Visiting a physician for every minor health complaint may seem prudent - we've all heard it pays to "play it safe." But Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for Weil Lifestyle, and an internationally recognized expert in the fields of integrative medicine, dietary supplements and women's health, believes this habit can ultimately do more harm than good. In her book Healthy at Home - Get Well and Stay Well Without Prescriptions, Dr. Low Dog draws on more than 30 years of experience as a physician, researcher and author specializing in therapeutic uses of herbs. In clear, non-technical language, she describes dozens of the most effective, natural remedies that can be used by anyone to help the body heal itself.
She spoke with Brad Lemley.
What's the central problem that your book addresses?
The simple truth is that modern Americans are relying too heavily on the health care system. The more one interacts with that system, the greater the chance he or she will be prescribed an unnecessary medication - one that often does not address the central or underlying problem, and that's likely to have a range of side effects.
I wrote this book because I want people to feel empowered to take care of the common, everyday health problems that are bound to happen. I'm not talking about asthma, pneumonia, heart disease or cancer - although there are preventive steps you can take to lower risks for all of these - but rather the typical conditions that respond well to time-tested remedies, especially herbal remedies. I also clearly state in the book when you should talk to your health care provider or go to the urgent care facility. This is not about rejecting conventional medicine or prescription drugs; it's about expanding your options.
Let's get into specifics. What are some of the common complaints that are best handled at home?
I'd say upper respiratory infections, coughs and sore throats are at the top of the list. For these alone, we spend a fortune on antibiotics, over-the-counter prescriptions and health care visits. Yet there are simple steps you can take at home for pennies. One of the simplest ways to ease a sore throat is to gargle with sage and saltwater, which is both soothing and has wonderful antimicrobial effects. Studies have also shown that a sage and echinacea gargle is as effective as lidocaine for relieving the pain of a sore throat.
You may not realize this, but according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number one illness-related reason for visits to physicians in the U.S. is for cough. There are definitely many herbs that can address this common and annoying problem. My favorite is thyme - an amazing cough suppressant. It tastes delicious, and the science shows it has potent tracheal and laryngeal anti-spasmodic action. Honey is also very good. Honey alone has been shown to be a more effective cough suppressant for children than many over-the-counter medications. When you combine thyme and honey - I show various ways to do that in the book - you end up with a highly effective cough remedy.
Another common health problem you address in some detail is gastrointestinal complaints. What's wrong with our conventional GI treatments?
In my opinion, the pharmaceutical treatment of heartburn is out of control. Physicians write more than 118 million prescriptions each year for proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), which does not even account for the over-the-counter products. These medications have been shown to increase the risk of bone fracture and can cause severe drops in magnesium and iron. They also increase the risk for pneumonia and food-borne illness. That's because stomach acid plays a vital role in destroying pathogens that can cause infections in both the respiratory and GI tract.
Another option for addressing heartburn remedy is melatonin. The body produces high levels of stomach acid between 10 p.m. and midnight, which is why reflux is often worse at night. Studies have shown that melatonin tightens the lower esophageal sphincter, preventing the backflow of acid. One has to wonder if we are seeing more heartburn as a consequence of late night computer and TV viewing, which suppress melatonin secretion. In a head-to-head study, melatonin was as effective as Prilosec for relieving heartburn.
I am also a great fan of "bitters," whether as herbs or even herb-based liquors. They are highly effective for those with gas, bloating and poor digestion of proteins and fats. Many cultures have a tradition of taking bitters before dinner to prime digestion.
When people think of taking herbal medicine, many of us imagine going online or heading to the natural foods store to buy an herbal supplement. Is that the only approach?
Herb supplements are great. They are convenient, can work well and are a good choice for many people. But I am also a fan of growing your own herbs. Even on an apartment balcony, you can grow basil, thyme, sage, rosemary and peppermint. With those five herbs, I can treat perhaps 30 ailments. You can make them into teas, tinctures, or a medicinal honey that you can then use with food or in drinks.
Americans are by nature "doers" and want to know about active steps to take to solve problems. But what about the role of patience in healing?
I am a fan of the tincture of thyme and the tincture of time. Americans are indeed impatient, and many of us don't trust that our bodies are capable of getting well on their own.
The secret to both prevention and cure is often simply getting out of the way of the body's natural functions. One example: it's very common for modern people to bathe too often. The natural oils and microflora that reside on the skin are incredibly effective barriers to infection. When we shower or bathe and lather up with soap every day, we defeat those defenses that were honed over a million years of hominid and human evolution.
Fever is another highly misunderstood phenomenon. We know that at higher temperatures, the immune system is mobilized and the replication of bacteria and viruses is slowed. Except in certain cases, fevers should not be suppressed. Yet many people do so routinely with aspirin or acetaminophen.
The title of this book says it all, Healthy at Home. Home itself is a sanctuary: a place to rest, to recover, and separate ourselves from the chaos of an often-busy life. Home is the place where most medicine should start and finish. Physicians, like myself, while they can certainly be an important part of healing, should not be the primary source for your wellbeing. We are stronger than we know. In many cases, we simply need to support the body and let it do what it was designed to do so well.
Dr. Low Dog's book, Healthy at Home - Get Well and Stay Well Without Prescriptions is available through her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.