Monday, May 18, 2015

Pills against the ageless ills - Part V: Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is something I've been guilty of a lot. I no longer do it, but for years I took all sorts of stuff. Used to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia searching for cures for my various illnesses and looking into things that have had one or two scientific studies into whether they might be effective. Usually the control group tests with a small sample size. Not much to go on. But for me it was enough to try a lot of different things. And of course I never consulted my doctor, no self-respecting consumer of alternative medicine would talk to a trained professional about it, that would be preposterous. If the internet says it could work, that's good enough for me!

Thinking back, it really is kind of ridiculous. What went through my mind when I got myself some of that stuff I got and took it? With no real scientific evidence to back it up? Possibly with interactions with some of my actual medication, that just aren't researched yet? There basically two people who do this sort of stuff. Those who see alternative medicine as sort of a way of life, such as hippies, hipsters and other nutjobs. You know the type. And people who are really desperate. People like me. Suffering so badly from your afflictions and seeing no way out, proper medications not helping, we seek out anything that promises relief with however shady half-facts to back it up. It really seems like a ridiculous thing to do when you think about it, but when you're in a really, really bad situation and all you want is some relief, you'll do almost anything that you think can make things better. Does any of it actually work? To give you an idea, let me think of some of the stuff I tried out while acting on my vague hopes.

Of course the first thing anyone will get into is vitamin supplements. Minerals, too, but vitamins are the first thing. Vitamins are of course very important to human biology, and we all need them to function properly. Easily done when you eat properly. Of course we are all told that we don't get enough. Go to a doctor and have your blood examined for deficiencies, test comes out negative, and you still believe you're not getting enough of anything. There's a whole industry around telling people that. Now I can't speak for everyone, some people really do need to take supplements because they don't get enough of one thing for a variety of reasons. But for most of us, if we eat like we should, vitamin deficiencies are not something we should naturally worry about. Being in an awful situation with mental illness and looking into what you can do to help, it's the first thing you think of, though. B-vitamins in particular are praised just around every corner as a cure-all and B-vitamin complex capsules or tablets are a huge market targeting people like us, showering their product with all sorts of praise about what it can do for mental health. So that's something I really ate up. Quite literally. Don't think it did any harm, but much to everyone's surprise it turned out to be a dead end as far as improving mental health was concerned. Could have thought of that considering I did the aforementioned blood test at my doctor and had no deficiencies, and also am a vegetable nut who surely can't complain about a lack of  vitamin intake. Had to try it anyway.

Next came a whole array of things I stumbled upon in various Wikipedia articles. Usually reading an article about the illness of choice and the treatment section. There'd always be bits about how the university of wherever had done a study on whatever substance and it tested well against a control group. Usually only a single study done on it, always with a small sample size. For me, in my situation, that was always good enough to think "awesome, scientific evidence!" and see it as a very promising lead, conjuring up all sorts of hopeful scenarios to the point that I told myself I could be cured if I tried this.

The very first thing I came up with was L-tryptophan. It's what your body needs to synthesise serotonin, the stuff a lot of science-y guys tell you make you calm and happy. So the story goes that if you take L-tryptophan, you get a lot of serotonin and everything works out for the better. Aaaactually it doesn't quite work that way biologically, and what really happens is that you end up shitting out a lot of tryptophan that your body didn't know what to do with. L-lysine is another one that promises miracles in making you calm on the internet. It's another thing that certainly is a nice chemical to have in the food you're eating, but which as a supplement is pretty useless, because the human body just didn't evolve to absorb these things from supplements. Pretty much goes straight through your digestive tract and out the other way virtually unchanged. Money well-spent. Another chemical that's great to have in food, but dubious as a supplement is inositol. I mean, things are a little better here. Your body does absorb some of it, and several scientific studies have shown a beneficial effect for afflictions usually treated with SSRIs (depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, mainly.) You need a whole tablespoon of it at least, but that's okay. Thing is, the positive effect is pretty much comparable to an SSRI at a very low dosage. And that's a type of med that with depression and/or an anxiety disorder (such as OCD) you are already taking. At a medium dosage at least. Basically compare it to taking one quarter of the smallest type of paracetamol pills along with your max dosage ibuprofen for pain. The ridiculously low amount of paracetamol is going to make all the difference, right? Nah, forget about inositol, not much use for it.

At one point came acetylcysteine, the miracle cure for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Again there were one or two scientific studies into its effect, and they yielded very positive results, but they were also on a very small scale. The results showed signifiant improvement in some of their small samples. They said it was due to it affecting the neurotransmitter glutamate, which supposedly plays a role in OCD. This was a very promising lead. Bought a lot, took the dosage recommended by the study, kept it up for weeks. Can't really give you a scientific reason as to why, because I am not a scientist, but it really did absolutely nothing for me. No effect of any kind. Further research might give us some insight into the workings of this substance, maybe lead to improvements to make it useful for patients, but as is, I can't really say it was something worth spending my time and money on. Not to mention that the extent to which I was starting to test chemicals on myself without consulting a doctor was starting to get really worrying at that point.

The one thing there really is solid scientific evidence on is fish oil. Most of you will have heard about it, and there's a very strong case for its effectiveness in a number of areas. It's no substitute for proper medication, and it can interact with some, but in some cases it is even recommended by doctors as a therapy aid. Of course this is also the one "alternative" medication I can't take, the capsules are about the size of a phone booth and there's no way I can get them down. I tried many times, I just can't get myself to swallow those things. It's a shame, there might actually have been some benefit to it. What interests me at this point is that a friend of mine who is into nutrition a lot told me once that fish don't produce the active ingredients in their oil themselves, they get it from their food, and you'd be just as well off taking algae tablets such as spirulina. That could be interesting for a number of reasons. Getting the active ingredients of fish oil, getting a complete protein with all essential amino acids (spirulina is one such rare protein), having tablets that are easy for me to swallow, and last but not least getting to be more serious about my vegan lifestyle choice. If my friend is actually right, and I unfortunately have no science available to back up that he is, it would be the perfect alternative, and something I could talk to my doctor about trying out.

There are a few more minor things I gave a try at some point, but I don't think they need specific mention. I ended up really liking turmeric (curcuma) as a spice after trying it out based on something said about possible benefits, and use it a lot now for its taste. But really, the whole idea of self-medication just doesn't work for me anymore. I want something that had some real, extensive scientific work put into it, with solid proof of its effectiveness. And I want everything I take to be discussed with and sanctioned by my doctor, who is a very smart man and someone I trust to know a hell of a lot more than an article on the internet written by whoever. Alternative medicine has never done anything for me, and the only semi-positive thing I got out of it is that at least it didn't do any harm. My recommendation is that no matter how desperate you are, and I know how desperate one can be, the best address for proper treatment is always trained professionals. Get off the internet and see your doctor. Just trust me on that one.

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