Monday, January 7, 2013

What Is Medicine Good For?

I thought this comment that someone posted today on Naked Capitalism was interesting:
From the dawn of the printing press, up to about 1900 or so, there were many published “cookbooks” of proven medical remedies. Just about every ailment you could think of, and more. Among the authors/books include Nicholas Culpeper, Joseph Blagrave, Richard Saunders (he of “Poor Richard” fame), the Smiths Family Physician, Brother Aloysius, and, I presume, many others. These are all the ones I’ve run down so far.

Medicine has traditionally been divided between city doctors, who had money and books and training, but who were riddled by fads and whose medicine was largely ineffective and useless, versus country doctors, who grew up on the land and knew herbs and animals and tricks and techniques. Lots of hand-me-down, traditional cures, some of which will flatly amaze you. But they were rural, isolated and often poor and traditionally were sneered at by their city cousins. The movie, The Ciderhouse Rules, played this out.

This came to a head a century ago. At the time Eclectic Medicine was all the rage. It was based on gonzo country-doctor herbalism, plus whatever else seemed to work. It was cheap, it was effective, it was wildly popular and universally hated by city doctors who struck back with the Flexner report. I don’t normally give Wiki as a source, but if you want the origins of modern medicine, such as it is, read this carefully:
Flexner not only stamped out herbalism, he eliminated medicine as a whole. All those books I mentioned were thrown away wholesale. Or, to be precise, were locked up in medical libraries, where no one has seen them since. Enterprising reprint houses and various used book vendors have them for sale. Having reprinted one or two of them myself, I can report surviving copies are nearly black from constant use, which is testimony you can’t buy with controlled studies.

You wanna strengthen your heart? Do this: Five minutes after sunrise on Sunday morning, clip a marigold blossom from a living plant. Combine that with sprigs of lavender and sage, taken directly from living plants at the same time, sunrise on Sunday. (Nurseries at Home Depot and Lowes have all three.) Wrap them up in a small piece of cloth (linen is suggested, I in fact use a paper towel) and wear it around your neck, 24/7. This is one of Blagrave’s more trivial cures, and it works wonders.

Here’s another. First thing every morning, get up half an hour early and run a drippy wet (cold) hand towel over your entire body. Including the soles of your feet. Takes less than a minute. Do not dry. Wrap yourself in a terrycloth robe, jump back into bed and stay there (watch TV) for half an hour. I set the electric blanket to high. Do that every day for 2-3 weeks. You will be surprised. This from Aloysius.
In one of the Star Trek movies, McCoy accused 20th century doctors of being “medieval.” He was wrong. Modern medicine is worse than medieval. Here it is directly: The worse medicine gets, the more expensive it will be. Direct relationship. Medicine that cures is quick and cheap. Anything else is quackery.
I'm reminded of a comment Gary Taubes made about how hundreds of years ago, doctors knew that obese patients needed to stop eating high-carb starchy foods like bread, pasta, sweets and potatoes. Then "science" intervened with its anti-fat anti-meat craze and got everybody eating low-fat foods where the fat was replaced with vegetable oils. Then everybody started getting fatter and sicker. If you read the link on the report, you'll note that one of the things it did is severely restrict the number of doctors and who could become physicians. As I always point out, schools are often there not to set people up in varous professions, but to keep them out. Here is the proof. Consider that the next time you hear about our accute physician shortage.

Coincidentally, on the same day I read a BBC story on the island of Ikaria, the poster child for the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle and star of one of The The New York Times’ most popular stories last year (which I also featured here): The Island Where People Forget To Die. More like "refuse to die," as this story attests:
It could be the fresh air and the friendly, easy-going, open-door lifestyle. It could be fresh vegetables and goat's milk. It could be the mountainous terrain. Everywhere on Ikaria is up, or down, so getting around keeps you fit. It could even be the natural radiation in the granite rocks. But Stamatis Moraitis thinks he knows what it is.  "It's the wine," he says, over a mid-morning glass at his kitchen table. "It's pure, nothing added. The wine they make commercially has preservatives. That's no good. But this wine we make ourselves is pure."
Stamatis celebrated his 98th birthday on New Year's Day. He says he's older, but his documents put his date of birth as 1 January 1915. Outside his whitewashed house are his beloved olive trees, his fruit trees, and his vines. He makes about 700 litres of wine a year, he says. "Do you drink it all yourself?" I ask. "No!" He's shocked at the suggestion. "I drink it with my friends."

The wine, and convivial days spent with friends and family, helped make Stamatis a poster-boy for the healing effects of Ikaria. Forty-five years ago, living in the US, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given nine months to live.

"At the time it was very expensive to have a funeral there," he remembers. "So I said to my wife 'I'm going home to Ikaria to be buried with my parents.'" By now he has a twinkle in his eye, and is in full flow. It's a story he has dined out on many times, and he clearly doesn't tire of telling it. "I found my friends in the village where I was born, and we started drinking. I thought, at least I'll die happy."
"Every day we got together, we drank wine, and I waited. Time passed by and I felt stronger. Nine months came - I felt good. Eleven months came - I felt better. And now, 45 years later, I'm still here! A few years ago I went back to the US and tried to find my doctors. But I couldn't find them. They were all dead."
And as for herbal remedies, in addition to the wine:
The most comprehensive work on Ikaria has been done by the University of Athens, whose researchers studied islanders aged over 65. On average, the 8,000 residents live 10 years longer than most Europeans and in much better health to the end.

There are many significant factors about the islanders' lifestyle which might contribute to their longevity. Even compared to a typical Mediterranean diet, Ikarians eat a lot of fish and vegetables, and relatively low levels of meat. Six out of 10 of people aged over 90 are still physically active, compared with about 20% elsewhere. Most food is cooked in olive oil. Large quantities of wild greens and herbs are gathered from the hillsides for both food and medicinal purposes.

Many older people make a daily brew of mountain tea from dried herbs such as sage, thyme, mint, and chamomile, and sweeten it with honey from local bees. "It cures everything," claims Stamatis. Many of the wild herbs are used by people all over the world as traditional remedies. They are rich in antioxidants and also contain diuretics which can lower blood pressure.
As I commented on yesterday's post about Jared Diamond, we need not go all the way back to hunter-gatherer societies in New Guinea to learn lessons on how human beings are supposed to live. But I guess we'll just keep building hospitals, pushing pills, and engaging in "innovative" medical research.

BONUS: What’s Inside a 2,000-Year-Old, Shipwreck-Preserved Roman Pill? (Smithsonian)


  1. I have to admit serious skepticism about some of these old remedies, especially the first one described above. Tying herbs around one's neck helps the heart -- really? Has there been skeptical but open-minded research into whether (and if so how) such remedies work?

    1. I have hunch a lot of these a psychosomatic. I know I'd feel a lot better after spending a morning clipping herbs in the garden ;-). I think I recall seeing research that there is a bacterium in soil tends to boost mood.

  2. Many family members, and I myself, have had very good results from Chinese traditional medicine. Chinese medicine is very formalized, and requires a lot of training in an institute, but it does seem to incorporate a lot more herbalism and holistic ideas.

    However it works, it really works!

    Chiropractics also seems to provide a lot of people with alternatives, and there is certainly homeopathy, and other alternative medicine modalities around.
    They are always under threat from the medical monopoly, of course.


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