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What Doctors And Alternative Healers Can Learn From Each Other

January 31, 2019 1:38 p.m.

Guest: Melanie Warner, author, 'The Magic Feather Effect: The Science of Alternative Medicine and The Surprising Power of Belief'

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Some people swear by the healing power of alternative medicine. In fact the NIH says about one third of American adults at some point seek some form of alternative treatment for chronic illness whether it's acupuncture or energy crystals. Does it work. Well Melanie Werner is a freelance journalist who writes about health and science and she set out to find some answers in her new book The magic feather effect. The science of alternative medicine and the surprising power of belief. Melanie welcome. Thank you it's nice to be here. So first what falls into the category of alternative medicine.

The biggest category of alternative medicine is actually nutritional supplements and vitamins. And then after that you have meditation and breathing exercises a lot of people are doing that. Yoga is increasingly popular. Taichi is also become increasingly popular acupuncture chiropractic. Those are some of the things that I looked at in my book specifically treatments that can take advantage of mind body interaction. So I looked at acupuncture I looked at chiropractic I looked even at different types of energy healing Reiki is probably the most common type of energy healing and then I looked at mindfulness meditation and a little bit at yoga as well and to write this book.

You sat down with people from all over the world right who study and use these various forms of alternative medicine. What surprised you most about alternative medicine and the people you learned from.

I was surprised to find a lot of serious scientists mounting investigations of alternative therapies so acupuncture has been extremely well study. There are over a thousand clinical trials that have been done on people looking at does acupuncture work. I know many of these have not been very large or rigorous but there have been studies done in recent years that have shown that acupuncture does have effectiveness chiropractic has been subjected to a lot of studies as well and these researchers are trying to understand look these things have been practiced for a long time. There are specific traditional theories about how they might work some of a lot of those are not necessarily scientifically based.

They don't have a basis in known physiology of the human body. Let's look at what the active ingredients might be for these therapies and how they might actually be working.

All right. I mean because for thousands of years as you said you know people all over the world have used what we in the Western world would consider alternative medicine for various elements. I mean do you think that some of this alternative medicine just kind of exceeds our scientific understanding.

It is difficult to study. I mean it's very easy to look at drugs and test drugs in randomized placebo controlled clinical trials so that's when you give people a group of people the new drug and then you give others a sugar pill and nobody knows they're getting the real drug or the sugar pill and then you separate out that so-called placebo response that people get from the sugar pill and what's left is the effect that the actual drug has. And it's much harder to try and figure out how alternative therapies are working because it's thought that you're involving lots of aspects of mind body interactions and you're actually including the placebo effect which for a long time was discounted and you had to separate it out to look at the effect of drugs what happens if these therapies are working because of the placebo effect.

And by that researchers are looking at all different kinds of things involving neurobiology and mechanisms inside the brain. And those are a lot harder to study due to the complexity of the human brain.

You've mentioned the placebo effect. I wonder you know did you find out about how our attitudes and beliefs impact our health. You know does a good attitude about a specific treatment or healing contribute to that placebo effect.

Yeah. That's the that's the thinking I mean a lot of doctors have known this for for a long time just intuitively that they used to call it a good bedside manner that that could help people's outcomes. It could direct them in positive ways towards positive behaviors. It could even change their how they experience their symptoms like pain or fatigue anxiety or stress and depression things like that. Now there is increasing scientific research to support those feelings and ideas that doctors have always had. And I think that this is this is an exciting area where we'll see a lot more research in the past couple of decades.

This is something that placebo researchers have been trying to understand how do things like empathy and attention the sense of being cared for the sense of being given hope that you can recover that your body can heal. How do all these things play into what doctors and researchers would call the therapeutic encounter. I spent some time at Harvard Medical School when I was doing this book Talking to a dean who surprised me by talking about these elements and saying that he thinks that these are just as important if not more important than all the biomedical stuff and all the testing and concern about physiology that doctors also have to do these soft elements of sitting down talking with a patient trying to understand understand where a patient is coming from what a patient needs dealing with people on a more intuitive level.

In his view he thinks is just an important part of medicine as all the other stuff.

And are there any forms of alternative medicine that are scientifically proven to work.

It's an interesting question. It depends on what you how you think about what works. So skeptics when they come at this this question they say look these therapies don't work beyond a placebo. So that means when for instance acupuncture one group gets the real acupuncture and then the other the other group gets a fake form of acupuncture with a retractable needle where it never actually goes into the skin. It might be an all the wrong spots on the body but it feels like the real thing to the patients and what you see is there's not much of an effect in terms of pain relief between the real needling the fake needling.

But the interesting thing is for studies that have included a third group where they look at a group of patients who may be on a waitlist for acupuncture or they're just getting their usual care from their doctors you see a really interesting difference at effect size for both the real and the fake acupuncture over that usual care. So that suggests that acupuncture is working much better than the therapies that are currently available and it can be used as a therapy to give people a sense of a sense of relief especially from pain and specifically certain types of chronic pain conditions which is what it's been most studied for.

What about healing crystals meditation salt lamps.

Did you find out there those are those have not really been there and not really been studied. I looked at energy healing I mean there's been a little bit of research on reiki and a few other types of energy healing but they haven't been large rigorous clinical trials to really look at whether.

These things could be effective by some of the same mechanisms as acupuncture and all the other things that people are using like crystals and salt just to say that those work more than a placebo you you'd have to do the the studies to show that like OK the salt that people are using actually has an effect but most likely those if they're working they're working as a placebo so then you have to ask are they really a good placebo based on what we know about the placebo response and the things that elicit a placebo response which is all the things I was talking about earlier the the belief and the empathetic interaction I've been speaking with Melanie Warner author of the magic feather effect the science of alternative medicine and the surprising power of belief.

She's been speaking with us via Skype. Melanie thanks so much for joining us. Thank you so much.