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Substances vs Healing

By Michael Sharp, MD

One of the distinctions between functional and allopathic medicine is functional medicine’s core understanding that all disease comes from breakdown in healthy process, and that your body is going to tell you that things are going awry before they actually do. Most symptoms in most people are not the appearance of a disease, rather they are signs that parts of our physiology are not happy.

Michael Sharp, MD

These signs of unhappiness are almost always correctable by attention to healthy behaviors. This is not a perfect distinction since allopathic medicine recognizes the importance of nutrition, exercise, restorative sleep, and stress resilience—even if practitioners don’t always behave as if this were true.

One of the consequences of the allopathic perspective is the view that disease needs to be treated rather than health restored. Disease is of the body’s substance, fundamentally a biochemical process, and therefore needs to be addressed with biochemicals—and the forms of biochemicals of choice are ones created by the pharmaceutical industry. Drugs can be helpful, don’t misunderstand me. They help me.

One distinction between almost all pharmaceutical medications and natural supplements is that the natural substances usually address biochemical issues by nurturing and restoring normal function. Most pharmaceuticals usually block function that has become too predominant. While we can’t assume one to be more effective than another, we can safely say that natural supplements have far fewer side effects. This understanding, along with the hope of saving time and money, will see many people turn to natural supplements before going to a physician.

There is another reason for this. Although it happens much less frequently than it did 20 years ago when I first switched from allopathy to naturopathy, there persists the phenomenon of many physicians dismissing out of hand the role of nutritional supplements in treating illness. Some MDs still roll their eyes when they hear of a patient taking the initiative to try a supplement in the hopes of getting help. This is, of course, unscientific since there is often excellent science behind the choice of a supplement. Natural supplements are as amenable to randomized, double-blind, controlled studies as pharmaceuticals. The majority of supplements on the market have been subjected to published human trials that rate their efficacy for use in specific conditions. I subscribe to the Natural Medicines Database, where the world’s literature is scoured for evidence for and against natural substances. There are other such websites that do the same and are readily available without subscription.

This raises the question of why so many physicians are reluctant to be curious about these substances. One factor that may be at work is the threat some physicians may feel to their cultural power differential by patients who bring their own “power” to the examining room. This is sad, as it seems to me that curious, open, non-judgmental connection is the essence of a healthy doctor-patient relationship.

Another factor may be the complexity of this issue and the difficulty inherent to the Internet of sorting reliable and accurate information about the usefulness of natural products from marketing hype. The web is definitely full of products being promoted by anecdotal reports of wild success by individuals and companies that are better marketers than they are promoters of good health. I recommend you take as a red flag that any product you are considering is promoted primarily by testimonials. Please look up the ingredients and look for evidence for the safety and effectiveness of those ingredients. I would be especially wary of products involved in multi-level marketing systems.

I finish this article by returning to where I started. Remember that taking a pill is only one path to being healthy. Keep in mind that pills—whether of synthetic substances created in the lab or natural substances created in nature—are not necessarily the place to start. Rather than reaching Over-the-Counter, we might do better to reach inside. What is my body trying to tell me about my sleep, my diet, my exercise, and—especially—my stress level? And what is the best solution to addressing stress—an open, non-judging, curious, and warm connection to another. Keep your eyes out especially for those. They might be right across the counter!

To Your Health!