Am I being rational?
October 12, 2009 11:39 PM   Subscribe

Alternative medicines for a young kid - am I making too much of it?

I'm trying to figure it if my position is irrational or I am overreacting to the situation. The situation:

- My lovely wife is very health conscious and mostly dismissive of western medicine. She also has recently had some serious health issues which has made her even more proactive about health.

- I am pretty much the opposite. I value health but almost never go to the doctor and eat what I want, irrespective of it's omega content. I very much respect science and double-blind studies and FDA regulatory processes. I have never been to an acupuncture clinic but would have no big qualms about going for an ailment.

- Kiddo (3 years old) is healthy.

The dispute is that my wife takes kiddo to the acupuncture clinic regularly, with the needles and whatnot, for just normal "health tuneups". There are also visits when kiddo has cold for removing congestion, and at one point giving some "tincture" from the clinic to the kiddo which she knew I would object to. Kiddo complains one night when I'm flying solo that she cant go to bed because she "hasn't had her herbs" yet...

I'm concerned about a couple things -
- I dont want kiddo to have a psychological attachment where she thinks its normal to constantly eat herbs and go to the doctor twice a month as normal healthy living. It seems like a path towards hypochondria to me.

- I dont trust the non-FDA tinctures, especially when used just for "maintenance" and on children.

- I dont like that when I discuss it with the 'missus the conversation gets lost in hand-waving about how 5000 years of Chinese cant be wrong and my basic request to keep preventative health doctor/alt-med office visits to a minimum seems to be ignored.

Am I overreacting here? Is there some good reason why we should raise our kid to think its normal to go to the alternative medicine guy (or any doctor) every couple weeks? (I could buy that, but its completely foreign to me.) Is this all so harmless (tinctures included) that I should just skip the fight?

Thanks for your time and opinion.
posted by H. Roark to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For a short term solution (aka, is the kid still up as you post this?!) you can say "when daddy's looking after you we don't need to take the herbs." But this could unravel into all kinds of bad.

Kid might also be used to routine of taking herbs -> bed, routines are in no way bad. Maybe give her some replacements (dried parsley/whatever kitchen herb) as "Daddy's herbs" to help her routine. Always affirm that you love her as you tuck her in, exasperation at herbs might be interpreted as exasperation at her, which you don't want.
posted by titanium_geek at 11:44 PM on October 12, 2009

My mother took me to Catholic church every Saturday, no excuses. Dad never went, and if asked, said "I'm agnostic." Despite a few bouts with youth groups in my teens, I'm now decidedly agnostic, and find the idea of going to church silly (for me). Everything Catholic that my mother tried to instill in me through years of routine religion simply faded away when I got out on my own. Your child will likely turn out how she's going to turn out, regardless of what your wife tries to instill in her.

However, you've got the makings of a divorce there if you don't address the basic incompatibility over child-rearing that you two have. I doubt your wife is doing any harm to your daughter, but she seems very dismissive of your own feelings, and determined to make your daughter "hers", where health philosophy is concerned. That's the issue you need to deal with.
posted by fatbird at 11:57 PM on October 12, 2009

Regarding 'tinctures', if your wife is taking your daughter for homeopathic cures, then you've got nothing to worry about. The basic idea of homeopathy is diluting various substances in water until (chemically speaking) there's nothing left but water, so your daughter can chug all the arsenic tincture she wants and never show any ill effects.
posted by fatbird at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If I'm reading this correctly, your wife deliberately decided to hide information from you about the health care of you child.

You are not overreacting.
posted by 26.2 at 12:09 AM on October 13, 2009 [13 favorites]

How do you feel about getting your kid a western style checkup or perhaps research what the eastern approaches are and what, if any, side effects could happen based on what the kid's actually getting? There's no good or bad reason to see the alternative medicine guy I think - as long as it's not physically/psychologically doing harm. Course, I'd say that for a GP as well. For example, in the San Francisco area, there seem to be a number of western trained health professionals with eastern sensibilities and knowledge. Maybe you together could find someone to bridge the gap - not a 'Either East Or West', but "East And West', sort of a doctor or Nurse Practitioner?

I think medicine, 5 minutes or 5,000 years old, FDA approved or not, can be wrong, in that it can do harm, depending on what's being given and who is giving it. So maybe stepping closer and finding out more about the specific tinctures and herbs to read more about what they are supposed to do, what they could do in terms of side effects, and dosages might ease your mind. As for the 'why's my kid up in arms about 'herbs' and all', I like titanium_geek's ideas about considering that it's the routine, not that specific herb, that's the charm. Try it and see if something else would do the trick.

I don't know if you and your wife will ever agree on specific numbers around 'keeping the alt med visits to a minimum', for all you know she thinks she's paring it down by only going every few weeks. That can be frustrating: no one likes to feel dismissed. I don't know how productive it is to fight on that front. It seems like the what's kiddo getting no matter who is prescribing it might be where you can get on the same bandwagon. Also, maybe each of you could be a little less dismissive of each other's perspective - regardless of what the topic is, it sounds like that dynamic is sort of a relationship-diminisher.

And if something serious did happen to the kid, you guys are down with with the plan about what kind of health based steps you'd take, right? That seems like it could be big.
posted by anitanita at 12:24 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

You could always show her Homeopathic A&E.

