Posted by: Ticktock | January 9, 2009

No Such Thing as Alternative Medicine

It can’t be said enough that medicine is medicine.  It either works… or it doesn’t work.  The term “alternative medicine” means nothing.  These “alternative” placebo-based treatments are not required to undergo double blind controlled studies, they are not required to report adverse effects, and they are not regulated in any meaningful way by the government.  Basically, any random treatment that seems plausible can be called “alternative” and parents will believe it based on anecdotes or a common distrust of doctors.

CNN has decided to chime in with their recommendations of CAM treatments.  Top of the list is… probiotics.  I’m starting to doubt the value of probiotics just by the simple fact that it keeps getting lumped in with “alternative” medicine.  However, it does seem to help with diarrhea.  Of course, the concept of gut bacteria helping digestion is based on solid evidence and observation, so I’m not sure why it’s constantly described as CAM.  In any case, my daughter currently has diarrhea, and I plan on buying some probiotics for her.  One thing to be wary of is that probiotics is an umbrella term for different strains of healthy bacteria, some do better than others, such as Lactobacillus GG, S. boulardii, and L. reuteri.

Chamomile was offered up as an alternative treatment for colic.  It seems that there is one study that shows it can be mildly effective.  I find the evidence lacking, and it’s quite telling that the article features an appeal to antiquity for chamomile; it’s been a treatment for years, so it must be good, right?  Any time I hear that argument my red flag goes up.

St. John’s Wort is another herb mentioned where there is not a lot of research.  If anything the results were mixed and underwhelming.  One thing CNN didn’t mention is that St. John’s Wort interacts strangely with pharmaceuticals and creates complications in that regard.  I think many people would be surprised about that, since you won’t find that mentioned on the labels of too many St. John’s Wort products.

CNN gets a B- so far for the simple fact that they did not mention homeopathy, chiropractic, or acupuncture, but they drop a letter grade for bringing up the ever-popular fish oil.  Don’t get me wrong, the fatty acids from fish oil are important supplements for people with heart conditions, but there is no evidence that I know of that it helps with allergies or eczema.  But, Omega-3 has been trotted out as a miracle food by Dr. Oz and so many others that parents might be confused about it’s benefits.  Just to repeat – fish oil is ineffective against asthma and eczema.

Of all the different alternative medicines to offer children, I find the above treatments to be relatively harmless, and even possibly… helpful.  I say possibly because there isn’t enough research that I could find on any of these recommendations.  I guess that’s why they are considered “alternative”.  Whatever.  I’ll stick with the mainstream treatments, where I know the benefits and the side effects, and I know that they’ve been sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness.

I wonder if using ambiguously beneficial alternative medicines as an example of CAM is some kind of new tactic from CAM practitioners.  Get you in the door with the best that they have to offer, so that they can sell you inert homeopathic placebos and other dubious herbal remedies once you are suckered in.  I say this because this isn’t the first time I’ve written about probiotics and herbal colic remedies.  I feel like I’m repeating myself.



  1. As Tim Minchin says “Do you know what they call Alternative Medicine that works? Medicine.”

  2. Whoa! I think it’s frightening that a site with the viewership of CNN is actively promoting these things that have not been tested as cures FOR CHILDREN, none the less.

    I think I’ll stick with prayer. Kidding!

  3. Do not be so sure that the mainstream treatments have been sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness. The past is full of scenarios where drugs were found to not follow the results from the clinical trials and subsequently recalled or halted.

    • Exactly. Proving that the system works, even when it’s weaknesses are exploited. Right?

  4. Next thing you’ll be saying is that ginger ale is not a cold treatment. I chastise you in advance. Harrumph.

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