A Gamble Into the Unknown: Orthodox Versus Alternative Medicine


The information you are reading right now is also a quick reference for sources of information on unconventional, alternative, and complementary therapies; their uses and how you could get them. It is an extraordinary compilation of many useful facts written in an easy-to-understand language for the ordinary person. I have attempted to demonstrate the usefulness and efficacy of many naturally occurring and often disregarded substances in maintaining health, treating (or even curing?) a variety of devastating ailments, and prolonging life. Although targeted at the lay public, the article also offers a lot of scientific information on these superb substances of great antiquity.

Alternative medicine is normally classified under the common term of “complementary therapies”. These are, in turn, defined as therapeutic practices currently not considered to be an integral part of conventional allopathic medical practice. They may lack convincing biomedical explanations, alright; but, as they are tested in the laboratory and are better researched and are found to give an actual lease of life to numerous cases where sure death was once a foregone conclusion, they simply become credible. Obviously, therapies become “complementary” when they are being used in addition to conventional treatment, while they become “alternative” when being used in place of conventional medicine. Some older definitions would normally describe alternative medicine as an unconnected lot of non-orthodox therapeutic practices, often with explanatory approaches that do not quite match with conventional biomedical explanations; or as non-orthodox therapeutic tendencies with “not quite convincing” scientific explanations for their efficacy. Others define complementary and alternative medicine as a broad spectrum of healing entities that spans all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories, hypotheses, and beliefs other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health system of a particular society or culture at a given time in history. This definition embraces all such practices and ideas perpetuated by potential users as preventing or treating illnesses or promoting health and general well being of the individual. However, boundaries between these different modes of definition are not always as sharp or fixed.

Alternative and complementary medicine includes, but is not limited to the following disciplines: indigenous medicine, herbs, diet fads, faith healing, acupuncture, and so on. Common practice clearly indicate that these therapies are mostly sought and applied by desperate individuals who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, cancer, untreatable neurological conditions, back pain, severe arthritis, and other equally devastating medical conditions you might think of. This article is certainly not able to provide information for every ailment or even give sufficient assistance to everyone seeking information on specific therapies or medical conditions. For particular diseases, treatment or therapeutic information one should consult a medical specialist or visit specific websites on the internet. This is simply a general writeup for information on proved and workable therapies, dietary supplements, etc; but, surely, I am not in a position to make any recommendations on their effectiveness for anyone not ready to try. If you are one of those skeptics and doubting Thomases, you are better off by consulting with your family doctor first before you try anything in that direction. This writeup is for your general education and is not meant to convince you to do away with the professional care by your qualified health practitioner if you are not the kind of person who believes easily and can dare; neither is it for advocating or selling any merchandise or products by any company or anyone if you are not convinced.

But, how did I get motivated to write this writeup? It is a long story! I could, perhaps, start by taking you back into my background and personal history. I was born destitute, without knowing who my father or my mother was; although I came to learn later in life that my mother was still alive. I grew up in very mean circumstances, under the care of an aging grandfather and step-grandmother. During those days, as it still is even today, in rural Africa a shilling meant a great deal to the family. I can recall my inaudible little whimpers, begging for school fees, as my grandfather shuffled barefoot through the dust and sand of his little coffee and banana holding where the family had for many years planted and reaped and tended their poultry and livestock. I did not realize it at the time, but his sending me to school and paying forty shillings per year including uniform meant a huge sacrifice – for in those days, in 1957, when we could hardly make both ends meet, a shilling was like a $10 note today in our locality.

We lived in a mud house with a thatched roof. These were trying times; coffee did not fetch a good price at the co-operative market, and crops had been failing due to a long drought. But I was only a little boy of nine and the cares of this world just didn’t bother me. Looking back now, I can quite see where fending for the family was a real nightmare for my grandfather; who could walk long distances on a stave for support, in the boiling heat of the tropics, selling charcoal and firewood from one homestead to another. Yes, we were extremely poor. But then so was everyone else. But I never could realize it at the time. I felt like the richest person on earth; and while on vacation at home during the long end-of-year break from school, I was as happy as a lark.

