Musings: Taking Back the Power To Cure

Blogger Ian Welch asked the question: If following a whole food, plant-based diet is the healthiest diet for mankind, why haven’t I been made aware of it? His answer: Money. No one has a vested interest in promoting a whole food, plant-based diet. There’s not enough profit to be made.

The same can be said about alternative medicine, rooted in simple, low cost practices of self-care and prevention. There’s a smaller profit to be made when people are taking care of themselves and require outside medical services less often. Western allopathic medicine, on the other hand, is an industry flush with profit opportunity — patients can be prescribed unlimited prescriptions, receive annual vaccines and avail themselves of regularly scheduled and expensive diagnostic tests — all for an entire lifetime.

Healthcare is a matter of mindset. We believe modern medicine can cure us based on the successes achieved in the last century when the miracle of antibiotics wiped out the big sources of disease and infection in their day. Likewise, today’s extraordinary medical intelligence allows us to fix impossibly broken bodies and save lives on the brink of death. These are miracles we can believe in.

But we’ve become disillusioned with medicine’s cost, inability to cure disease and increasingly risky drug and treatment options. Today’s biggest killers — representing 75% of all healthcare costs — are the complex, chronic conditions brought on by our sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets, exposure to toxins and elevated stress levels. These include cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, arthritis, asthma and allergies. Our bodies are assaulted on so many levels no miracle pill of modern medicine exists to cure these conditions, though doctors continue prescribing and testing in vain. The power to cure is shifting from the doctor’s hands to the patient’s, reshaping our beliefs in the process.

Dean Ornish, a physician-researcher at the University of California at San Francisco and the founder of the independent Preventive Medicine Research Institute, was the original physician pioneer establishing natural healthcare guidelines as the “new normal” for mainstream medical advice today — clean up your diet, get more exercise, practice stress reduction. Well-documented research studies, not to mention millions of anecdotal cases, have confirmed that making these lifestyle changes can do a better job of preventing and reversing chronic disease than drugs and surgical procedures, and at a fraction of the cost.

Health policy blogger John McDonough sagely noted on “In America, we commonly advise people to talk with their physicians for nutrition advice. Yet the overwhelming majority of physicians learn nothing or nearly nothing in medical school about nutrition.” McDonough was commenting on the millions of people who are unaware they are lactose intolerant, and who, following federal guidelines advising us that everyone should drink at least three cups of milk and dairy per day (in support of the billions in dairy industry money funneled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture), end up with any number of serious gut issues.

The alternative medicine approach to digestive imbalance would focus on diet, eliminating wheat and dairy from the start, and possibly explore any emotional issues that might be causing a nervous stomach. An allopathic approach might talk about diet, but would first try to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms with a drug prescription — side effects unknown for the already imbalanced body — and possibly order further testing.

For the lactose intolerant patient, says McDonough, “advising them to cut out dairy or gluten before grabbing pills and other expensive treatments — it makes sense and it's free. For millions who have no idea they are lactose intolerant, it's a ‘get out of jail free’ card that can prevent misery and medical bills for many.”

How much of the national debt could be slashed by shifting to a natural healthcare model that educates people about how to feel better, live longer and successfully take charge of their health at home instead of in a doctor’s office? Not only would it help millions of Americans avoid developing grim diseases, harmful treatment side effects and the risk of unintended medical errors, but the financial savings would be enormous, both for consumers and for the preservation of America’s social safety net.

There are signs that our mainstream healthcare system is catching up with this commonsense wisdom, despite the decades that alternative medicine has spent fending off accusations of “quackery” from a hostile medical establishment. Notes Dr. Ornish, “I don’t understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it is medically conservative to cut people open and put them on cholesterol-lowering drugs for the rest of their lives.”

Due in part to consumer demand and in part to the triumph of alternative medicine over chronic disease, integrative medical research clinics have begun springing up all around the country, 42 of them at major academic institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Duke. These clinics are incubating new beliefs for the future of medicine that recognize the power to cure belongs back in the hands of the patient.

In hospital settings, however, integrative medicine proponents are often too quick to assert that “alternative treatments do not cure, but offer comfort and symptom relief,” a statement that belies a misunderstanding about holistic medicine in general, or perhaps just a fear of malpractice suits. Alternative medicine is as responsible for curing disease and assisting the body in healing as its allopathic counterpart; they each have their different areas of healing expertise. When western and alternative medicine join together as equal healing partners, America will have the finest integrative healthcare system in the world.

Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change, New England’s largest holistic magazine. Visit