This is not a rational issue, this is a religious issue of belief. You need to treat it as such and work it out with your wife. I've known a few people who lost loved ones due to cancer and then went off the deep end with herbs. I think it is a way of pretending that one can control health and not confront the semi-random nature of mortality. If the homeopathy mania started only after her serious health issues, perhaps your wife needs some help talking over her own health phobias.

I'm agreed with 26.2 that the "hiding" is much more worrisome than the herbal treatment itself. What's next, canceling vaccinations behind your back? Healthcare should definitely be a joint decision between parents.

Tinctures and homeopathic dilutions are probably fine for the kid if they really are 1x10^10 dilutions. The alcohol in the tincture is probably the worst thing in it. Whole herbal powders can be dangerous - check NCCAM for reasonable advice.
posted by benzenedream at 12:31 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you read Bad Science? Some of this stuff is harmless (antiscientific and intellectual poison, but physically harmless).

Other stuff is dangerous. What do you mean by "Tincture"?

If your wife is doing homeopathy, then the kid is safe from physical danger and is just being raised to believe in something that's patently false. Would you be happy if your wife raised the kid believing in magic beans that cured stuff? If so, then go ahead. Are you happy with your wife spending that much money on utter shite? OK. No problem. As fatbird alludes to above, eating herbs every night probably isn't as intellectually damaging as the Catholic Church.

But... what else is she into? Crystals? Reiki? "Optimum nutrition"? Yoghurt weaving? DNA Activation? Do you know how she's going to behave if your kid gets something seriously wrong with them?
posted by handee at 12:41 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know what they call alternative medicine that's been tested and shown to work?

posted by pompomtom at 12:45 AM on October 13, 2009 [16 favorites]

I think that every culture has its acceptable form of witchcraft, ours is accupuncture and homeopathy. They are no different from a man dressed in feathers and talking in tongues branding you with hot metal if you were raised in Africa.

The only reason these things survive is because we let parents inflict it upon their children opening them to unreasoned crap.

I dont think that in today's world any child should be subjected to unapproved treatments and for those under the age of consent this amounts to child abuse and over the coming years it will be more universally recognised to be so. I am not comparing what your wife did to corporal punishment but think of its legal status as it has evolved from "parents know best and would never knowingly harm their children" to "you do it and you go to jail".

I wouldnt be surprised if parents around the world will get sued by their children for not getting MMR as they become adults.

It is up to you how you deal with your wife but if I were you I would be very concerned about being a silent witness to such abuse.
posted by london302 at 1:33 AM on October 13, 2009

If it's any consolation, my mom went through something similar when I was a kid. For about a year, she was very keen on homeopathy, tinctures and acupuncture. Looking back, this homeopathy period coincided with what was probably a very stressful time for her. The fact that she felt she could help keep herself and her kids healthy must have made her feel much better.

Likewise, it's been my experience that homeopathics/alternative medicine professionals are much more willing to listen and discuss with the patient how the patient feels about things and why the patient thinks these things are happening than accredited doctors. Is the treatment having the physical benefits of conventional treatments? Possibly. Is it fulfilling a mental health need of your wife? Probably. Should your wife and child have regular 'second opinions' from accredited doctors? Most definitely.

It seems to me that it's key to know what sorts of homeopathic medicines and herbs your daughter is taking, especially if you'll be the one taking her to the regular doctors. You and your wife need to agree on a medical treatment plan for her, with both of you making concessions (ie, you'll stop demanding your wife keeps these visits, which seem very important to her, 'to a minimum' and she'll agree that should your child have any medical problems, doctors will be consulted first). ANY medications/herbs your daughter is taking need to be written down and presented to both alternative and accredited doctors.
posted by brambory at 1:37 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

one more thing, for the 'what is the harm' argument.
posted by london302 at 1:42 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with anitanita's suggestion that it would be ideal to find a _MD_ or nurse practitioner who understands and is willing to prescribe herbs and knows how to talk (and listen) to new agers. Because I agree with some (well, all) of the snarkers here, but if Mrs. H. Roark feels disenfranchised or blown off by the western doctor, it's another pile of problems.

The tricky bit is finding one who's not into woo-woo crystal healing and so on. What I would do is use belief in homeopathy as an acid test; if they believe in it keep looking. (I have a bit of an ax to grind here: as a physicist, I believe in atoms. A theory which rules out homeopathy, which believes that 'energy patterns exist even after all the atoms of a medicinal substance are diluted away'.)

Tinctures are not at all the same as homeopathic dilutions. They're the alcohol or water extracts of herbs. So there are chemicals there, not sugar tablets. Possibly benign, possibly nasty, with occasionally flaky process control in terms of strength of dose, (or actually having any active agent at all). I highly recommend to you and your wife this book on herbs, as it is good, broad, quite conservative and cautious, and cites a few different resources, including a (now slightly dated) USDA publication. (I haven't read my copy in a few moves now.)

There's a more modern resources here, including some german thing, maybe, I'm not familiar with it.

(I'm saying this as someone with seasonal allergies who controls them with nettle extract from the health food store rather than a pill or spray based antihistamine, but I'm willing to research quite a bit before trying stuff, and I'm in good health, so I'm not to trying to track down some crabgrass-based substitute for heart disease pills or something.)

