If you asked a typical family physician if they could prescribe you a magic spell to restore your health chances are they’d think you’re joking or delusional. Doctors work with “evidence-based medicine;” their pills and potions are firmly backed by science. Witch doctors, on the other hand, practice magic, and that of course isn’t what you’re going to experience in a conventional medical setting… or is it?
The word “pharmaceutical” is derived from the classical greek words pharmakeutikos from pharmakeuein, meaning “to practice witchcraft”, and from pharmakon, meaning “to prepare poison” or simply “drug, medicine, charm, spell or enchantment”. Reading this makes me chuckle since the last thing a modern doctor would recommend is sorcery and certainly they would deny their scripts are dangerous… but does medicine have us charmed?
The origin of the word pharmaceutical reflects the rich history of western health and its earlier folk medicine roots. Before the rise of science physicians and healers utilised a vast array of tools, substances, procedures and practices to treat the ailments of the day. These were both natural and man made; earthly and magical; common sensical and bizarre.
A plant pharmacology manuscript from the 11th century
Medical manuals from medieval Europe, such as The Canon Medicinae, outlined everything from medicinal herbs to brutal procedures like bloodletting to balance imaginary “humours”.
A chart showing the parts of the body to be bled for different diseases, c.1310–1320
Whilst we’ve come along way since then in our understanding of anatomy there’s more to traditional medicine than bloodletting and the shock factor aspects of its biggest “fails”.. Although we might shudder at the thought of certain archaic treatments western medicine has a long history of using folk remedies as a type of “lead” for scientific research.
Have you ever popped an Aspirin and considered how its discovery was based on research into willow bark, a natural medicine dating back to Sumerian civilisation? If not, now you might!
A significant portion of drug discoveries, many of which we rely on today, were inspired by natural cures. For example, more than half of drugs that were approved between 1981 and 2010 were the outcome of natural or botanical leads. It almost seems a bit cheeky how on the one hand, the medical establishment is willing to entertain alternative claims in the spirit of scientific inquiry but on the other hand, quick to denounce them as pseudoscience, quackery or spiritual woo woo.
Nevertheless western medicine is highly cautious and prides itself on rigorous evaluation. This works well for the study of pharmaceuticals, yet drugs and their herbal cousins are just one type of healing “tool;” one branch of the wellness tree. Drugs are the expression of one scientific tangent. But what about other health sciences? Why do they get less attention? .. and what tangents or “leads” might we have left behind in the shadows of history?
Unfortunately our enthusiasm and reverence for drugs has somehow permeated much of what we consider standard day-to-day healthcare. We use drugs for almost everything that ails us, and there’s rarely a time where they’re not part of a typical treatment plan. This seems normal to us but imagine if we only used the tools of astronomy to study the ocean. That would seem illogical and bizarre yet somehow when it comes to medicine we’ve got this one tool that seems to be running the show.
But isn’t there more to health than the application of drugs?
The World Health Organisation defines heath as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” True health involves a complex synergy of many contributing factors: from lifestyle to location, from diet to exercise, from genes to their epigenetic expression. This unfortunately proves far more difficult to study clinically, although there are many people dedicated to doing their heads in with this epic task.
Most doctors know that there’s more to health than drugs yet scripts for pharmaceuticals continues to be their modus operandi. That’s the way doctors roll and I wish them no disrespect because drugs are their area of expertise. However, its frustrating as a patient when the recommendation of anything other than drugs seems to be a rarity.
Perhaps there is the odd occasion where a physiotherapist might be recommended for a sports injury or a counsellor for grief but more often than not the doctors I’ve seen simply prescribe pills. End of story. Yet culturally we have this idea of them as being all round health advisers.
As such many of us feel at a loss after visiting a conventional doctor. We find the tablets give us unwanted side effects, or they don’t adequately resolve an issue. Some people have mysterious illnesses like CFS that medicine doesn’t fully understand yet whilst others feel deflated by the lack of time allocated to discuss their health problems. Patients are churned in and out of clinics like battery hens on a production line and there’s a general sense that something ain’t right. Many turn to alternative approaches out of sheer desperation.
That’s why alternative medicine is hugely popular. In the United States, approximately 38 percent of adults (about 4 in 10) use some type of complementary or alternative medicine. Even shamanism and witchcraft has experienced a revival with increasing numbers of people flocking to traditional ceremonies such as popular ayahuasca journeys in Peru. People are going as far as converting to neo-paganism reflected in data like the 2011 UK census where paganism was listed as the 6th most popular religion after Judaism. People are dabbling in the dark arts but maybe it’s because they offer a new light.
What if these alternative health trends were to provide the next set of clues or “leads” in the evolution of medicine? What if magic and medicine were to merge once again? This may not be as delirious as it sounds. In many ways medicine already has a magical element.
Medicine has well established the healing power of suggestion though the observance of the placebo effect; the phenomenon whereby a patient heals after taking a fake pill which they believe to be real. Clinical trials are forever on a race to beat the placebo control but often draw even. We know our thoughts impact our physiology and that positive expectation tends to improve recovery outcomes. We know that burning ceremonial sage actually does “cleanse” the air via its anti bacterial properties and that prayer and meditation can significantly reduce stress. We know that on a quantum level matter is energy that actually responds to our mere observation. This is all based on legitimate science.
So what’s next? Could the power of intention be the next greatest medical tangent? Could it be that witch doctors were on the right track all along?
I believe conventional medicine might do us all a service by reclaiming it’s pharmakeuein roots, respecting it’s botanical history and honouring alternative trends with a sense of reverence and curiosity. Otherwise where will it get it’s future inspiration from?