Let’s take a look at the state of the science. What does western medicine have to offer for the treatment of chronic conditions? I am going to lay out a framework for how Western biomedicine addresses common, chronic, systemic maladies of everyday life, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and anxiety (see my last post for more details). And I am going to suggest, because Western medicine takes a reductionist view rather than a systemic one, it is rare for it to hit upon a solution to these types of maladies.
Okay, here are the three ways in which Western medicine currently addresses systemic problems.
- There are the rare cases where a microscopic, singular trigger causes a plethora of systemic, chronic symptoms. Western medicine searches for these causes and occasionally finds them.An example of this? One that I have personal experience with: celiac disease. It’s an autoimmune disease. Like all autoimmune diseases, it has a vast array of seemingly unrelated symptoms: stomach aches, fatigue, joint pain, neuropathy, the list goes on. But it’s unique — it is the only autoimmune disease for which we know the cause, the trigger: gluten. We found the needle in the haystack, the control parameter that sets the whole system running out of whack. There may be other diseases, autoimmune or otherwise, with such solutions, and hopefully western biomedical research will find them with time. Until we do, I say, let’s help people who are dealing with multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, myasthenia gravis, Type II diabetes (the list goes on!) with the best treatment available to us at the moment, right now. That is usually going to be something that addresses the whole and rebalances it as best we can.
- There are (or may be) diseases that have lots of nonlinearities and feedbacks, don’t have a single cause, but which we understand in enough detail to reliably manipulate. These are truly rare. In fact, I can’t think of a fully satisfactory example. If anyone out there can, please do share! But to get the ball rolling, here’s somewhere we get kind of close.Many women experience irregular menses and/or painful menstruation. We have a qualitative picture of the hormonal feedbacks that drive ovulatory and menstrual cycles. Given that knowledge, we can use exogenous hormones (i.e., birth control pills) to manipulate the cycle and remove the hormonal experiences that generate severe cramping. However, this example is not satisfactory to me because western biomedicine does not understand the system well enough to rebalance it. Instead, we can hammer away at it and change it to something different: in fact, it is not an ovulatory cycle at all anymore, as ovulation has ceased to occur. But it does remove certain undesirable symptoms.
- For the smorgasbord of systemic diseases that we really don’t understand — haven’t found the silver bullet, don’t have a good enough grasp to hit over the head with a particular chemical, what tools does Western biomedicine provide? Shots in the dark. We adjust parameters that we know affect the system, but they are not key control parameters, ones that restore balance. So we try. We cross our fingers and hope that luck or trial and error will lead us to a key control parameter for this particular person.Maybe a little more serotonin would do the trick. Try these pills. Or maybe you need the slow release version. Try these ones. Oh, these make you feel anxious all the time? Lower your blood pressure to the point where you faint? Try adding this medication on top! Sometimes these things help, whether from their inherent chemical properties or people’s faith in biomedicine allowing the placebo effect to be quite strong (citation). Much of the time, they are frustrating for patient and physician alike.
I believe Western biomedicine can be a powerful force for helping people restore their health. I have experienced this first-hand watching my father heal from cancer following chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant and survive a heart attack. And, after ten years of struggling with disparate symptoms, I was I was diagnosed with celiac disease thanks to my mother’s sleuthing into the world of biomedical research combined with medical testing.
But it has limitations too: lifestyle diseases, women’s health issues, mental health, chronic pain. Many of these limitations line-up with success stories from other medical paradigms. So let’s be honest about where we are today. What is western biomedicine ready to treat? And what diseases is it still happily mucking about in the world of primary research? For those problems that western biomedicine isn’t ready to tackle in a living body (yet!), let’s look to different viewpoints that are ready to treat, paradigms in which the healer’s role is to create space for the patient’s body to heal.