Acupuncture is generally safe to everything but your wallet, according to studies you can look up on google scholar, or ask your doctor about. Also it's good for pain control, yadda yadda, etc. (The whole 'chi' model of the universe seems to have been disproved by western physics, but acupuncture doesn't seem to cause a lot of problems, even with kids, barring chronic illness or used instead of western medicine).

Psychology-wise, I wouldn't worry too much. Just let your kid know you're a acupuncture/angel healing skeptic, and expose her to lots of science as she grows up: (The How Things Works Book series, build-a-robot day camp, etc.)

However tinctures are a different matter, as they can be harmful in themselves (digitalis, not that you can buy it in a store), and can be a problem in drug-drug interactions, the textbook example being Saint Johns Wort.
What this means is that you need to have a paper record of all the medication your child's getting in case you need to talk to her surgeon or anesthesiologist when she breaks her arm or has a ruptured appendix and they want to know what's in her system before they put her under.

Finally, you need to talk to the acupuncturist and separately the wife, and suss them out about vaccinations and so on. If your acupuncturist is anti-vaccination, that's a problem. If your daughter's not getting her shots, that is a major problem.

Also, you need to sit down and talk to the wife about 'hypothetical case: what do we do if the kid has a high fever and I'm on a business trip - do you take her to the ER, or the crystal healing shop?', just to make sure you are on the same page.

I would suggest talking to a local pharmacist or your MD and getting a recommendation for a local herb-friendly MD. Because they've run into this situation before.

Although the first person I would talk to is your daughter's pediatrician. She does have one?
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:39 AM on October 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

While "homeopathic" generally means that a substance is diluted so much that there's little danger of toxicity, I think the term homeopathic has lately been applied to a lot of alternative remedies without a strict adherence to this definition, so that I wouldn't always assume that homeopathic = harmless.

london302: I think even if parent's didn't pass on these kinds of beliefs, people would invent them.

One more thing to think about: what will happen if the child ever does become seriously ill? Will you have to fight for that medically-necessary surgery or drug? If you have to lay groundwork with the Mom, you might want to start now. Good luck.
posted by amtho at 2:55 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It can be problematic if something more critical than a run of the mill cold is being treated separately by 2 different approaches - you need to provide both practitioners a clear breakdown of medications and treatments to avoid potentially serious side affects/interactions. So, you should discuss transparency with your partner - it is a very important consideration.

Prevention is the better cure, and a health conscious parent is a wonderful adjunct to bringing up a healthy child, there just needs to be a reasonable balance.

Here is what can happen when the balance isn't reasonable.

Your partner is only trying to give your daughter the best start in life - you should be encouraging of this. Discuss your issues, and work it through and it will become less of an issue and more of a conversation.
posted by a non e mouse at 2:58 AM on October 13, 2009

Not going to chime in on the health aspect, but the marital one.

Dude, you have a discussion waiting to happen, that's all. You need to be on the same page about medical treatments for your kid, because there's general care but there are also emergencies. Nthing above, plan for emergencies. If your kid suddenly requires antibiotics (and I'm not a fan of giving kids antibiotics unless it's clearly necessary), is she going to try other things instead; things that make you uncomfortable? I've had my kids suffer through ear infections for a few days before I relented, used the pink stuff, and voila, they were better. Seems cruel to make a kid suffer (and possibly get much worse). Medicine can work.

But your point about monthly "stay well" checkups and your daughter's comment make me think you're not overreacting. No, it's not normal for a kid to need to go through monthly needles to stay well. Kids do fine on their own, mostly, with a healthy diet and exercise. They shouldn't be getting other stuff.

I was thinking of a parallel of your daughter's remark and how my own kids take Flintstone vitamins. I still have to remind them every day to eat a Wilma, so your kiddo's remark about "needing" the herbs bothers me. Maybe Mom is kind of "overtalking" the importance herbs to her.

You both need to see your daughter's pediatrician for regular checkups together and let your wife explain her point of view.

Good luck.
posted by dzaz at 3:00 AM on October 13, 2009

Medicine, healing and the maintenance of health are part of life. Would be a good idea to really gain some insight into the holographic patterns of how we operate within the world, the world within us and the symbiosis of that relationship.

Once you begin to understand how vital working with the flow of the body's rhythm and chemistry is in achieving and maintaining balance and viewing health as being an ongoing process of co-operation.

What we eat, drink, ingest, think and feel all are factors in this process. Negativity in any way, shape or form in the process of healing can be a destructive force. I.e. one can be going to the best of healers/doctors but if there is doubt, fear or anxiety about the treatment it can impact the results. Best to keep an open mind and heart about such matters. Knowledge and understanding in any case will help alleviate fear and trepidation, instilling trust - a main component in any healing process.
posted by watercarrier at 3:46 AM on October 13, 2009

Accupuncture: A few years ago I was involved in caring for several patients with acute hepatitis B which they contracted by attending accupuncture sittings at a well known clinic on Finchley Road in London. All the patients that I saw said that they were reassured by their friends that accupuncture was safe and there was no way they would have know that this particular clinic did anything different than any other clinic. We were told by the Barnet Health authorities that they could not do anything because the clinic was not required to be registered and they did not have the power to close it down. The clinic voluntarily suspended the treatment. A bbc news item here also talks about the difficulty in tracing all the patients who received treatment because there was no obligation to keep proper records.

