I’ve mentioned already that Germans in my view have a much greater interest in herbal remedies and alternative medicine than the Brits. You will find a traditional apothecary (as opposed to a Boots pharmacy) in every corner – in many cases places which appear to hail directly from the renaissance, lined with tiny wooden drawers and brown and green glass bottles filled with potions and powders. Buy a simple body lotion from your local chemist and you will be swamped with free supplies of magnesium and zinc as goodies to take home.
Despite being a creature of conventional medicine, in my time here, I have learnt that teas with thyme are good for coughs and colds (bronchial tea), the rootstock of the herbal plant Valeriana (Baldrian) is used commonly to help against insomnia (we even supply it for hospital in-patients) and zinc is a must when you have a cold (although I’m not convinced it helps you recover any quicker from a cold than the eggs with pepper and spoonfuls of honey that my dad is quick to recommend). How much of it is placebo and how much helps, I really don’t know. But they definitely can’t do you any harm. I see that companies such as Orthamol market their strong vitamin cocktails to expecting mothers, athletes and immunosuppressed patients at fancy prices (40-50 Euros a month) and question their need. Although admittedly, whilst not exactly eating junk food everyday, the thought and effort I put into securing a nutritiously balanced diet every day is nominal.
My knowledge of alternative medicine is shamefully limited to one special study module many years ago at university. I am the sceptic that scoffs quietly when someone tells me of an acupuncture course to reduce the duration of labour. But when patients quiz me on alternative treatments for their newly diagnosed lung cancer, I regret that I can’t offer them a more expert opinion. Other than to tell them there is no clear evidence for their use in this field and an offer to check that there are no drug interactions with any conventional therapy they take.
Recently we treated a Chinese patient who relied on Chinese herbal medicine to treat her advanced lung cancer. Several discussions with the patient and her family made clear that the aversion to chemotherapy was not just due to cultural differences and a rejection of conventional medicine, but due to the underlying hope that a remedy exits somewhere which could offer a cure. A cure which is out of reach with the chemotherapy we had to offer. This is the side of alternative medicine which I find the hardest to come to terms with.