Building reference library on alternative medicine

medical matters

Medicla Matters

February 23, 2007|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,Special to the Sun

One of the many perks of writing about health is that you end up with a terrific collection of books. A decade ago, most of the tomes on my groaning shelves were the traditional sort - biology textbooks, medical dictionaries, pharmaceutical references and the like.

Lately, thanks to a deluge of new titles, I've got an impressive library of books on alternative and complementary medicine, as well. Some are so dense and soporific that I wouldn't recommend them to any but the most determined reader. Some are so light and fluffy as to be useless.

But many are quite good. So, without further ado, here are my favorites:

The prettiest, and the least expensive ($16.47 on Amazon. com), is the Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine (2007), which is chock full of colorful images - thin women doing yoga, peaceful women smelling blossoms, huge garlic heads floating in space.

By contrast, the text explaining things such as acupuncture or hypnosis seems a bit bland. But there is lots of good information in the sidebars, and I really like the book's system of green, yellow or red traffic lights to signal approval, caution or disapproval for various treatments.

This is especially useful for herbs. Valerian, for instance, the herbal sleeping pill, gets a green light, while kava, the anti-anxiety herb that once appeared so promising, gets a red light because of potential liver toxicity.

Another graphically pleasing, very solid reference is The Duke Encyclopedia of New Medicine, (more thin women doing yoga, more women running through meadows and getting massaged, more gigantic garlic heads). I like this 2006 book because it costs only $26.37 and has easy-to-use information about how the body works and about specific diseases, as well as a separate section on alternative and complementary therapies.

The latter section is excellent, though it includes some crazy stuff I would have left out. That includes sophrology, the study of "harmonious consciousness" (with a picture of a bare-chested guy rock climbing), and "neurocranial restructuring" - manipulating the skull bones to treat medical problems.

Like the Mayo book, Duke uses red and green color strips with check marks to indicate benefits and risks. To its credit, Duke rates sophrology as having minimal benefit (and minimal risk) and warns people in no uncertain terms to stay away from neurocranial restructuring.

Another general guide to the field is the Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, by Dr. Marc S. Micozzi, who is also an anthropologist. At $56.03, this 2006 book is not cheap and, though it's good for acquiring general knowledge in the field, it doesn't provide the nitty-gritty assessment of various techniques and individual herbs that many consumers may be looking for.

The American Botanical Council's 2003 book, The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs, has no color pictures, but, even at $69.56, it's a must-have resource if you're seriously into the subject. It has lots of footnotes on the 29 most commonly used herbs and easy-to-read tables showing what different studies about the major herbs have shown.

With chamomile, for example, used worldwide in teas, the ABC guide gives precise descriptions of chemical composition, details its uses for stomach upsets (and for some skin problems), lists dosages, contraindications, regulatory status in 12 countries and common brand names.

Another excellent source on herbs, for $59.95, is the third edition (2004) of the PDR for Herbal Medicines, put out by Thomson Healthcare. With write-ups on about 600 herbs, it's more encyclopedic than the ABC guide, although the ABC guide is easier to use because it summarizes research studies in a more accessible way. Both books are helpful for serious herbalists, herbalist wannabes and physicians trying to figure out what's in the stuff their patients are taking.

For those seeking a detailed understanding of the scientific basis of "natural medicine," there's a very thorough 2,000-page, two-volume set called the Textbook of Natural Medicine by Joseph E. Pizzorno and Michael T. Murray. But it's $229. Far more useful, in my view, and distinctly cheaper at $43.96, is The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine (2002), by the same authors, plus Herb Joiner-Bey. It's especially useful for figuring out what dietary supplements may help for various illnesses.

Thumbing through the pages of these books is the quickest way to zero in on information I need. Granted, books are more expensive than the free information on the Web, but I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer turning pages. And if you don't want to pay, you can always go to the library.

In fairness, though, there are some great resources on the Internet, among them nccam.nih.gov, the site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

I also like worstpills.org, run by the Public Citizen's Health Research Group; herbalgram.org, run by the previously mentioned American Botanical Council; and a Consumer Reports site, consumerreports. org/mg.

Send your questions to foreman@baltsun.com.

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