Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eastern vs. Western Medicine

I am an evidence-based kind of person. But I also believe that our bodies are interacting systems and this recent trend in medicine to treat people like they are a collection of body parts is not good medicine.

This puts me in an interesting position when it comes to things like Vitamin Supplements and Acupuncture. Right now I'm taking both "whole food" supplements and having needles stuck in me a few times a week and I have to admit that I am skeptical.

My calf is getting better but I don't feel like it's getting better any faster than if I wasn't taking handfuls of pills three times a day, smearing smelly liquids on my calf and getting needles stuck in me. For one thing, I still haven't stressed it by going back to running so of course it's healing. Plus, I'm back to PT and I feel like I'm getting better no faster than when I was doing PT alone.


On the acupuncture front, I did a little reading on the subject and have come to conclude that Qi and meridians and all that is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. It seems that in studies of migraine suffers, the groups who got traditional acupuncture did get slight relief but so did the group that got random needles stuck into them. The current theory is that sticking needles in your epidermis causes your nervous system to react in a way that helps with pain management but it doesn't matter where you stick them.

This is actually good news for me because now I don't have to worry that my acupuncturist isn't sticking the needles in the right place as there is no "right place."

However, acupuncture doesn't seem to work for everyone and the amount of relief is often small when it does work. It's also not clear if there is a multiplying effect if you combine acupuncture with traditional western therapies for the sorts of things that it has been shown to help with. The studies show it helping with one or two conditions vs. not doing anything but not what happens when you combine it with taking pills or doing physical therapy.

I also had the experience of my back going out right about when I first started acupuncture. So my acupuncturist is also treating that. I did find that the whole "cupping" thing gave me immediate relief, but it was short-lived. I tried treating my back with all natural treatments. I iced it at first, then alternated ice and heat. I didn't take anything for it. And it didn't get better.

As soon as I took my Robanix, BOOM, my back stopped spamming and it got better and better. The Aleve seemed to help too.

So right now the score is: Chinese Medicine: 0 Western Medicine: 1

I'm still going to do acupuncture for my calf at least for a little while longer, as I want to give it a fair shot. Plus, I can't know how fast I would have healed without it so maybe it is doing something and it's just that my expectations were for it to be doing much more than it is. But at some point, if I am not seeing any benefits, I'm going to pull the plug.

I'm also not going to take any more of these supplements once mine run out. I'm not going to take all the other ones that my acupuncturist wants me to take for various imbalances that I supposedly have.

Speaking of "whole food" supplements, the theory is that these are better for you than "synthetic" supplements because micro-nutrients don't exist in a vacuum. There is no Vitamin C plant. You get Vitamin C from fruits such as oranges and tomatoes and oranges and tomatoes have other ingredients that help the Vitamin C get absorbed. However, as anyone who knows anything about chemistry will realize: if two ingredients have the exact same molecular structure, they are going to be treated the same by your body. Your body doesn't somehow magically know which molecule came from the whole food source vs. the synthetic source.

The other issue with "whole food" supplements is that there isn't the quality control you can have with a synthetic supplement. Every orange doesn't have the exact same amount of vitamin C so, if you make your Vitamin C by crushing up oranges, you don't know exactly how many mg is in your supplement. All my whole food supplements have a notice on the box that they contain many more micronutrients than are listed because it's impossible to know what they all are.

So basically I have to trust the manufacturers, I guess. But I'm not that trusting. It's okay with me to not know exactly how many mg of calcium is in a particular pill. After all, I find it unlikely that my Citrical pills have exactly 500 mg of calcium citrate. I'm sure some pills have 505 mg and others have 494 mg. On the other hand, I'm not okay with "this is a multivitamin that has everything you need but we can only tell you about two ingredients." That's way more inexact than I am comfortable with.

Finally, whole food supplements often smell and taste bad. This is because they don't have a coating like a lot of synthetic supplements do. This is good in a way: no coating means it's more likely to be absorbed. But it also means you have to have a strong stomach for ingesting nasty smelling and tasting pills.

This doesn't get into whether or not the particular supplements I'm taking do what I'm told they do or if they are dangerous or not. After all, not everything natural is safe and not everything safe is natural.

At this point, I'm going to continue to take the supplements that I've been ordered to until they run out. But I'm not going to take any more after that. I'm going to continue taking my "bought at the grocery store" supplements and continue to take them with food so that they have the best chance of being absorbed.

I'm also going to continue with PT because I can see that working and it's worked for me before.

Oh and I'm starting to do water jogging. Now that is working out quite well and has managed to exceed my expectations. I think I may continue to water jog right up until my Ironman, doing my longest workouts in the pool instead of on the street.
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