The Placebo Effect

One of the difficulties with ethnobotanical traditional medicines is that they sometimes seem to be more effective when used within their cultural contexts and traditional cultures than in sterile laboratory environments. The impact of placebo effects has long been an issue in ethnobotany. Dr. Ted Katpchuk of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts found that the placebo effect holds even when the patients know that they are being given a placebo. As Kaptchuk noted, "This wasn't supposed to happen, it really threw us off."

The finding by Kaptchuk and his fellow researchers, it seems to me, has a huge potential impact in understanding traditional medicines and in my ethnobotany course. Integrative, holistic medicine has shown the that a positive personal healer-patient relationship at the heart of successful integrated medicine such as at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel in New York.

Here my family doctor is a member of my family, literally. He and my children share a common ancestor and the families can still trace the connections. Rather than seeing this as a conflict of interest, as some in the medical profession in the west might conceive, I see this as a benefit. I know he knows us and cares about us.

I am left wondering as whether the same is true of a large HMO operation. The above study argues that large teams of anonymous doctors dispensing curative medicines might not be the most effective treatment regime. Sure, I live where we do not have the medical facilities of a New York City. But for the routine illnesses of life, I may be living in the medically more advanced place. I believe my doctor can cure me, and that is apparently a big plus.

Maybe the placebo effect is something to be openly embraced. Some traditional plant medicines work because they are chemically efficacious, some traditional  plant medicines work because the patient believes it works. Embrace both instances as being effective: a patient is healed.

As NPR noted, placebos have a lot to recommend them. Placebo has an absence of known side effects, can safely be taken by pregnant women, children, the elderly, and has no know interactions with other non-placebo drugs.

And while I have at my disposal and use traditional medicines, I also know when to go integrative. I will still take Ciproflaxcin for bacterial dysentery that does not go away after a month. 

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