Your Medicine, My Medicine

Medicine.  How do you define medicine?  Is it a pill? An injection? A cough drop?

The Chinese have a medicine.  We call it Chinese medicine.  Americans too have a medicine.  The Chinese call it Western medicine.

A friend of mine likes supplements to keep him sharp and boost his workouts.  He told me that after a night of drinking he takes a favorite supplement to hydrate him before sleep.  No hangover in the morning.  I told him, “That’s your medicine.”

Let’s be real: what’s the difference between taking a moistening herbal decoction, taking a pill that stimulates mucosal growth and taking supplement that has some hydrating effect?  Is one more of a medicine than another?  No.  In fact, if there’s anything I’ve learned in acupuncture school, medicine is what you make of it.

Amongst Western herbalists there is a strong culture of homemade, handmade, and crafted.  The human element is a huge factor.  Just like how grandma’s cooking makes Thanksgiving special, so does the process of making something (in this case, medicine) make that something more meaningful, more powerful, and more potent.

What I’m talking about is placebo, and just look at how my little MacBook dictionary defines the term:

placebo |pləˈsēbō|

noun (pl. placebos)

a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect: his Aunt Beatrice had been kept alive on sympathy and placebos for thirty years | [ as modifier ] : placebo drugs.

• a substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs.

• a measure designed merely to calm or please someone.

ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘I shall please,’ from placere ‘to please.’

And yet for me, placebo has become a word that’s associated with self-healing, a process where injuries heal with little physical influence.  Just look at this account below:

Last week the New England Journal of Medicine published yet another trial showing that fake surgery can be as good as the real thing. This time the subjects were candidates for knee surgery, with a torn meniscus and debilitating pain. When they arrived in the operating room, study surgeons in Finland performed either a meticulous repair of the torn cartilage, or a charade. Incisions were made, and closed, with no other intervention. In case anesthetized patients could hear or understand, the doctors and nurses passed instruments, made surgical sounds, and pretended to do surgery for as long as the procedure would normally take.

Both surgeries worked. Unfortunately for proponents of the meniscus surgery, however, subjects who underwent the fake procedure experienced just as much improvement in pain and activity as those whose meniscus was actually repaired.

I’ve also heard of this occurring with open heart surgery.  One patient had the surgery, the other was simply cut and closed up.  Both had effective treatments.

Derren Brown is a British TV celebrity with a love of psychology, hypnosis and statistics.  In his show “Faith and Fear” he runs a massive placebo experiment on dozens of unknowing participants.  In this experiment, groups of participants with issues ranging from allergies to fear are given a new miracle drug to cure their specific problem.  Participants are taken to a fake drug company, shown fake drug statistics, talk to fake doctors in white lab coats, given saline injections and sent home with bottles of sugar pills.

The experiment is a success.  Many participants overcome common problems, while others conquer their fear of heights and social anxiety.

My point here is to make a case for placebo and play with how big that concept can become.  Placebo may still be defined as something purely psychological or a “sham,” but it should not be discounted in such a way.  In the realm of holistic medicine, mind-body medicine, natural medicine, the work and intention brought into the process effects the outcome.  Grandma’s food is made with love.  Derren Brown’s sugar pill is coated in theater – just like the fake surgeries with doctors who make surgery noises.  At the end of the day, all are a part of the outcome.


Broadening my definition of medicine, I now walk around, hear about new therapies and old therapies and think about how so many of them are these unique, little relationships between doctor and patient.  Some people need the new stuff, the best stuff, the most expensive stuff because the cheap stuff won’t work.  Other people want traditional, conservative, the same stuff that’s always worked.  Some want sci-fi, some want fantasy.

Doctors, too, are in on this game.  I work with a naturopath who does IV therapy – custom bags of chemicals, minerals, and extracts all dripped straight into the bloodstream.  For him, he needs the biochemistry to make it real, the individualization to make it effective.  Patients trust his judgement and feed off his passion for medicine.  Many leave happy and return for more.

This relationship gets complicated when there is a lack of trust between patient and doctor.  The word receptive comes to mind when thinking of an ideal patient.  Open, relaxed. They may have some discomfort but they are ready to work with you and get better.   Chinese medicine says that it’s stagnation that causes pain.  Being stuck, stubborn, and uncompromising does not lead to a place of restoration.  How many patients come to the office still caught up in their sickness?  They will pay for you to deal with their problem and then leave unhappy because you didn’t fix it for them.  You could say that this patient has identified having a problem but isn’t ready to do the work.  They’ll say that they don’t have time to be sick when, really, they don’t have time to get better.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there.

To bring it back together and close up, I want to end by saying that medicine does not have to come from CVS or Walgreens, nor does it have to come from chicken-scratch prescriptions and hospitals.  We all have our own medicine within us.  The body can heal itself and we we can make powerful changes in our lives as well as the lives of others.   Take your friend’s favorite supplement combo.  Go to the theater and participate in the performance.  Love your grandma.

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