Do alternative medicines have a scientific basis?

Whilst there is no doubt that many surgeons, physicians and healers in ancient days practised a great mixture of occultism, witchcraft, sorcery and divination, there were unquestionably some elements of value in the methods and medicaments they used if one can exclude all the occultic paraphernalia that went with them. The product of some herbs e.g. opium for pain relief and cinchona bark for the treatment of malaria, were undoubtedly efficacious but this was not because of the rituals surrounding there use but because they did contain an active drug, i.e. morphia in opium and quinine in cinchona bark, which have now been isolated, purified and used regularly on a controlled dose basis.

As far as diagnostic procedures go, I cannot think of any of the ancient procedures such as pendulum swinging, dowsing, reference to astrology etc. which are still being used today, except by alternative therapists. Many of today’s diagnostic procedures, such as blood tests, X rays and ultrasound revolve round high technology certainly not available in ancient times. The argument regarding ultrasound is really quite inappropriate. The fact that ultrasound procedures were used in submarine detection has no bearing on the spiritual acceptance or otherwise of such a procedure. That this was originally used in warfare does not make it bad in itself. This was just a scientific discovery, which, like so many others, could be used by man for good or for ill. We would agree, the benefits of ultrasound are extremely valuable in diagnosis, especially in pregnancy, heart conditions and tumours but this is certainly not based on any non-Christian religious or philosophical idea. Ultrasound techniques used in treatment surely do not have any spiritual connotations – good or bad.

The medical world recognises that the most rapid improvement in such areas as plastic surgery, fracture treatment and tropical disease control take place during times of war but this does not invalidate their use. We agree that Christians need great care in appraising the wide range of diagnostic procedures and treatment options available today which is, of course, the object of such booklets as “Looking into Alternative Therapies.” It is not the religion of the originator of a new medicine or technique, which matters, but whether there is an intrinsic spiritual element in the treatment. This is not likely to be true of a drug, e.g. an antibiotic but might well be true of a technique such as yoga.

Regarding the apparent discovery of Soviet scientists photographing energy moving along pathways described in the oriental system of acupuncture and similar reports of Korean scientists injecting radioactive phosphorus and tracing it along acupuncture pathways, we have no knowledge of these and would be interested to see any articles or papers produced by these scientists.

The only thing I am aware of that bears any resemblance to this is Kirlian photography, which is some form of electrical/colour representation of energy patterns in and around the body, which they describe as an aura.

This does not have any scientific value in either the diagnosis or treatment of disease from an orthodox medical viewpoint. Their findings are totally at variance with known anatomy and physiology of the body and would throw this into total confusion if they were substantiated. I do not believe this is possible.

The fact that we are suspicious of practices coming from the East is not based on geographical location or racial prejudice. It is because even a fairly superficial examination of major therapies such as acupuncture and its associated therapies, e.g. acupressure and shiatsu, show that they are based on Taoist religious philosophy and the view that God is an ENERGY e.g. the Ch’i of acupuncture, the Ki of Shiatsu etc., rather than a personal God. The theory of acupuncture meridians and points was devised long before dissection of the human body was allowed. A recent translation from the original Chinese of “The Yellow Emperor’s book of Internal Medicine” explains that, “Yin Yang is the Way (Deo) of heaven and earth, the principle of everything, the origin of life and death, and the palace of God (or the gods)”. This is the basis of Christian objections to these therapies.

There may indeed be many things about the human body that we do not know but present knowledge of anatomy and physiology by no means depends upon the naked eye appearances only. There is no doubt about the general anatomical structure of the body, the position of organs, nerves, arteries etc. and has been well established by dissection, microscopic examination and further by the use of the electron microscope. The function of these various structures and organs is very largely agreed by precise scientific investigation and this knowledge is effectively used in the treatment of disease by orthodox medicine.

With regard to aromatherapy, there is a widespread confusion here between the general use of aromatic oils and aromatherapy as a specific holistic alternative treatment, as set out by Gattefosse, Valnet and Franchomme. There is no doubt that aromatic oils have been used quite legitimately in ancient days and up to the present day in a variety of ways.

Acceptable uses of aromatic oils include their uses as perfumes, cosmetics, fumigation, embalming, antiseptics, decongestants, incense and anointing. Frankincense has long been used as an embalming ointment. Eucalyptus and menthol are valuable oils in the treatment of nasal and sinus problems. (Lemon is not really an aromatic oil but does contain vitamin C, which prevents scurvy and also improves healing of the skin). Tea tree oil certainly includes some antiseptic elements, although it has not taken its place yet amongst generally accepted orthodox medicine. When used by the aboriginals it probably was associated with occult rituals but there is no doubt about the presence of some healing elements in tea tree oil. Agreed that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, which may lead to treatment problems in the future and control of other infections by antiseptics may well be important but there is no spiritual philosophy or harm behind all this.

