The following is an excerpt from the book Healing Power Of Acupressure and Acupuncture (Avery Health Guides) by Matthew D. Bauer, L. Ac., The Penguin Group, NY, 2005, ISBN 1583332162
I am acquainted with Matthew; he and I belong to the same Yahoo!Group list. I heard a little about his book before it was published, and couldn't wait to get my copy when it finally arrived in my favorite book store. He wrote the book at the encouragement of his patients who wanted to know and understand more about the roots and the reasons behind the practice of acupuncture, the "how" and "why" it works. Matthew explains this in excellent detail in his book (which I am reading again – for the third or fourth time).
I happened to be reading the sections below at the time I ran into a person who thinks holistic medicine is quackery, herbal medicine belongs back in the Dark Ages, and hypnotherapy is a parlor game. People like this always take the high ground on the side of surgery and drugs by demanding to see the double-blind, scientific study that proves you, the believer in holistic practices, can make your case. Studies in the efficacy of holistic methods are being done all the time, but it can be a challenge to prove.
These excerpts from Matthew's book explain both why holistic medicine works (and works well!) and why it's difficult to produce proof. Being an acupuncturist, he writes about Chinese medicine and acupuncture, but I believe his explanation of self-healing "Reaction Medicine" can apply to many holistic modalities.
Pages 98 – 103 Action Medicine vs. Reaction Medicine
Whenever a healer does something to a patient in an attempt to help the patient's health, the healer is, in effect, taking some sort of action. The healer is manipulating or changing the patient's status quo. When such action is taken, there will be two basic consequences. The first will be the direct consequence of that action, and the second will be the body's reaction to having its status quo changed. To put it simply: every action causes a reaction.
Modern medicine's use of drugs and surgery are examples of action medicine – the intervening approach. When a drug such as an antibiotic is introduced into the body, its direct consequence is to kill bacteria. It will do this in a laboratory petri dish as well as in the human body. Unlike a petri dish, however, when such a substance is introduced into a living system, including the human body, this will also cause some sort of reaction. If this reaction causes harm, it is called a side effect, also known as an adverse reaction. Whether or not the body's reaction to a drug such as an antibiotic causes enough noticeable harm to be called a side effect, there must be some sort of reaction as the body adjusts itself after having its status quo changed.
With action medicine such as drug therapy or surgery, the hope is that the direct consequence of the action will be to improve the patient's problem and that the body's reaction will be minor and of little or no consequence. Acupuncture, on the other hand, is a type of reaction medicine – the self-healing approach. In the case of reaction medicine, the goals are the opposite of those for action medicine – one now hopes the direct action is of little or no consequence and that the reaction will improve the patient's symptoms.
Researchers around the world have been discovering that acupuncture can cause the body to produce a wide array of natural substances, including those that reduce pain and inflammation, enhance immune function, balance hormones, and produce feelings of well-being. The brain imaging research being done by Hang-Zee Cho and others strongly suggests that these effects result from the stimulation of key brain centers that exert control on the body's ability to produce these and other body-regulating substances. This is how reaction medicine works – by stimulating the body to produce its own medicine, as opposed to intervening in place of the body's healing process, as it is done in action medicine. The possibility of stimulating healing reactions is almost completely unknown to modern medicine but actually provides an important complement to action medicine.
As an example of the difference between action and reaction medicine, consider the gardener who wants to control some pests, such as aphids, that are destroying a garden. One method would be to spray the garden with an insecticide that kills aphids. This is usually a pretty reliable way to get rid of the pests, but it can also cause some undesirable effects, such as damaging plants and leaving toxins on plants one may wish to eat. Another method to deal with the problem would be to release ladybugs within the garden or, better yet, grow plants such as dill, cilantro, or caraway that will attract ladybugs to the garden naturally. As aphids are a natural food for ladybugs, having ladybugs in one's garden is a natural way to deal with aphid infestation. The first approach, using insecticide, is similar to what is done in action medicine: employing a manmade agent to intervene on nature. Releasing or attracting ladybugs into the garden is similar to the reaction medicine approach: facilitating nature's own means to control a problem.
Think of the human body as a garden and the bacterial infection as the aphids. Introducing an insecticide into the garden to directly kill the aphids is essentially what happens when antibiotics are used to treat a bacterial infection. Some infections, however, can be successfully treated with acupuncture. In this case, however, the action taken – performing acupuncture on the body – does not directly kill the bacteria but rather stimulates the body's immune response, helping it to do a more effective job of fighting the bacteria itself. This is somewhat like using plants that attract ladybugs to an aphid-infested garden.
