4 September, 1989
No longer on the fringe, "natural medicine" is fast becoming a widely accepted way to good health. Anna Broome outlines the current status of homoeopathy and naturopathy in Christchurch.
The words "natural medicine" for some, still conjure up images of mung beans, mediation and mumbo-jumbo, but for many it is becoming the accepted way to heal oneself. Complementary medicine such as homeopathy and naturopathy are becoming more and more popular as alternative means of treatment for a whole range of diseases from colds to cancer to behavioural problems.
Natural medicine is nothing new. In fact, it is as old as life itself. It is concerned with the energy movement around the body. When you are sick, it is as if the energy has stopped and the remedy, whether it be massage, a dietary change, or a potion, is designed to help the energy flow again. More practitioners are appearing and schools are being set up to teach at all levels. One such school is the College of Natural Medicine in Cholmondely Avenue which offers self help-courses and trains would be practitioners. College Dean, Michael Cole, who trained at a school in Britain, has several explanations for the increased popularity of alternative treatment. He states that the speed up in communication coupled with the rediscovery of previously lost information can partly account for the resurgence, but more importantly, people are wanting to take control of their own health. People's consciousnesses are changing as new ideas take over. What is ‘alternative' about alternative medicine according to Cole is the direction.
"We look towards health rather than disease and I think that's an importance difference. In the West we tend to focus on disease syndromes. Well, that's sort of like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff really. What we need to do is have a look at what really keeps us healthy….I'm sure if we really thought about it, we would have a much healthier state."
Cole also stresses the high incidence of chemicals in society which have caused people to look at natural types of healing. "Over the last thirty-five to forty years we've been invaded with chemicals. Before that time there weren't so many chemicals – there were plagues, fevers and so on that spread around, but now we've got a level of interference with the energy and health states of the body from very much more. They're things that you can't really see and track down. If you go out into the air which is full of emissions from all sorts of things, and the food you eat, well you may eat organically, you may eat food that's relatively good but it may have been processed in a way that involves chemicals and there's still the element of those chemicals within the food. Now if you have your clothes dry-cleaned, that's using chemicals. The houses that we live in nowadays - there's lots of formaldehydes and new sorts of glues…paints and resins, these are all non-natural and chemically made, and the cars outside – just about everything has had a chemical base to it. Now it's not there's anything wrong with that chemical base, or that there's anything particularly potent in any one of those areas, but once we start putting them together, which we call everyday life, we have a cocktail of chemicals and if you add that up over thirty or forty years, there could be a cause for some of the problems we're beginning to see now. And so… what we need to do is make sure that we eliminate and not hold onto these toxins and things. We try to keep movement through mind, body and spirit and this helps to eliminate them."
Dr Wendy Isbell, a Christchurch homeopath, has a different approach to Michael Cole. She says that blaming illness on the environment is a ‘cop-out'. She knows that "our society is very polluted, there are a lot of chemicals around and we eat a lot of bad food but as soon as you start blaming a lot of your illnesses on that, you run the risk of giving your own power away." She also says that food allergies are a frequently used excuse. "For food allergies you go beyond the allergies and treat the general constitution and usually the food allergies just dissolve away."
Both agree that natural medicine is now a popular complement to orthodox medicine but is not a total replacement. Dr Isbell at times recommends that her patients go back to the GP for an ordinary medical complaint. She did, in fact, train as a doctor at Otago Medical School but switched to homeopathy when she was cured of an illness by alternative means after the conventional had failed. She trained as a homeopath privately.
Cole says that healing is a personal choice and there is no right or wrong way. "I always think of health as a road map. There are many routes to the destination – some are wider, some are longer, some have different views along the way. I think all routes are important and it's up to the person to choose which way they want to go, not to be told which way."
