: Cassie is an advocate of a diverse range of healthcare treatments and a specialist in modern technology. She blogs about a range of topics, from personal interests such as healthy food to career interest topics such as new technology.