I was constantly at home, even during school term. My school was just a few kilometers from home; just an old iron-roofed building, with crumbling brick walls, plus an office for the headteacher and two staff houses. It was a day school, where we could walk in the morning and come back in the evening. My grandfather couldn’t afford a boarding school; and there was no public transport, so we were always longing for those long vacations when we could rest and sleep endlessly, and lounge in the sun, and do our own thing in the open country unhindered by anyone.

I loved my school, but I loved my country home too. I can remember as a little child seeing inscribed in red paint on the stone walls of our village church the words taken from 1 Timothy 1:17:

“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

It didn’t mean anything to me then, but it does now! And the education and strict discipline I learned both at home and school prepared me for the world outside – a mean and uncaring world that constantly reminded me that it did not owe me anything but rather, as a grownup, I owed it a lot.

It is funny. In those days, there were no soft bank loans or poverty alleviating schemes for the African. No free medical care or primary education; no guaranteed wage increases, no school boycotts or riots. They simply didn’t exist. We were only thankful we could breathe God’s free air and enjoy beautiful sceneries of the countryside. To us school was a privilege. And if we could pass the exams – and they were extremely difficult, with no leakages or cheating – we could still count it a privilege to be able to go to high school. In fact it was even a privilege to get good employment. Yet we were happy! No air pollution; no population explosion or tribal wars; just good, fresh country air, and a rich variety of African biota.

Yes, malaria and other diseases were rampant; and there were no hospitals or even dispensaries anywhere nearby. But people always had a way of dealing with their health problems. There were plenty of natural substances, including medicinal plants – which were widely used and respected. I could always see my step-grandmother crushing herbs in a small pot in the backyard or grinding some powder on a huge stone in the plantain to treat some condition in the family or in the neighborhood. The value of any drug she dispensed out was greatly enhanced by the power of suggestion, with the possibility that any innocuous substance administered under the right conditions of suggestion and belief could have dramatic healing effects. Belief in the power of a drug was, however, not limited to traditional medicine. Clinical trials using placebos would always result in a percentage of cases responding to the “drug”. For this very reason, it was extremely difficult to study possible medicinal properties of certain plant species and correlate findings with traditional uses. This is clearly exemplified by the “grapple plant” (Harpogophytum procumbens), which, for many years now has become Africa’s pre-eminent medicinal plant, known in Europe and the USA as “Devil’s Claw”.

I was now over the puberty age; well grown-up and sensible, and this was when I took greater interest in traditional medicine. Of course, it was in line with my step-grandmother’s desire and I enjoyed it. There was now a rural dispensary some few kilometers away from home, built by some church organization; and I was always wondering why Western medicine had never bothered or even looked to our indigenous herbs as sources of new therapeutic agents, given their prominence and effectiveness in our own traditions. Then one Saturday afternoon I came back from the farm where I had been picking coffee with my grandfather, as it was just about Christmas and schools were closed. I was carrying a bundle of firewood, and headed straight to a little enclosure in the backyard that we called a “kitchen”. I found my step-grandmother lying on her tummy by the kitchen door. And she couldn’t get up. I didn’t realize it then, but she was unconscious. I lifted her arm and tried to pull her from the door. There was no reaction from her. I ran back to my grandfather for help. We hurriedly came back to the kitchen. My grandfather walked over to where she lay. She suddenly lifted her head and looked up, but her eyes just couldn’t focus. She cast a remote glance at me, and then with all the strength her frail body could muster she defiantly attempted a faint smile. Then she died! And we all cried bitterly.

The world had collapsed around me. My own heroine dead! Why? Sadly, the next day our family – together with neighbours, relatives, and friends tenderly carried the wooden coffin bearing the remains of my step-grandmother up to the maize field edging the little coffee farm and buried her. We put a hastily made wooden cross over the freshly dug grave, just as the sun was setting over the hills on the horizon. And then we solemnly walked back home.

