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Beyond The Pills and Needles

The term ‘alternative medicine’ is loaded with connotations that generate suspicion amongst some while representing a lifeline to others. Whereas it is sometimes disregarded as having ‘non-scientific’ foundations, modern or ‘Western’ medicine boasts the approval of pharmaceutical research and is worth around $12 billion annually in Australia alone. This monopoly however, is being challenged by a shift in attitudes, as more people are re-examining our culture of pill-popping quick fixes in favour of the potential of integrated holistic medicines, herbal alternatives and cannabis.

Prof. Avni Sali

Hawthorn-based Professor Avni Sali AM, Director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine (11 Burwood Rd, Hawthorn), has seen first-hand this patient-driven power shift. “The public are getting ahead of the health system in what they want in terms of alternative medicine. Not a lot of doctors will recommend alternative medicines, such as cannabis, but patients are bringing it up in consultations more and more.” Integrative medicines, often called Holistic therapies, take into account a person’s lifestyle, barriers to wellness, diet and psychology.

Whereas diet is well-understood nowadays in how it relates to health, Prof Sali says cultural influences can be equally significant. He reasons, “In the West, we talk about the Mediterranean diet and its connection to longevity, but we are confusing diet with culture. Mediterranean culture is very community based. There’s strong connectivity and openness, which is really essential for reducing stress and improving well-being.” Prof Sali’s decades of experience in mainstream medicine led to the realisation that something was lacking in the process of diagnosis and prescription. He explains, “The question of why people get ill seemed less important than rushing to a diagnosis and getting on with pharmaceutical treatment.” He emphasises, “But we must understand that stress and isolation are huge factors in any illness.”

Prof Sali’s advocacy for lifestyle and non-pharmaceutical remedies extends to how Vitamin D possesses often overlooked healing qualities, and it is completely free, so long as patients have access to plenty of sunlight. “During the pandemic, in the rush to find a vaccine for COVID-19, limiting its impact came down to isolation and segregation.” Prof Sali says, “But I was involved in a study in Turkey into the effects of Vitamin D deficiency in the elderly and how it impacted COVID-19 sufferers. In a lot of the nursing homes during lockdown, people had very little to no sunlight exposure. These patients were much more frequently hospitalised and suffered much more severe symptoms, while patients who had exposure to a few hours of sunlight a day were recovering faster and their symptoms were overall minimised.”

The National Institute of Integrated Medicine explores many areas of non-pharmaceutical medicines

In the West, we have come to rely on pharmaceuticals for virtually every malady that arises. After all, historically, ‘alternative medicine’ was the playground of unethical charlatans and so-called ‘quack’ doctors, pushing ‘miracle cures’ onto the gullible and the desperate. But the branding of certain non-mainstream therapies has evolved due to evidence-based studies and reassessing the value of pre-pharmaceutical herbal therapies. Perhaps the most overt re-branding in recent years has been in the form of the cannabis plant, which was recategorised from ‘Class B illegal substance’ in Australia, to ‘legalised for medicinal and scientific purposes’ in 2016. Prof Sali points out that, “In the 1920s when cannabis was banned, we lost a hundred years of research into a natural remedy, that now is finally being recognised as having pain management and sleep benefits akin to much riskier pharmaceuticals like morphine or valium.”

Dr James Stewart, also a medical cannabis advocate, based nearby in Armadale, regularly treats patients for osteoarthritis and joint pain. He explains, “Most of my patients are cautious of the harmful side effects and the addictive potential of traditional painkillers. So many are turning to medicinal cannabis products, not just because of their safety and effectiveness, but also because they are natural, not addictive and have fewer side effects than many pharmaceuticals.” Research has determined that the therapeutic components of cannabis plants - known as cannabinoids - can be isolated and extracted. The two main cannabinoids that have therapeutic benefits are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Typically delivered in an oil form, the cannabinoids possess anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Also, according to Prof Sali, “51 studies have been done on the positive effects cannabis has on sleep disorders.”

Changing attitudes to alternative therapies have resulted in pharmacies now working with GPs who prescribe things like cannabis. Dr Stewart reasons, “we are moving away from chemical solutions to problems by promoting lifestyle changes by involving people in the management of care and encouraging patients to have better exercise, better diet, and use better supplements.” Prof Sali, who has long been critical of the dominance of big pharmaceutical companies said, “Natural remedies have existed since long before drug medicine but when you can’t get funding or patents for your research, your findings are barely mentioned in the media.”

Consumers' desire for more transparency and knowledge of what we put in our bodies is leading to greater numbers of people wanting to explore the value of all types of therapies. Naturally, before making any decisions about healthcare, it is important to discuss your options with your GP.

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