Purely from a consumer protection point of view I would be very reluctant to enter a completely unregulated territory.

I always thought that this was an isolated incident but reasarch shows that I was wrong, a large number of cases are reported in the usa here and a paper by one of the best known alternative health debunker (Edzard Ernst) here shows that this horrible outcome is not as isolated as it is made out to be.

Even if it was proven that as many people will develop these irrational beliefs after they grow up irrespective of their upbringing there is a serious ethical problem with exposing them to your irrational beliefs at an impressionable age and is linked to your ability to be a competent parent.
posted by london302 at 4:02 AM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Knowing more about what, exactly, is going on/being treated seems like a good move here (which would probably involve your going along to an appointment every so often.)

However, I wanted to comment on frequency. Hi. See my mainstream doc about once a year for my annual physical. See an herbalist about every 10 weeks for maintenance. She's done a huge amount for a bunch of low-grade but chronic issues that make a *huge* difference in my overall quality of life, but that mainstream Western medicine either didn't consider an issue, or where the side effects of the meds were a quality of life issue themselves. I no longer spend all fall and winter with an asthma-related cough that sounds like tuberculosis, for example, which I think is a win.

That said, I think twice a month is a *lot* for maintenance visits for someone who is otherwise healthy, and especially for a child who hasn't had time for a lot of long-term chronic stuff to develop. (On the other hand, twice a month *is* pretty common while a practitioner is getting someone's care under control at first - but it should taper off after a couple of months.)

The usual recommendation I've seen from alternative care professionals who want real health change (rather a change in their pocketbook) ranges from every month to every couple of months, outside of a sudden need (coming down with something, wrenching your back moving, whatever) And part of the way that they do that is by educating the individual on what's going on, and why they're doing what they're doing, so they can make better judgements about it.

It sounds like what you need to do is get more information, first, so you can do more research and decide what your next step is. And that's probably only going to come from both your wife, and the practitioners she's seeing.
posted by modernhypatia at 4:44 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely find out what 'herbs and tinctures' are being given and where they are coming from (something from a relatively respectable manufacturer that you get at a drug or grocery store, or some mystery stuff the acupuncturist keeps in his back room). Some of these things are not harmless.
posted by DarkForest at 4:51 AM on October 13, 2009

There seem to be three separate concerns here, that can be addressed individually:

1) Your child is being given sham treatments with no safety testing.
It's probably very safe, but I'd insist on visiting the voodoo witchdoctor practitioner's business and looking into the safety procedures: sterilisation of acupuncture needles, sterile conditions while making tinctures, quality control, weird additives and preservatives, etc.

More importantly, what happens if your child gets genuinely sick: can you be sure that your wife will say "OK, enough herbs, let's listen to an actual doctor"? Has your child been vaccinated? If the answer to either of these questions is no, you have to decide what level of risk to your child you're happy to live with. Either way, I think you should try to decide now what course you'll take if you're unlucky enough that a serious-looking illness does crop up. Better to have a discussion about your shared principles now then an argument when you're both frightened for your child's health.

2) Your child is being raised to distrust modern medicine (and, by extension, the scintific method) and stick with folklore instead.
How important do you want rationality to be to your child? I'm heavily biased in favour of science's "test everything", but people who go the other way seem to live equally happy lives. In the long term, you might want to start teaching you child how to think scientifically: why we need to test our assumptions and traditions, the importance of blinded trials, etc. This will give them the mental toolkit to decide for themselves when they're older.

3) Your wife is doing all of this against your wishes and -- if I read your question correctly -- some of it behind your back.
Clearly, you guys need to reach some sort of compromise. You're currently going against your misgivings to allow these trips to alternative treatments. Is she making similar concessions, e.g. for vaccination, visiting real doctors and heeding their advice when necessary, etc? How would she react if situations were reversed and you'd gone behind her back for a "western" medicine? Thinking about these will give you an idea of who is making concessions in your relationship: if all the concessions are on your side then maybe this is a fair reaction. If you're both making concessions, then maybe you'll both just have to keep working on that compromise. At the very least, you should be able to tell your kid that you and your wife have different ideas about this: she likes to go for maintainance regularly, but you almost never go and are still fine. Let her know that either viewpoint is fine, and don't let either become dogmatic or let her think that by favouring one she'd be choosing a "favourite" parent.
posted by metaBugs at 5:45 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

The main issue is if your daughter god forbid gets a real illness like leukemia, you need to be able to trust that you and your wife would seek effective, tested treatments instead of magic teas prepared by uneducated scam artists. I would not be able to put my partner's feelings about mumbo-jumbo shit ahead of my child's life. Good luck.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:50 AM on October 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

when I discuss it with the 'missus the conversation gets lost in hand-waving about how 5000 years of Chinese cant be wrong

I know this is a cliche on AskMe, but this situation is where a therapist can really help. Having this conversation on your own isn't working for the two of you, and you need to find a way to fix that. You and your wife don't need to agree on Eastern vs. Western medicine, but you do need to agree on (and be honest about) your shared plan for your daughter's care. Consider sitting down with a therapist so that this conversation can be mediated by a neutral third party--if either of you starts railing against the other's medical preferences, s/he can step in and ask you to bring the focus back to the actual issue.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:31 AM on October 13, 2009

You're not overreacting. This stuff is probably harmless as long as your child is actually healthy (though there was a good point raised above about how some products are advertised as "homeopathic" despite actually containing active ingredients; see Zicam), but it's dangerous if she gets that instead of legitimate treatment when she's ill. If you put up with this for now, you're setting a precedent, so you need to at least make sure that she'll go to a real doctor if she ever has a real problem. That's more important than avoiding an argument with your wife.

