When people think of ‘alternative’ medicine, they often associate it with quacks, quacks and pseudoscience.
But research suggests some remedies once removed as a bunk can actually help treat a variety of conditions, from pain to depression, and even cancer.
Last week, a US study claimed to show for the first time that mindfulness meditation can act as a pain reliever, weakening the responses in the brain that cause pain.
It followed a major study in March which found that a supplement made from shellfish had ‘cancer-fighting benefits’. In a study of 400,000 people, there was a 16 percent lower risk of lung cancer in those who used the pills regularly.
Such research has convinced even the biggest critics that there may be a place for alternative medicine in the way we treat modern diseases.
Professor Edzard Ernst, chair of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, has made it his mission to call the treatment unscientific.
He recently wrote the book Charles: The Alternative Prince, in which he denounced the Prince of Wales’ abuse and homesickness.
But he admits that not all alternative medicine should be tarred with the same brush, and he has his eye on five of the most promising treatments in the field:
Professor Edzard Ernst (pictured), the world’s leading alternative medicine expert, says research has suggested glucosamine (top left), meditation (top), St John’s wort (top right), TENS (bottom left) and melatonin (bottom right) may all have useful for various medical conditions
St John’s wort for depression
Alternative medicine can also help treat another disease that is becoming more common in modern times – depression.
Around 4.5 per cent of Britons are thought to be clinically depressed, according to some estimates, up by a fifth since the turn of the century.
NHS doctors currently prescribe cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressants. But this can cause a range of side effects, including headaches, nausea and sleep problems, prompting some to seek alternatives.
St John’s wort is a flower that has long been used to treat mental health problems. It is one of the most researched herbal remedies and is taken as a daily capsule, costing around 25p per pill.
There is good evidence that St John’s wort can reduce symptoms in people with mild to moderate depression, but not major depression. In many studies it appears to work in combination with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a popular type of antidepressant often prescribed to treat depression.
The latest paper was conducted by researchers at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California – a non-profit organization that provides research for the US Air Force.
A meta-analysis, published in Systematic Reviews in 2016, looked at 35 studies including 6,993 patients who were given an herbal medicine, a placebo or an antidepressant.
They found that people using St John’s wort was effective as an antidepressant, while causing a third effect less. It was also 53 percent more effective than taking a placebo.
The authors wrote: ‘[St John’s wort] monotherapy for mild to moderate depression is superior to placebo in improving depressive symptoms and is not significantly different from antidepressants.
‘Adverse events reported in RCTs were comparable to placebo and fewer compared to antidepressants.’
Professor Ernst said: ‘This is more encouraging, but nevertheless one must be cautious.
‘St John’s wort interacts strongly with approximately 50 per cent of all prescription drugs and can therefore cause serious side effects.’
TENS for pain
Knee pain, menstrual cramps and endometriosis flare-ups can be helped with special treatments that flood the body with electricity, according to Professor Ernst.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) aims to relieve pain by blocking nerve signals using a small electrical current.
The use of electricity for pain relief was first reported by the Romans, with Emperor Claudius’ court physician noting that standing on an electric fish on the beach eased his pain in 63 AD.
The first modern TENS machine was patented in the United States in 1974, originally used for chronic pain, although it has since been extended to a variety of pain conditions.
Professor Ernst told MailOnline: ‘In short, it consists of a small battery-powered generator of low-voltage electric current which is connected to electrodes that patients attach over the area of pain.
‘It is believed that the electric current stimulates nerve cells that block the transmission of pain signals, modifying the perception of pain.’
The NHS currently recommends that people considering TENS speak to their GP, who can refer them to a physiotherapist or pain clinic for treatment.
But it says ‘there is insufficient scientific evidence of sufficient quality to say with certainty whether TENS is a reliable form of pain relief’.
However, Professor Ernst pointed to a review published in February of 381 trials with a total of more than 24,500 participants.
Published in BMJ Open, it found there was ‘moderate-certainty evidence that the level of pain is lower during or immediately after TENS compared to placebo and with no serious adverse events’.
Glucosamine for cancer
Another remedy that has long been recommended by alternative medicine enthusiasts is glucosamine.
