Kooks or Canaries? (Part I)

Canaries 300If you have been reading here, you are probably aware that I am a physician. Which is interesting, because my wife is largely anti-medicine, or at least resistant to medical approaches. She belongs to some on-line groups that look at alternative medicine, and who emphasize the importance of a healthy diet.

We get along fine. I have practiced medicine long enough, and I have seen enough confounding things, that I am not so cocksure about the power of medicine, and I am all too aware of the incompleteness of it. And I am also aware that my wife’s crowd has often been laughed at, but almost never acknowledged when they later turn out to be right.

They warned about us about sugar, processed food, animals fed all manner of growth enhancers, aspartame, gluten, high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, preservatives, additives, dyes, and a host of others. For all of these warnings medical practitioners, with the eager endorsement of industry, brushed aside their complaints and dismissed them as wackos.

With time, research slowly emerged supporting many of their complaints, but entirely without apology nor even chagrin.  That doesn’t mean that the alternative health crowd are always right, of course. And it doesn’t mean that traditional medicine is always wrong.  But it does mean we should listen with an open mind to everyone, and to take their experiences a bit more seriously.  My observations on these points have led me to wonder, are those who belong to the alternative health crowd a bunch of kooks?

Or are they canaries?

I noted my wife resists traditional medicine, which is interesting because she is also resistant to traditional medicine.  Or more accurately, she is largely unable to take traditional medicines, and is even sensitive to some mild herbs.  For some years I kept an open mind, but was aware that her problems could simply be psychosomatic. Medicine has used that as a catchall dustbin for all sorts of untidy data.

Then an interesting thing happened. I was making salad dressing one night, and was out of the pectin I sometimes use to thicken it. I had some gluten from my baking supplies, and used that.

The next day my wife complained repeatedly that she couldn’t figure out why she was so tired. After a while I sheepishly remembered that she had told me that gluten causes her problems.  So without saying anything, I dumped out the batch, made a new bottle without gluten, and put it in the fridge.

The next day she kept going on about how much better she felt.  So I confessed. She actually thanked me for telling her, she thought maybe she was just nuts.

And then a few weeks later I had a patient with a severe gluten sensitivity. She had eliminated gluten from her diet and improved greatly. And then, inexplicably she began to relapse. She carefully reviewed the food in her pantry and refrigerator, and couldn’t find anything. Then by chance, she looked at her shampoo.  It contained gluten.

Just skin contact with gluten was making her ill.

Some time later, I took our son to a football game, and the kids we were there with all got cotton candy.  A serving of cotton candy actually has surprisingly little sugar, so I figured he’d burn it off quickly and I let him get some.  Three hours later after we got home however, my wife came in and said, “Did he get sugar at the football game?  Because he’s bouncing off the walls in there.”

I told her about the cotton candy, apologized, and promised not to do it again. Problem is, next morning he was still hyperactive. We talked about it and decided that the sugar shouldn’t explain his behavior that far after eating it.

We decided it had to be the blue food coloring.  Since then, other people have told us their children have had trouble with blue coloring as well.

And then I had a first-person experience.[1]It is interesting that in French l’experience means both experience and experiment.  My wife doesn’t push me to eat what she and the kids do, but I eat it just because it’s easier (and I have to say, she and I have learned to make some mean vegetarian dishes, and we’re both food snobs). So my diet has largely been cleared of additives and processed foods. But one night in the hospital I got processed meat sticks on my dinner tray, and ate a couple of them.

When I got home a few hours later, I can remember being absolutely furious. My son was complaining about practicing guitar – a common occurrence – and I was seriously considering smashing his guitar on the walls.

Fortunately I didn’t. But I couldn’t figure out why I was so angry. There wasn’t anything I was worried about, I wasn’t tired, I hadn’t had a bad day.

The next day, I remembered the meat sticks. In the following months I had similar but milder episodes, however, and I’ve come to suspect it may have been the high fructose corn syrup in the ketchup.

Tomorrow:  Part II:  The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Great Flood of 1927, and the 18th Century Foundations of Modern Medicine.

Read Part II here.

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Canaries courtesy of Wikipedia.


1 It is interesting that in French l’experience means both experience and experiment.

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