I wouldn't be too thrilled about her being taught this kind of non-critical thinking, either, but at least that's not directly life-threatening.
posted by shammack at 8:01 AM on October 13, 2009

Okay, this is going to be looooooong. Bear with me!

I feel like I can give you some good advice on your situation. One of the problems with wading into the Western vs. alternative medicine debate is that it is a debate - and in debates, people take sides and stick to them like glue, inflating anything which supports their side, ignoring anything which doesn’t. For instance, a few of the above posters show their prejudices for either viewpoint strongly; I would urge you to be careful in picking through their advice.

A disclaimer: I am a New Zealand medical student, a few years into my studies. I attend a fairly run-of-the-mill medical school, and, typical of recent changes in medical curriculum, our course emphasises two areas: make sure you have evidence to support that what you're doing is actually helping, and put the happiness and quality of life of your patients before anything else. We talk a lot about the alternative medicine debate, and I do a bit of thinking about it in my spare time. In the past I have been biased towards the Western system, now I consider myself a little more balanced.

The first crucial thing that I would recommend is: for god's sake do not try and change your wife’s mind. I have argued this shit a lot over the years, and believe me - I have never ever once come close to changing someone’s opinion. The fact is: it is impossible. Nothing you can say - no book nor youtube video nor essay nor anything you give to her neither - will change her mind. Consider her opinions on the efficacy of alternative medicine to be as unchangeable as the vastness of space. Any attempt by you to change her mind will quickly escalate into a battle: she will become defensive, the relationship will sour - this is the path to divorce and ruining your daughter's childhood, as an earlier poster pointed out.

It is very easy for someone raised on the principles of Western medicine to look at alternative medicine and scoff. It's hocus-pocus, so it must be worthless, right? I have done it in the past. But dismissing alternative medicine as rubbish is every bit as dangerous as believing in it slavishly. The fact is that usually, when people do something in droves, and keep doing despite huge pressure not to, then there must be some damn reason why they're being so pig-headed. It's very important to look deeper than our initial impressions and apply some actual thought to these matters.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that both Western and alternative are different systems of medicine. Western medicine is not the 'right' or 'best' or 'only' way of doing medicine. It is just the way that is in favour now in industrial consumer societies. Western and alt med are based on different values, different cultures, and each have different strengths and weaknesses. Western medicine is not the apotheosis of human medical treatment. It is one approach among many. I want to try now to outline what makes each system the way it is, and what draws people towards one and away from another.

Western medicine is the child of our times: industrialism, capitalism, consumerism et al. have birthed this creature This has many important influences on this system, including: an economy-driven need to measure the cost effectiveness of any intervention; a progress-driven need to place a high value on the fruits of the scientific method, while scoffing at and dismissing outdated and unscientific attitudes; a heavy emphasis on technology and rapid innovation to drive the market and tackle ever-rising expectations about what medical care should be able to accomplish; an efficiency-driven need to discard anything that can not prove its worth.

The sensitivity of this system to cost-effectiveness is particularly important, because measuring cost-effectiveness depends on measuring outcomes in treatment. Traditionally, this has meant measuring very concrete things - has the cancer gone away? do I still have a broken leg? etc. Abstract things - did the patient feel listened to? are they happier? has their quality of life improved? - are extremely difficult to measure scientifically, so they have fallen by the wayside. This has led to a situation with stressed doctors rushing patients through their doors, giving them a prescription for the first thing that pops out of their mouth. Believe me when I say it - western medicine has some very large flaws. I’ll discuss what drives people from western to alt. in a moment.

Alternative medicine is unfortunately a system which I feel less confident describing. But I will give it a shot. Without wishing to stereotype it, I believe it is born not from ancient rituals and star-charts as such, but from a total rejection of western medical and societal values: a rejection that is conscious and/or unconscious.

Whereas western medicine stresses science, technology, efficacy, efficiency, regulation, etc, alt. med. affirms the value of the intangible, the unprovable. It taps the desire in our hearts for ancient wisdom, spirituality, all-seeing knowledge. And it has a certain... confidence that western medicine lacks. Western doctors are taught to admit defeat and acknowledge uncertainty. Alt. practitioners are often supremely confident - there is nothing they can’t help. There is tremendous solace in such comfort.

The situation is different for a western doctor, trained to stare statistics in the face and acknowledge doubt. A western doctor probably knows exactly how hopeless your disease is. But they can’t tell you that you have a so-and-so chance of surviving and that you should probably just go home and let what may come, come. They are then forced to try and show the bright side of your situation - they are forced to lie. But the truth, if not said, is always felt. Many doctors withdraw from patients with chronic or terminal illness because they cannot bear the weight of this lie. Combine the fear of death worn by many of the people trapped by the webs of capitalism’s false promises, and you can start to understand why so many people spend their last years in the pointless agony of cancer treatments that do little to nothing to extend their lives, and nothing to improve their quality of life.