Glucosamine is found naturally in the body in cartilage, the hard tissue that helps stretch our joints. Other natural sources include the ends of chicken bones and crustacean shells.
They are sold as supplements for as little as 20p a pill.
Over the years, studies have failed to show definitively whether pills can effectively treat pain. But they are generally considered safe and many osteoarthritis sufferers report feeling pain relief.
NHS GPs no longer prescribe arthritis patients due to a lack of robust research.
But a new study in March linked the pills to a lower risk of cancer.
A study of nearly 440,000 middle-aged adults published in the European Respiratory Journal found that the pills had ‘cancer-fighting benefits’.
Researchers found 82,600 participants who said they ‘regularly’ took the pills had a 16% lower risk of developing lung cancer over an 11-year study period. They were also 12 percent less likely to die from the disease.
However, the study did not go as far as to prove the pills were causing a lower risk, and other factors are likely to play.
Other studies have linked glucosamine use to a lower risk of heart disease.
The supplement is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce the risk of cancer and clogged arteries – by allowing the immune system to function at full capacity.
Professor Ernst said: “Although this is just the latest in a series of studies that all show the same thing, population studies cannot establish causality. Clinical trials are now needed to do that.’
Meditation for lower back pain
Chronic back pain is an increasingly common problem in today’s world, with many of us suffering from hunched over desks all day.
But the solution can be found in ancient practice through meditation, Professor Ernst suggested.
Meditation was first recorded in the earliest Hindu texts, which were written around 1500 BC, and can be traced back to 5000 BC.
The practice involves focusing the mind on a certain object, thought or activity, to increase focus and achieve a calm and clear mental state.
It has since been adopted in Western countries as a focus point, and research shows that it is beneficial for a variety of mental and medical problems, including high blood pressure.
Research published in Pain Medicine in February has suggested meditation may help people suffering from low back pain.
Researchers from Taipei Medical University in Taiwan reviewed 12 trials involving a total of more than 1,150 patients.
It found people who meditated had significantly less back pain after they started exercising compared to those who didn’t.
The authors said: ‘Meditation-based therapies represent a safe and effective alternative approach to the management of CLBP.’
Meditation is thought to reduce pain by changing the structure of the brain, making the sensation less intense.
Professor Ernst said the review suggested meditation could be beneficial for people living in pain.
He said: ‘This is reassuring because, unlike chiropractic, meditation is not associated with serious side effects.’
A study published last week put nearly 30 healthy Americans through an eight-week mindfulness course and then compared them to a control group.
Participants were given brain scans before and after the course while their limbs were exposed to heat to trigger pain responses.
Those who practiced mindfulness showed less activity in brain areas involved in pain compared to the control group.
A different test of long-term meditation followers showed that they had physical changes to their brains that affected their perception of pain.
Melatonin for sleep
Professor Ernst’s final tip for alternative medicine may hold the key to a good night’s sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone produced at night that is thought to help regulate sleep.
It normally occurs in the pineal gland in the brain, but a man-made version can also be taken in tablets, which cost up to £7 for 60.
He said: ‘It is often recommended for sleep problems but many experts doubt that it really works.’
But a systematic review published in the Journal of Neurology in January showed the treatment may hold some promise, he said.
A paper from Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran looked at 23 studies with people using melatonin for sleep.
The pills were found to have a ‘significant effect on the quality of sleep’ in those who took them.
The authors said: ‘Exogenous melatonin treatment has a positive effect on sleep quality.’
Professor Ernst added: ‘There is also some encouraging evidence to suggest that melatonin may have a range of positive effects on cancer palliation.’
However, since MailOnline’s interview with Professor Ernst, research has found sustained use can lead to an unknown range of serious health issues including cognitive decline and long-term dementia.
In a report published in the journal JAMA, sleep and psychiatry experts warned that Americans ‘self-medicating’ with high doses over a long period of time are putting themselves at risk of short-term side effects including fatigue, dizziness and headaches – and worse outcomes. long-term health benefits, especially if taken in combination with other medications.
Source: | This article is originally from Dailymail.co.uk