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A Different Way to Heal?
Body on a Bench
A Day with Wally Sampson
Photo of  Alan and Wally Sampson
  Alan asks Wally Sampson (right) about the latest scientific research behind a popular herbal remedy.

"Today there's growing interest in a branch of medicine that many doctors don't consider medicine at all," says Alan Alda in this episode of FRONTIERS. Acupuncture, herbal medicine, chiropractic and therapeutic touch are part of a booming, multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry. But do alternatives hold up under scientific examination? Retired Stanford Medical School oncologist Wally Sampson, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, tells Alan that the scientific basis of healing is establishing cause and effect. Most people recover from illness spontaneously, yet they can often incorrectly attribute their improved health to whatever therapy they tried just before getting better.

Photo of Alan at an Herb Shop  
Traditional pharmacist Dennis Zeng shows Alan the assortment of ten Chinese herbs he recommends for back pain.  

Sampson and Alan visit a Chinese herbal medicine shop, where Alan asks the traditional pharmacist Dennis Zeng what he might suggest for back pain. Going from drawer to drawer, Zeng gathers together his prescription - an assortment of ten herbs to be boiled and consumed as a strong tea. Most traditional Chinese herbs, which come from the tropical forests of Southern China, have never been scientifically studied. While that does not necessarily mean they don't work, it does mean that they could have unknown side effects, or could interfere with other medications. The same possibility holds true for the hundreds of loosely-regulated "dietary supplements" sold in health stores and supermarkets nationwide. As Sampson points out, popular remedies sold over-the-counter - like Echinacea for colds or IP-6 for cancer - have either never been scientifically studied, or have shown equivocal effects at best. Perhaps what these treatments really provide is hope, as FRONTIERS examines in the next segment.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
How We Know
Alternative Attraction
The Cold Truth

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