On top of that, a western doctor is also often subject to tremendous stress. When success in care is measured in concrete terms, and at a minute scale, and there is the threat of litigation for malpractice, and the lure of promotion for good results, what is the use of focussing on listening to the patient? Add in the string-pulling and manipulation of pharmaceutical company maneuvering (a terrible thing), and the rigmarole of bureaucracy and management, a massive student debt to pay off... Doctors are stressed. Many are not taught how, or even that it is important, to listen to patients. After all, it is really goddamn hard to do a RCT study of how it affects patients to feel listened to. And listening and caring doesn’t lead to any immediate, tangible benefit for a doctor. So many don’t.

Next time you meet someone who believes in alternative medicine, try digging a little into their past experiences with illness and medicine. It’s really sad how often you find, early in their lives, that they went to the doctor and came away feeling uncared for, rushed through a system, not listened to - like they were just a sack of grain on a conveyor belt. People get very hurt by the flaws of western medicine. And that drives them away - straight into the arms of western’s polar opposite, alt.

Yes, alternative medicine isn’t backed up by studies. Yes, it is not regulated. Yes, it is ridiculously easy to get a certificate from some internet site and start selling crystals and manipulating auras. Yes, most of it probably doesn’t work, and has no reason to work. But that’s exactly why it works. It is a total rejection of the value-set of western medicine, and it represents a huge need in the souls of modern culture. It allows people to find that surety and caring attitude and positivity that only blind optimism and ignorance can bring. And that is important. For many of the terrible diseases that afflict people, western medicine can't really do shit. Don't let the pills and jargon fool you: a lot of the interventions offered by western medicine are as bad as any witch-doctor mumbo-jumbo. Often, the best thing for a patient is to be positive and calm, 'let go' of their illness, and feel listened to and cared for. And that stuff genuinely helps. And western medicine isn't that good at it!

Anyway, sorry to ramble on. I just feel like a background in the debate, and understanding of why people choose one or the other, is helpful. It's good to understand people.

To get back to your dilemma: I think you should try and find out why your wife feels this need to seek an alternative. It is reaaally important to find out what these monthly check-ups mean to her. And it is really important to express your concerns over them.

My guess is that yes, your wife has been stung by western medicine. My guess is that when she takes your daughter to her alternative practitioners, she feels warm and safe and for her it is a place where she can release all of her worries and stresses, and bond with her daughter in a feeling of calm and love. My guess is that the reason she has been hiding this from you, and become defensive when you tried to tackle her on it, is because she is scared - quite rightly - that you will make this into a battle and try and take this away from her. My guess is that she is unable to articulate this deep need in her - she can only thrash around with the surface stuff and argue about lying statistics and all that. (And that’s why arguments over this stuff never go anywhere - people never really discuss the true reasons why they need one over the other.)

I think that if you can forgive your wife for hiding this from you, and begin an open and honest dialogue about your concerns and her needs, this may become a very wonderful thing for you. You need to be honest that you need her to be truthful and upfront about what is happening with your daughter, and that you both need to have a say in what happens with her. You need to be honest that you don’t feel the same need as her, and you need to talk about what this stuff really means for you.

As for the specifics - acupuncture, tincture and herbs - well, do your research. Make your own mind up. Acupuncture is basically harmless, with no proven effect and every now and then an infection to show for getting jabbes with needles. It’s good to make sure the practitioner sterilises and knows his shit, which helps to avoid complications. My guess is that the tincture and herbs are probably mostly harmless. It’s kinda hard to sell straight-up poison these days...

You also need to be honest that you are worried about whether she is acting selfishly. Is she doing this because it is good for your daughter, or good for her? If her actions are making your daughter worried, if you raise hypochondria as one of your worries, then - that is not right. You need to acknowledge that.

Make sure that your daughter’s feelings are foremost in any conversation you have - again, this is where going along to see what’s happening at the check-ups could be really good. And remember that your wife’s worries about whether you will fight her on this are proooobably showing in how she talks to your daughter. If she says to your daughter, ‘you MUST take these!’ then it’s probably because she is worried and insecure about you fucking things up.

At the end of the day, the truth is that your daughter is the most important person here. She is the only thing to worry about in this whole situation. She is in your care, and it is your responsibility to protect her - and at the end of the day, the most important and hardest thing to protect your child from is yourself, and your own weaknesses and fallibility.

So! Start an open dialogue. Try and get involved. Go along with your wife and meet the practitioner. Share in what is happening - it could be very beautiful. Protect your daughter. Remember: she is the most important person in your whole life.

One last thing: the whole western vs. alt. thing starts to pale into insignificance when you consider that both systems are practised by humans, and every human is different. Some western doctors are wonderful and caring. Some are pricks. Same goes for alt - maybe the ratio is a little different, maybe not. It’s all about finding the good apple - the one that makes your daughter happy.

Anyway I think that’s about all I wanted to say : P
posted by schmichael at 8:03 AM on October 13, 2009 [18 favorites]

Not all alternative "remedies" are harmless, unfortunately. Zicam is an excellent example of something that was marketed as "homeopathic" in order to evade regulation, but in fact contained an active ingredient that led to reports of permanent damage to sense of smell. Not only does alternative medicine avoid regulations to demonstrate the efficacy of drugs, but it also escapes the regulations to demonstrate their safety. The latter is far more worrying.