There are problems in the traditional field, however, and he stresses the difficulty many doctors have with communication with their patients. "Campbell Murdoch, in the Medical School in Otago, said recently that one thing we don't do in our medical training is teach student doctors about people. It's the one thing that gets left out and I think that there's this wave of "Well, what about me?" This is the strength of homeopathic and other alternative medicines. The mind, body and spirit are incorporated into the treatment and never divided out. Alternative practitioners take more care with listening – really listening to their patients, rather than a fixed preoccupation with the physical disposition the medical doctor has. Homeopathy works mainly on the physical plane, treating the symptoms. It works on the principle of "like cures like", giving a tiny, minute amount of particular substance, (often the disease itself), which is of plant, mineral or animal origin. Cole explains that the substance "triggers a response in the body and works on the body, mind and emotion…so the body heals itself." Homoeopathy, according to Dr Isbell, "uses the person's own healing processes…so it's still coming from within the person." Naturopathy is different from homoeopathy because it is much wider in its scope, taking into account iridology, diet, exercise, massage etc. Isbell doesn't take diet into account because "the homeopathic remedies are deeper than changing the diet and exercise – you tend to notice as people get better, they gradually change anyway – too much will power and not enough intuition creates a backlog of problems to deal with later."
The College of Natural Medicine has four departments: - homeopathy, naturopathy, Chinese medicine and counselling. Diplomas are offered in all departments and they take two to four years to complete depending what is studied. They cost from $900 to $3000 per year. The final year of a Diploma is spent in a clinic so that students gain some ‘hands on' experience treating patients under the supervision of their tutors. In addition to these courses, which are designed to train students so they can practise in the public sphere, the College runs a number of short part-time courses costing between $40 and $100. They include first aid, acupressure, Chinese cooking, massage, Chinese kung fu and far more. There are currently 72 students enrolled at the College with another 100 plus having attended recent short courses. According to Cole, students come from all over New Zealand, because within this country there is a real need for a college such as this. There is a similar college in Auckland but it operates in a fundamentally different way because it doesn't divide the disciplines up as the Christchurch College does. People from all backgrounds enrol, some with aspirations to help others but many have self-help foremost in their minds. There are more female students than male and when he was asked why he said, "nourishment, healing and health, I think sometimes comes more easily for the female yin side, if I can use the Chinese word, the receptive aspect." A lot of nurses enrol for courses, wanting to take the human aspect into their job whereas male doctors are not so willing to open themselves up to new experiences. Cole puts this down to men not being as adventurous as women.
Dr Isbell notes this trend also. She sees more female patients than male but she does admit that women get sick more often. She says that she, "sees a lot of women who are unfulfilled in themselves, trying to fit themselves into roles. The role of bringing up children is one where you have to give yourself and put yourself aside a bit, and there are a lot of women who are thinking that there must be more to life than this…they don't realize that they're always sick because they are not in the right place. I look very carefully at the women who become depressed, because they're the ones that often have the most potential." She has seen an increase in the number of men who are willing to change, which is a step in the right direction.
Dr Isbell sees a lot of people who are just run down – the first step to becoming sick. Sickness is often manifesting a need. People can sort out why they need to be sick, or why they got sick in that particular way," by giving them Bach Flowers which she has recently started using. These flowers are often used as a background to other treatment. She listed some Californian flower essences she uses, and their effects. The one that sticks in the mind is peppermint. Its effects should see students queuing up: "mental alertness and awakeness, clarity of mind, overcoming mental lethargy, sluggishness, tendency to be dulled by bodily concerns, promotes an active awake state of mind, helpful for study or desk work." These remedies are different to other remedies because of their low potency. Traditional homeopathic remedies are of high potency and include such ingredients as salts, gold, silver and snake poison! She says she uses her remedies "almost aggressively, because I want to get to where the block is and dig it out basically". Once the block has gone, the patient uses their own healing processes and powers to make themselves well.
Wendy Isbell sees about 80 patients a week. Complicated and detailed files are kept because she requires more information than a GP. The first visit takes over an hour because a full physical check-over is carried out and costs $44. Follow-up visits are $27.50 and are about every three weeks. Cheaper than an orthodox doctor but she remarks jokingly, "my income's a lot less than a normal doctor!" The cost to the patient can be reclaimed with a disability allowance or under health insurance at specialist rates because homoeopaths are recognised by the Department of Health.
This official acceptance is an indication of the growing respectability of alternative healing. As our society grows more complicated and industrial by the day, people are beginning to turn to more ‘back-to-nature' ways of life in an attempt to avoid the perceived evils of modern day living. For those who have found that they have benefited immensely from mind and body healing, it has not been all about mysticism and self-deprivation, but simply about health.