The Agnostic Healer

Photo courtesy Bob Wong

Photo courtesy Bob Wong

“Alternative medicine” is a label that describes quite an array of practices and products. Many of my patients have tried therapies or products that I know little about or sound positively weird. Of course, I’m one to talk. I practice voodoo, essentially. I’ll be the first to admit that I have no clear, proven idea why what I do works.  And I never know if it will work at all for any particular person. All I know is that most people come into my office after having tried a lot of other ways to get better, and somehow a good deal of them get better while in my care. Sure, I offer biomedical explanations that sound possible or have a little research behind them, throw out terms like “endorphins” and “parasympathetic” and “connective tissue” and “pain centers” and a bunch of others. But it’s all a bluff.

Some of it may turn out to be true, of course. But I’m basically agnostic about the whole deal. I see what has worked in my own experience, and what hasn’t, but of course even that is pretty conditional: maybe it was just their time to feel better, or, if it doesn’t work, then maybe they just wanted to stay sick. Who can ever know? I could be shooting electric blue voodoo rays out of my fingertips, but no one could ever prove it for sure. This used to bother me quite a bit. Then I asked my doctor what he thought about acupuncture.

Dr. Sagov was a highly regarded family practice MD in the Boston area who always had medical students following him around, hanging on his every word. Stanley Sagov also played some mean keyboards in local jazz clubs, and jammed with some pretty big names when they came to town. His home-made CDs were ubiquitous in his treatment rooms. Dr. Sagov also happened to be a four foot tall South African Jew who walked with a polio-induced limp. He did not lack character.

Dr. Sagov told me this: “I am skeptical of acupuncture. But I am skeptical regarding all forms of medicine.” He explained that the motivations to tout a treatment or cure were often self-interested, and that even the medical journals had been caught with their fingers in the pie. As a result, he was conservative in his approach, trying to be minimally invasive, unwilling to jump on the bandwagon and prescribe the newest, trendiest drugs unless he saw absolutely no other option. He was a good doctor. He is my model.

Therefore, I hold fairly loosely to my opinions about health. In regards to medical cannabis, for instance, I have tended to side with those advocating its use, even while regarding regular pot-smoking as a possible long-term health hazard. I figured, like most other people who weren’t currently stoned, that hitting the dank too hard was bound to cause cancer. Tobacco smoke obviously did, so it seemed a no-brainer. But research has  looked at the amount of cancer caused by smoking marijuana. (The carcinogeneity of marijuana has been on of the largest stumbling blocks to medical marijuana’s acceptance by many authorities, including the FDA). Well, it turns out that smoking pot does cause cancer. Even in people who had smoked an “enormous amount of marijuana” over their lifetimes, respiratory cancers did not increase in any significant amount. Of course, before you go and toke up, understand that inhaling pot smoke does irritate the lungs, and can worsen chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. But it won’t give you cancer. The hippies were right. Who knew?

Therefore, it is prudent to be open-minded about all health dogma that has not been exhaustively researched…and even that which that has been researched. Often, research is not done for merely the advancement of scientific knowledge; the mercantile impulse can be potent generator of research papers in its own right. A case in point: I heard of an interesting hypothesis that high cholesterol was not our enemy, but, on the contrary, quite beneficial for our immune systems, nutrient absorption, and brain function, among other things. In fact, there is even an organization dedicated to this hypothesis: The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. I checked out their website,, and it was a trip down the rabbit-hole into an upside-down world where saturated fat is our friend, low-fat diets are crippling, and where statin drugs, a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs and a multi-billion dollar industry, were causing as many deaths as they were saving. Obviously, this seemed like just another one of those bizarre little corners of the World Wide Web filled with tinfoil-hat wearing contrarians and their admirers. But, after looking at not only the membership of this group, but some of their analysis of drug-company funded (or influenced) research and their shoddy conclusions, it seems like they could, possibly, be right. Perhaps, like Woody Allen in the movie “Sleeper,” we’ll all wake up some day from now and find out that all the tempeh, brewers yeast and alfalfa sprouts have been doing us no good, and what we really need more of is rare steak and red wine. In fact, I wake up every morning feeling that way. More specifically, I feel like I could use another steak from locally grown, grass-fed cows high in omega-3 fatty acids, paired, let’s say, with an organic Sonoma Valley Shiraz with anise and leather notes and a nice mouthfeel. But that’s just me.

In other words, maybe the pharmaceutical companies have been telling us little fibs about the life-saving effects of their products to turn a buck. But that couldn’t happen now, could it? High cholesterol may not mean diddly, and maybe, just maybe, we are wrong about how to treat heart disease. I do not mean to be flippant: people still die from heart attacks, and something is obviously causing them. It’s pretty clear that inflammation is a major part. Heart disease may turn out to be an infectious disease (which the cholesterol skeptics say is from impaired immune systems weakened by, you guessed it, not enough saturated fat). High cholesterol could turn out to be a symptom, not a cause, and simply lowering cholesterol could have unintended effects.

Maybe. Or maybe not.

So what do I tell my patients with high cholesterol? Don’t worry, be happy? Well, that’s a start. The straight, unadulterated truth of the matter is that all the soy-nuts in the world aren’t going to keep you alive much past you 100th birthday, and probably far less than that. As a Zen master once said, “Eat nice food whole life, still die!” Statistics tell us that the slightly overweight outlive both the skinny and rotund, but no one knows why. But they still call it “overweight.” I would guess the people who decide these things are probably skinny, and don’t want to face the fact that they could use a couple love handles or a fatter butt. And the oldest woman ever verified, Jeanne Calment, died at 122 years after living her life in France, where they eat the most saturated fat of any Mediterranean country and know how to drink their wine. She drank, smoked, and ate foie gras whenever she could get her hands on the dang stuff.

How did she do it? A bowl-full of Zocor for breakfast? Regular colon cleansing? A reduced-calorie diet? Mortification and self-denial? She said her secret was that she “never got bored.”

Do they make a drug for that?


The Agnostic Healer • Written by Benjamin Hawes