At a minimum, you should know what herbs she is taking, and you should discuss their safety with your pediatrician. Regardless of your beliefs on evidence-based and non-evidence-based medicine, hiding medical treatment from another parent is a bad thing.
posted by grouse at 8:49 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is tremendous solace in such comfort.

It is a total rejection of the value-set of western medicine, and it represents a huge need in the souls of modern culture. It allows people to find that surety and caring attitude and positivity that only blind optimism and ignorance can bring. And that is important.

This is called religion. It is not medicine by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s kinda hard to sell straight-up poison these days...

If only.

Make sure that your daughter’s feelings are foremost in any conversation you have - again, this is where going along to see what’s happening at the check-ups could be really good. And remember that your wife’s worries about whether you will fight her on this are proooobably showing in how she talks to your daughter. If she says to your daughter, ‘you MUST take these!’ then it’s probably because she is worried and insecure about you fucking things up.

All well and good, but (1) a three year-old is too young to have any feelings about the efficacy of medical care, and (2) if the wife in question thinks preventing worthless, potentially harmful things from happening to her daughter is "fucking things up", then the OP needs to question the wisdom of giving this person custody of a child.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:09 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would suggest seeking out a pediatrician who is familiar with holistic and complementary medicine, and putting together a more reasonable wellness plan for your child going forward. I suspect there's enough woo-woo in your neck of the woods that such an MD exists (they certainly do where I live). There are MD's who are completely cool with saying "sure, this would be a great time to go to the acupuncturist", though nowhere near as many as would simply hand over a script for antibiotics and call it a day, unfortunately.

I appreciate your wife's intentions, and I do think that many of us go through this phase. I went through mine long before I had kids, but I still have a lot of respect for some of the principles--adjusting our diet to attack certain moods or illnesses, for example. Not all "alternative" medicine is bullshit, and in fact, some of it has a lot of respect in legitimate Western medical circles (not homeopathy, though, for crying out loud). I definitely think that in the interest of your child's long term wellness, what your wife's doing is not practical, useful, or sustainable. You two need to work this out.
posted by padraigin at 10:52 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're being irrational, but I do think you may be overreacting.

Just as a datapoint, my mom was EXTREMELY into alternative medicine and faith healing when I was a kid. I definitely was given tinctures and reiki massage and acupuncture for run-of-the-mill sorts of stuff. It definitely didn't result in me growing up to believe in any of that stuff, or to reject rationality (!) in favor of new-age healing. Quite the opposite, actually: part of my career now involves research into evidence-based medicine. I think, as a parent, you can't ever really predict how the practices you raise your kid with will affect their adult outlook; in the end it's much more about their temperament and experiences you have no real control over anyway. So I don't think you should let yourself get too worked up about this turning your kid into a mushy-brained hippie.

Arguing with your wife about this, and turning into the hill you die on, is probably a hell of a lot more harmful to your kid (growing up in a household where dad doesn't respect mom's beliefs is NOT a good model for future relationships) than just letting it be mom's quirk. I think it's probably okay to ask that she not give your kid something to ingest unless you both have a chance to research the company that makes it, or whatever, to make you comfortable. That's different from insisting the whole thing is bunk, and in my experience if you phrase it as "hey, they might be a really good company, or they might be really unethical [just like any other profit-driven company], let's just check and make sure they're reputable" is a reasonable request and should not make her feel belittled or cause arguments.

Also, a bonus bit of advice: I bet that you'd have a lot more tolerance--or at least understanding--of your wife if you understood a bit more about where this desire for new-age medicine comes from. Like I said above, I don't believe it's just about people being insufficiently skeptical.** There's a whole literature out there about the sociology of western medicine and disease in the 20th century that I bet you'd really appreciate, if you're inclined to read it. The women's health movement in the 1960s and 1970s is a great example of why, exactly, a lot of people distrust western medicine and find alternative medicine is so attractive, and a lot of that is the seeds for the sorts of services that your wife is seeking out now. It's not the response I necessarily would have to the failures that have existed (and probably continue to exist) in the medical system, but understanding what those failures were, and being able to see how alternative medicine was a response to that, has really helped me appreciate my mother and have a lot of tolerance for her sending me the latest homeopathic remedies or crystals or whatever. (I still throw them away, but hey, it doesn't make me frustrated anymore. I can appreciate the sentiment behind it without actually believing in it.)

**Spend enough time doing research on FDA-approved or (for lack of a better term) traditional medical advice and you'll soon realize that a much smaller fraction of what you get from the doctor is supported by the sort of empirical, study-based evidence than you imagine. The differing guidelines for what pregnant women are allowed to eat, which differ from country to country in surprising ways and almost none of which is really supported by anything, is an instructive example.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:00 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems like finding an MD that works in both non-western and western medicine is the most responsible thing to do-that way you have a medical professional taking care of both sides of the spectrum. Hopefully your wife can be more trusting of this person, and you can feel more secure knowing that the more radical stuff is likely to be off the table.

As for the other issues of a lack of (mutual) respect for each other's viewpoint, that's a different issue.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:52 AM on October 13, 2009

Mod note: "shut the fuck up" is only appropriate in an AskMe thread where the question is "what does stfu stand for?" Do not do that here, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:11 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It has become very lively in here. I wonder why?