Secretly, for many days, I would go up to visit her at her grave and talk to her. But she did not answer. There was no more pounding or crushing of herbs in that small pot in the backyard, nor was there any more grinding of the powder in the plantain. Grandmother was gone! It was then I came to grips with the reality of death.

But time has its own way of erasing sorrow and heal wounds. I was soon back to class, and grew up into a young man and graduated into high school. One day, a distant relative by the name of Simon came home for a visit and asked me to give him company to a little lake nearby to buy some fish. I reluctantly accepted, because I had some homework to do. Soon after coming back home, a shrill voice came persistently calling from the direction of the maize field. We all rushed out of the building because of the urgency accompanying the call. It was a neighbour telling us that grandfather had collapsed suddenly while selling charcoal at a little shop around the corner, and he needed quick assistance.

We rushed over and I followed a relative with a bicycle to help carry him to the dispensary. For three days we took turns sitting by his bedside but all of us knew quietly that this vigil was hopeless. The clinical officer at the dispensary suggested he be transferred to the district referral hospital some eighty kilometers away. We all agreed. There was no ambulance or reliable public transport, so we had to look for alternative means. Finally, the old man was admitted at the district hospital; and this was two days later. He was constantly moaning and complaining of severe stomach pains. An ultrasound of the abdomen revealed a pancreatic tumor, with laboratory tests showing high levels of blood glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol. An exploratory laparatomy a week later, revealed a neoplastic tumour of the pancreas with possible hepatic involvement. A biopsy confirmed adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. No remedy was possible at this stage, and this was now a terminal case. The old man was subsequently discharged.

It was late one evening. Just Simon and I were lazily lounging around in the little living room of our thatched house. Then I got up and walked into my grandfather’s room where he lay. I looked at his still form, breathing mechanically. I touched his arm, and then a thought came to me. Did my grandfather need to die really? Had we done enough to save his life? Did he realize he was about to die anyway? I tried to imagine myself in his situation. Momentarily, I was engulfed by sudden fear. Then I remembered! To overcome fear, you should always act as if it were impossible to fail! One thing I knew for certain was that the inner battles that a dying person wages within himself are numerous. Yes! the fears of death and suffering are common. But did we need to die – without even attempting to do something about it?

I had an idea! Yes! drugs derived from medicinal plants still formed the basis for rural medical care in my country – and this was largely due to lack of modern medical facilities. In practice, most of these drugs offered effective treatment. And in my village homeopathists and traditional healers were brand names in health care delivery, including my own family. And all of us had one thing in common. Our purpose was never really to bid acceptance of our medicine, nor did we ever try to match African indigenous medicine with Western allopathic medicine; but rather to share an experience whose aim was to dispel the distrust that had long been caused by negative prejudices while we assisted in solving the problem of public health.

Although there was an apparent analogy in the medicinal conceptions of the two systems of health care – the African indigenous and the European exotic system – it was also true that the philosophy that underlay them was different. One was a result of an analytical method of reasoning and of experimentation, and the other was a result of a systematic method of intuition and empiricism. Yet the importance of intuition and empiricism in Africa as a sure means of locating new and useful tropical plant compounds can never be overlooked. Most of the secondary plant compounds employed in modern medicine today were first “discovered” through such means. The rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus or Vinca rosea) represents a classic example of the importance of plants used traditionally by mankind. This herbaceous plant, native to South-eastern Madagascar, was a source of over 75 alkaloids, two of which (vincristine and vinblastine) are used to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease with significant success. The use of quinine from Cinchona bark to cure clinical malaria today owes its use by Peruvian Indians in the 17th century who employed crude extracts from the Cinchona trees to cure malaria. These are but only a few of what modern medicine owes to ethnobotanical treasures.

So what was I going to do? Did I need any more convincing? I thought of Vernonia amygdalina! This was a commonly found Asteraceous plant in our area, belonging to the subfamily Vernonieae; and we called it “Omubilizi” in our vernacular. It is indigenous in tropical and subtropical Africa, and its use in traditional medicine in our locality ranged from treating hepatitis, cardiac problems, poisoning of any kind, malaria, stomach pains, snakebites and eczema. It was in many instances said to have antitumor and cytotoxic effects, and it was an antiviral agent too.