Another method that may be used to treat a bacterial infection in Chinese medicine is to use herbs. In the case of Chinese herbs, there is a very wide range of actions. Some herbs are potent substances similar to drugs and work as an action medicine that in this example would directly kill bacteria. Other herbs are very mild substances that work as a reaction medicine by stimulating the body to heal itself. This would be like introducing ladybugs into the garden to eat the aphids. The vast majority of Chinese herbs are of the very mild variety that stimulates the body to heal itself. Many of these herbs have been deemed ineffective when tested by modern researchers because they were tested as though they were action medicine drugs – for example, putting an herb extract in a petri dish with bacteria and them proclaiming it ineffective because the bacteria were not killed. Testing herbs this way is as senseless as placing some acupuncture needles in a petri dish filled with bacteria and then reaching the conclusion that acupuncture is ineffective after the bacteria survive. Reaction medicine works via the body's reaction to a mild stimulus and so can only be studied by observing its effects on real, live subjects.
Another example that can put reaction medicine, especially acupuncture, into perspective is to consider a group of people with mild sinus congestion. One way to treat these people would be to administer antihistamines, an action medicine drug that directly blocks the production of the body's histamine response. The histamine response is a natural function of the body that causes cells to react to allergens, such as sinus cells that produce mucus to flush allergens out of the body. Nature gave us the ability to flush out allergens with the histamine response for good reason. Many of the symptoms we suffer in health problems are part of our body's natural response to the cause of the problem – for example, when our bodies try to flush out an allergen with mucus. A good percentage of action medicine approaches simply short-circuit our body's natural response to a problem. This can make us more comfortable, but does nothing to get at the root of the problem.
Imagine, however, that this group with mild sinus congestion could clear it with a good sneeze (I know this is far-fetched, but please play along so that I might make my point). A sneeze is another response the human body has developed over countless generations of evolution to help clear the sinuses. If one were to take a feather and tickle each person in this group under the nostrils, some, perhaps 20 percent or so of this group, would respond by sneezing, thus clearing their congestion. Acupuncture works very much like the feather – it stimulates the body to initiate natural, self-healing responses that nature has endowed us with over millions of years of evolution. Sometimes, for countless reasons, the body is not able to make full use of all the healing resources nature endowed it with. Good reaction medicine helps the body to make better decisions about how to utilize its resources.
I hope these examples have helped to explain these two approaches to healing. Now I can go on to explain some of the characteristics of each approach, as understanding these will help answer many questions about how to utilize Chinese medicine.
In the foregoing example, those who used the action medicine approach of taking antihistamines would probably experience a high rate of relief for their symptoms. Perhaps 70-80 percent of those who took that medicine would experience a reduction in their congestion. However, every action will cause a reaction, and some who took antihistamines will end up with side effects – that is, adverse reactions. The most common of these adverse reactions would be minor things like dryness of the mouth, throat, or sinus. Although it is rare, some who took antihistamines could experience severe reactions such as hallucinations, convulsions, or even cardiovascular collapse.
The point I wish to make here is that the direct consequence of taking action is easy to predict, while the subsequent reactions are difficult to predict. The same will be true when using a feather to cause a sneeze. The direct affect of this action – a slight stimulation of the skin cells touched by the feather – would be largely the same for all the subjects. The number of those who react by sneezing would be much smaller. So here, as in the example of the use of antihistamines, the direct effect of the action was the same for a large percentage of the subjects and thus predictable, while the reaction was much more varied and difficult to predict. Who, exactly, will sneeze when tickled with the feather, and who, exactly, will get what side effect from the antihistamine? Such questions regarding reactions are difficult to answer and thus explain why so many people are seriously harmed by drug side effects; we cannot predict beforehand who will get reactions that are worse than the original problem. If we could predict this, we would not give that drug to those individuals, and drug side effects would not be killing tens of thousands of Americans, as is the case in the
As action medicine's desired therapeutic effect is a direct result of the action taken, this action must be relatively strong and will thus be relatively easy to predict. That is one of action' medicine's greatest strengths. One of its greatest weaknesses, however, is the high rate of undesirable side effects that are much more difficult to predict. In the case of reaction medicine, the desired therapeutic effect takes place as an indirect reaction to the healer's intervention. This intervention will be milder than that used in action medicine, and there will be few if any undesirable effects, but the desired therapeutic effect, being a reaction, will be difficult to predict. Thus, one of the strengths of reaction medicine is its safety, while one of its weaknesses is a relatively greater degree of unpredictability in obtaining the desired therapeutic effect.
Pages 110 – 111 Additional Benefits of Reaction Medicine
[These are a couple of brief quotes from this section]
One of the most important and often overlooked strengths of reaction medicine is the potential to provide benefits for problems other than those being treated; that is, to cause good side effects. Because of the nature of holistic interconnections and the fact that reaction medicine takes advantage of these connections in helping the body to help itself, helping one problem with reaction medicine often helps others as well. …
Finding that other health conditions improve in the process of treating the primary problem is common occurrence in the practice of Chinese medicine. Often these additional benefits go unnoticed by the patient at first. Because reaction medicine helps the body to better adjust and heal itself naturally, many people do not realize that the cause of their sleeping better, catching fewer colds, experiencing more energy, and so on is the treatment they have been having for other problems. If someone continues to be treated with reaction medicine approaches over long periods of time, the improvements in overall body balancing they experience can also help to prevent future health problems.
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