Some oils used in aromatherapy are also effective in the treatment of hair lice and repelling insects and any insect repellent such as lemon oil and tea tree oil may lessen the dangers of malaria and dengue fever if they decrease the likelihood of being bitten by a mosquito. Again, there is no spiritual content to this situation. Salbutamol (Ventolin), which is not an aromatic oil, is a commonly used drug for the treatment of asthma. It certainly has side effects such as urinary retention and hyperactivity but again there is no spiritual content to its usage.

Information upon which we base our views of alternative therapy is largely drawn from textbooks and promotional material of those practising and advocating their use. This includes the textbook, “The Art of Aromatherapy” by Robert Tisserand, founder of the Tisserand Institute quoted to be the leading organisation of research and education in the art and practice of aromatherapy. It refers frequently to the “Life Force” in the various oils and states that the main principles of this therapy are: 1. Life Force, 2. Yin Yang and 3. Organic Foods.

These oils are classed as yin or yang in their effect and this symbol appears prominently in this book. Foods are also classes as yin or yang in their influence. There are also astrological connotations in that various oils are listed as having ruling planets. Ancient sources indicate that there was a distinct difference between the use of aromatic oils as perfumes and those with healing properties. Magicians and priestesses very often dispensed these latter.

It is agreed from a medical point of view that a whole range of medicaments such as Brufen, steroids, anti-anginal drugs, and some hormones can be absorbed through the skin. When used in orthodox medical treatment, however, the dose has been carefully determined by scientific methods and any possible side effect are minimised. These drugs are not aimed at treating spiritual problems. In the case of aromatherapy, however, there is no such exact determination of the dosage and an investigation by the Consumer Association showed a considerable number of these aromatic oils could be harmful, particularly in pregnancy.

Aromatic oils used as perfumes again may be perfectly acceptable but any ritual or spiritual connotation is, of course, suspect.

Regarding Reflexology and Acupuncture, there is certainly considerable confusion regarding the basic principles upon which these therapies depend. This is apparent in the differing accounts of these two therapies and zone therapy, as set out in their various textbooks. The basis of acupuncture and ancient reflexology were both related to the Ch’i energy theory and the points and meridians of acupuncture or the less clearly defined channels of energy in reflexology. Both were said to run up and down the body connecting skin points with various internal organs.

In 1913, however, Dr William Fitzgerald publicised his new theory based on a geometric slicing of the body into ten zones relating to our fingers and toes. He theorised that external stimulation of the fingers or toes could have a beneficial healing effect on the organs relating to these slices up and down the body. Even the most elementary anatomical knowledge would suggest that this is a most unreasonable and bizarre concept as all the major organs are spread over larger sections of the body and certainly not confined within the ten individual slices. Reflexology and Fitzgerald’s zone therapy have now become inextricably mixed together leading to much confusion, which is evident when comparing carious textbooks on these subjects.

Reflexology and divining – the basic principle of body slices upon which reflexology depends would really negate there being any possibility of diagnosing illness by touch or massage on the various organ related spots on the feet. If there is no scientific evidence for this method of diagnosis it must then either be valid or some form of divination. Reflexology cannot be called a science because science relies on experimentation, investigation and regular reproduction of these findings. This is not so with reflexology.

The theory and results in reflexology are by no means proven. This is further complicated by the fact that charts supplied by various reflexologists (and also zone therapists) show considerable differences and not just “slight discrepancies.” For example, one reflexologist will show a stomach stimulation area on the side of the left foot and another locates it on the second toe. A zone therapist has the stomach area situated on the ball of the foot! Similarly with the kidneys, one reflexologist shows the kidney area on the outside of the foot and a zone therapist on the centre of the sole etc.

To raise the question of copyright, again is really a non-starter. We are not talking about minor variations here or new discoveries but significantly variant features within the same therapy.

There seem to be almost as many varieties of Reiki as there are people involved in it. Whilst it is usual for the Reiki masters to initiate teaching and training, it can then be used as a self-help therapy. I can enclose several photocopies of their promotional leaflets, which are of interest.

It may well be that more GP’s are recommending or using alternative therapies but personally I’m sure there must be some limit to this when repeated investigations by such people as Professor Ernst at Exeter University, the only professor of complementary medicine in this country, is continually producing information giving very little credence to by far the majority of alternative therapies. I think the tide is beginning to turn a little and the suggestion that a GP will refuse to prescribe repeated medicines to a patient unless they try some aromatherapy is rather far fetched! The majority of patients quite rightly still demand evidence-based medicine. This is contrasted with the illogical but current interest in alternative therapies for which the evidence is, to quote a BMA spokesman, “scanty to say the least.”

Regarding the sources of our information, these are essentially the textbooks and information leaflets produced by the therapists themselves as well as testimony from those who have been involved in these therapies, either as a practitioner or as a patient. There are ample warnings in scripture against any contact with the occult.

The problem with alternative medicine is not only that there is little if any evidence for the vast majority of these therapies working other than by the placebo effect but that they do have the possibility of inflicting spiritual harm, particularly on Christians. Certainly in the case of such therapies as acupuncture, yoga etc., they involve acceptance of a philosophy of religious origin which is totally at variance with the Christian gospe.

Back to question page