Detailed studies of its therapeutic activity had long shown that flavonoids and vernolides were the active principles in its extracts. Quercetine flavonoids, 3-methylaquercetine and rutine inhibited platelet aggregation and reduced lipoxygenase and cycloxygenase activities, and had considerable cardiovascular effect. Vernolide had very strong antiparasitic action, especially against Entamoeba histolitica at the same level as antiparasitics used clinically, such as metronidazole or tinidazole. 3-methoxyquercetine and 3,3′-dimethoxyquercetine had very important antiviral activity which was shown even at concentrations as low as 10 nanogrammes. These substances had a selective effect, since they prevented formation of viral proteins without interfering with the metabolism of the host cell. They were especially active against the polio virus, the coxcachie virus, the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), the Rhino virus, and against other viruses of African origin.

The importance of this plant in antiviral chemotherapy was thus obvious -especially since even in more developed Western medicine, there was no such preparation with such effect. The family of products isolated from this plant, therefore, allowed us to foresee further laboratory research with some hope of success in treating other groups of viruses, such as retroviruses. In one instance, some scientist demonstrated inhibition of reverse transcriptase of encornavirus by some flavonols of vegetable origin.

This plant was hardly toxic and grew spontaneously jn many locations of our village. Its varied activity, very obvious in antiviral chemotherapy; and its occasional application by traditional healers in our locality on patients for cytotoxic treatment of certain tumors and cancers, prompted me to seriously consider trying it on the old man. I had seen my step-grandmother use it to arrest a confirmed oesophageal epithelium hyperplasia in a young woman in the neighbourhood, and she was still alive today. If it didn’t work; well, I had nothing to lose – except grandfather’s dear life!

I gathered courage and collected enough flowers of Vernonia amygladina and dried them in the shade to avoid destruction of the active ingredients by the direct heat of the tropical sun. I then ground the dried flowers into a fine powder; I prepared an aqueous suspension of the powder in a small wooden motor, and added enough water to make about half a litre of a concentrated extract.

I started administering the treatment by giving the old man two tablespoonfuls three times a day for four months. Improvement was limited but significant. Then we combined the treatment with dried and powdered tubers of Cyperus rotundus, fresh leaves of Moringa oleifera, plus water extracts of fresh cabbages and Euphorbia hirta. The results were simply astounding! In a few more weeks he was able to get up unaided from his bed and take a few steps into the backyard. After one full year he was strong enough to work in his small coffee farm, and medical tests couldn’t reveal anything abnormal. He was still alive fourteen years later, until he died of old age.

I have ever since graduated from university, got two science degrees including a doctorate, and practiced medicine as a pharmacist. Above all, I have become born-again and accepted Jesus as my personal saviour. Yet every moment of the day, as we listen to the radio or watch television or read the newspapers, we witness the finality of life. Not only do we hear, see, or read about famous persons or individuals dying but the obituary programmes or columns are filled with names of just plain ordinary men and women who have departed; and while they are momentarily revered, they would soon be forgotten. Everyday from our midst in today’s world, whether it be spring, or summer, or winter; death takes its toll, and hundreds die – from ailments that, unfortunately, could have been easily prevented. But how?
That is the question this eBook hopes to answer for you.

And it cannot have come at a more opportune time. Man is slowly slipping away into an unhealthy and stressful lifestyle, where diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer have become the norm. Alternative medicine, and more particularly, herbal remedies and nutritional supplements may just provide the answer.

As a living testimony, I recommend this eBook to those who believe in natural remedies for human ailments. It is my greatest wish that this write-up be received enthusiastically and become of great benefit towards guiding mankind back to natural and healthier lifestyles.

Yet despite all the proven possible health benefits that can be obtained from natural remedies and nutritional supplements, this write-up is not intended to mean that whatever is reflected in here should in any way replace the learned and professional recommendations of a medical doctor. Patients with specific problems should always consult their physician first.