CNN Food and Health

Alternative medicine: Hope or hype?

Experts spar on therapies ranging from herbal potions to acupuncture

September 24, 1995
Web posted at: 5:15 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- From elderly Americans with chronic health problems to young sufferers of such maladies as migraines, an increasing number of people are turning to non-traditional forms of treatment. And the medical establishment has taken note. Some doctors now prescribe such therapies as acupuncture, but others are quick to cry quackery.

CNN hosted a discussion among three experts who represent a healthy cross-section of opinions on alternative medicine: Dr. James Gordon of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine; Dr. Hank Greenberg, a cardiologist at the New York Academy of Sciences; and Dr. Jack Raso, a nutritionist with the National Council Against Health Fraud.

The Experts

JAMES GORDON HANK GREENBERG JACK RASO

Raso labeled alternative medicine "the new opiate of the people." Once interested in non-conventional therapies, Raso said he has written them off. "I began reading a lot of the skeptical literature," he said. "And the more of the skeptical literature I read, the more inclined I was to disbelieve the claims."

Gordon responded that Raso was short-selling opium, which "has been a wonderful pain reliever for many centuries," and he noted that people tended to seek alternative medicine when conventional therapies failed them.

"It's not assuaging them," Gordon said. "For some people, it's a pathway to some kind of health -- to confronting illnesses that they really haven't gotten better from."

Moreover, he said, so-called "alternative" medicine often combines the best of both worlds. "Many of us prefer the term 'complementary medicine,'" he said, "because it indicates that what we're doing is that we're creating a larger whole. We're creating a new medicine which combines what we know of traditional bio-scientific medicine, and which brings in many other traditions from the world's healing cultures."

Greenberg, who took the middle ground in the debate, said much of the conflict lay in definitions. "The 'alternative medicine' that really bothers me," he said, "is when unregulated non-traditional practitioners are managing new onset symptoms."

Greenberg and Gordon agreed that alternative therapies should undergo the same rigorous testing as conventional treatments. However, Gordon and Raso exchanged fiery words over the treatments in question.

True to his profession, cardiologist Greenberg cut to the heart of the matter, noting that whatever the future may hold, non-traditional potions are not regulated at the moment. "Anybody can, in their garage, manufacture these agents," he said. "No one knows what's in them. ... We don't know the proper dose -- if there is one."

If all goes as planned at the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, those answers someday will be available. Double- blind studies already are in the works for a number of remedies and, said Gordon, "We're collaborating with the FDA every step of the way."



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