Alternative medical approaches abounding, confounding

It’s a subject matter rife with passion, declarations of healing remedies, accusations of quackery, and, always, questions. How is a person, convicted of his need to take better care of himself, to negotiate the preponderance of information called forth with one simple Google quest for “alternative medicine?”

Just typing in the phrase alternative medicine pulled 37 million hits. The search was narrowed to a mere 12.5 million hits by putting in quotes the phrase “alternative medicine.”

Put on a pot of coffee. This could take a while.

Actually, make that decaf. At least that is what some proponents of alternative or “complementary” medicine would suggest. Avoid the stimulants (Try telling church folk to forego the coffee during Sunday School and fellowships. That will go over well).

But therein lies the problem. According to a study, Southern Baptists, as a whole, have not practiced enough self denial when it comes to indulgences of the culinary kind. In his book “Fat Land,” Greg Critser notes the study of Purdue University sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro in which the professor sought to determine whether there was a relationship between religion and obesity in America. Unfortunately, he found it in the pews of Southern Baptist churches.

Summarizing what he believed to be the crux of the matter, Critser wrote, “And so when it came to overeating, gluttony, and obesity, Christians, like everyone else in America, were in deep, deep denial.

Mike Wiechmann would probably avoid the “glutton” moniker as well in describing those who come to his Friendswood store for help and advice. Owner and proprietor of a natural supplements and organic grocery store and café, Wiechmann understands that most people come by their poor health honestly?they brought it on themselves. But others have it visited upon them by no fault of their own. And those who seek counsel for better health find a listening ear and earnest guidance, just as if confiding in a pastor.

A graduate of Criswell College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wiechmann, 55, spent years in the ministry, serving as pastor of several Texas churches until his failing health forced him to leave his last post at Great Hills Church in Austin. It was about 30 years ago when Wiechmann?a young pastor, husband, and father?began having symptoms of a digestive disorder. He admits he had not been taking care of himself?eating on the run and not running?the counterbalance of poor diet and lack of exercise began to take its toll.

Wiechmann initially ignored the symptoms, even as painful as they were. He finally relented to a colonoscopy exam by a gastroenterologist, fearing the worst?cancer. But the results came back negative. Relieved that he had no deadly disease, Wiechmann asked the doctor about his painful and chronic symptoms. The physician had no answers and told Wiechmann to be reexamined in a couple of years.

The lack of a definitive diagnosis and treatment left Wiechmann not only desperate for relief but disillusioned with the medical community in whom he had placed his trust for healing.

“Not all doctors are divine as I thought they were,” he said.

He realized he would have to take his health matters into his own hands. More searching turned up a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and, ultimately fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and hypothyroidism, leading Wiechmann in search of treatment answers. It took six years of naturopathic health care?a holistic form of health care incorporating diet, exercise, supplemental nutrients, and notably void of conventional medications and treatments?until he regained his health.

Wiechmann’s story is not unlike that of others who have sought treatment outside of conventional medicine. Lack of an effective treatment, treatments with unacceptable side effects, or simply a desire to avoid traditional pharmaceuticals have directed alternative medicine newcomers and long-time advocates to health food and supplement stores and the counsel of people like Wiechmann.

The search for care unique to each individual can be overwhelming. Because the field of naturopathic care lies, by design, outside the realm of conventional medicine and Federal Drug Administration regulations, discerning the efficacy and safety of supplements and popular diets can leave a person wondering what treatments will truly help or lead to complications.

North Texas gastroenterologist David Gifford warned those who seek improved health via over-the-counter cure-alls should be wary of supplements and the claims made by their manufacturers. Whereas prescription drugs are highly regulated by the FDA, the contents of dietary supplements are not.

Gifford said, “Let the buyer beware. There are all sorts of claims by various sellers of the benefit of their products. Without independent studies and outcome measurements, how can we know?”, a privately held New York company that conducts independent evaluations of health and nutrition products, gives insight as to what, exactly, is in that bottle on the health food store shelf. For example, a report released in August showed 45 percent of the ginseng supplements tested “contained less ginseng than expected from their labels or were contaminated with lead and/or pesticides.”

“Consumers need to be wary of the quality of ginseng supplements,” said physician Tod Cooperman, president of, in a press release. The quality of ginseng products?an $83 million business in the U.S.?has come into question for the past 10 years, according to the report.

The company’s website lists scores of supplements that have fallen under FDA scrutiny. Consumers may access detailed reports through the company’s subscription services.

As self-serving as it sounds, physician Jeffrey Levin recommended individuals seek the counsel of their doctor when considering alternative treatments and diets. Levin is professor and chair of occupational health and science at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Tyler. He also chairs the Texas Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health.

The TMA does not have a policy statement addressing alternative and complementary health care but instead defers to the American Medical Association’s policy on the matter.

Although the point of alternative care is to seek counsel outside of traditional medicine, Levin said most doctors are open enough to discuss such treatments. And on the Mayo Clinic website a search for an illness or medical problem will give a variety of information including alternative treatments.

But a common complaint against physicians is a lack of in-depth knowledge of nutrition, diet and supplemental care. Levin acknowledged the slight.

“I think it’s valid to say our curriculum could do a better job of understanding the role of nutrition in health care,” he said.

Alternative or complementary care is defined, to a degree, by how much its proponents distance themselves from traditional medicine. Complementary care is, as its name implies, a combination of traditional and naturopathic treatment. The two complement each other. Alternative medicine seeks to find treatment and lifestyle changes for optimal health outside the realm of a physician’s prescription. The degree to which alternative medicine advocates distance themselves is where much of the confusion arises. Some proponents simply agree to disagree with conventional medicine, arguing that naturopathic care treats more than symptoms and is a holistic approach to overall well-being.

But others do not just campaign for alternatives but go so far as to demonize the current health care system, pharmaceuticals, and anything non-organic, arguing commercially mass-pro

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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