As I understand there are a number of parts to the original question and here is my (only slightly) biased summary:

1. Is the OP overreacting (the original question):
The answer generally is that no he isnt because if you extrapolate the behaviour of the wife there is some real possible harm. Now, how likely it is that any of these things will actually happen in real life we dont know but if we were to use the usual yardstick we use for how we deal with our children when they cross a road and when they go swimming then this does deserve some intervention.

2. Is "who" important?: The simple test is to ask how should the OP react if it was a grandmother exposing the child to homeopathy, an aunt exposing her to Unani medicine, or a school teacher exposing her to voodoo. I am sure everyone would agree that in all these cases there will be an increasing level of alarm. Now ask yourself why...

3. Is 'what' important? In general, if things are being ingested, yes. If things are being used instead of proven remedies yes.

4. Is the mother being careless?: A mixed response here.

On physical health front a) absolutely if the girl had something serious and was taken to a quack instead of a read doctor and b) maybe if the girl became dependent on 'health maintenence' which is generally accepted as bullshit.

On mental health front: This exposes a child to a reference adult who accepts irrational things, the list can be long and can include alternative health, spaceships coming to pick up a bunch of hippies from a mountaintop, warriors getting virgins in get the gist.

It is reassuring to see that there are a number of rational well adjusted adults here who were exposed to such bull when young and seem to have turned out well. So it seems POSSIBLE to turn out normal but it is hard to know from this thread how likely that might be.

5. What about evidence? People have talked about the need for evidence as well as the difficulty in procuring such evidence and throwing something in the dustbin just because evidence is impossible to collect. A safe answer might be that more than the evidence what is important is an understanding for the need of evidence. Systems which peddle unproven cures often play down the NEED for evidence or downright hostility for evidence seekers. This is dangerous and a major red flag when dealing with the 'alternative types'.

Also, worth asking yourself, would you take a medicine produced by Novartis/Roche/etc which was tested as rigourously as homeopathy. The answer is very revealing. Homeopathic Medicine manufacturers are also companies with shareholders and profits to make (selling water at high margin does help though).

6. If it feels good then why not?: Indeed, lets extend this to include you bank manager who only gives you good news that there is always money in your bank account, lets see how long it is before it ends in tears.

7. Is it worth a fight which could lead to misery for the child due to relationship tensions?: Only if the OP can predict serious mental and physical harm. Thankfully, in case of my partner and I this was one of the pre marital agreements.

Projectiles welcome.
posted by london302 at 12:23 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks everyone for the really valuable feedback.
posted by H. Roark at 3:35 PM on October 13, 2009

Acupuncture is becoming more & more accepted in traditional medicine. I haven't seen anything about potential harm from it, but haven't looked, either. Didn't help me when I tried a course of acupuncture.
Homeopathy has no proven value, and has been pretty thoroughly tested, though seems mostly harmless.

Teaching a child to spend so much time consuming health care doesn't seem like a very good idea. My parents raised 6 kids to be Catholic. It took with 3, 2 of us are atheists, and 1 is a member of a cult-ish group, so by my anecdotal evidence, there's a decent likelihood of nurture making a difference.

Sit down with your wife, have a meeting where you address your wishes, which are valid, and hers, which are, too. Try to move towards a compromise where alternative health care options stay on the table, but the focus on consuming health care is reduced. Your child is getting vaccinations and well-child care, right?

Add to the mix: teaching your child to eat healthy - lots of vegetables, limited fats, meat, sugar, white flour, is way more useful than acupuncture. Staying physically active and being outdoors is equally important. Involve yourself in the process, - while grocery shopping as a family, focus on yummy veggies and great recipes with veggies, and trying new vegetables and fruits, and go hiking, walking, biking or otherwise enjoying outdoor activities with your wife (to the extent she's able) and child. The bonus is family time together.

A very smart child development expert once told me that the worst thing you can do to a kid is waste their time. Your child's time could be better spent playing, singing, exploring & daydreaming.
posted by theora55 at 12:16 PM on October 14, 2009

Good comments from Theora55 regarding exercise. Perhaps your wife could redirect her energies towards doing yoga, tai chi, etc. with your kid? Exercise with a side helping of spirituality is better than focusing on magic pills, and may fulfill the psychological need to be "doing something" about health.
posted by benzenedream at 2:17 PM on October 14, 2009

Good suggestions Theora but before accepting that accupunture is 'more and more accepted' I would suggest looking at this link which leads to a large number of reviews and most of them seem to say that the quality of studies is very poor and generally not up to a standard to make any claims.

(Cochrane review was set up in the memory of Archie Cochrane, probably one of the first medical evidence hunters and is one of the most respected source of medical evidence.)

Also, please see links above to actual examples of (indirect)harm from accupuncture.

If by acceptance you meant mainstream doctors referring patients for acupuncute then I will let you in on a little trade secret. I know a lot of fellow doctors who love referring patients to alternative health options to take them off their backs when their physical symptoms dont improve. These fall in two groups, some people just dont understand life's limitations and others who need therapy wont go to a therapist but do well by clinging to a 'very special alternative practitioner'. It is also cheaper than real medicine in our system.

This doesnt amount to acceptance, it is an easy way out of a long consultation.
posted by london302 at 2:35 PM on October 14, 2009

« Older Tell me why a room-and-board-and-bandwidth...   |   Who gets to be the lucky person to write me a... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.