But Is It Medicine?

By Mackin, Jeanne | Human Ecology Forum, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

But Is It Medicine?


Mackin, Jeanne, Human Ecology Forum


The first wave of female baby boomers is about to turn fifty. Many are turning to alternative medicine to deal with the symptoms of menopause. Why? Associate Professor Andrea Parrot investigates this latest approach to women's health care.

Shining needles, hair-fine and the length of a pin, protrude, porcupine-like, from my feet, hands, ears, and shin. I'm lying on a sheet-covered cot in a warm, slightly darkened room. At my feet, the acupuncturist, with a gesture somewhere between a flick and a tap, inserts the last needle into my big toe. There's a momentary twinge, something like a mosquito bite. Then, a fluffy, soft feeling of well-being envelopes me. I came here for treatment because I was stressed, depressed, hot-flashy, and in general, feeling like a victim of my own body and life. Now, I can't remember why I was overwrought.

I feel great. But is it medicine?

That's one of the questions Associate Professor Andrea Parrot set out to answer when she began exploring alternative approaches to women's health care several years ago for a course in women's health offered in the Department of Human Service Studies.

"The first time I taught that course, I realized that, for some women, a big piece of reality was missing: many women were using alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, herbs, and aromatherapy, and there was very little information about them," Parrot says.

It seemed important, Parrot says, to fill in that gap, to acquire the missing information. What alternative medicines were being sought and used by women? What is the underlying principle of those therapies? Do they work, or can they do harm as well as good? And why, now, are so many women seeking alternatives?

Demographics has something to do with the surging interest in alternative medicine. The first wave of female baby boomers is about to turn fifty. For many of them, other and earlier problems - marriage, fertility, career, family care - are now being superseded by the middle age phenomenon of menopause, a physiological change that can span several years and that may or may not be accompanied by related symptoms and health concerns, ranging from sleep disorders, irregular heartbeat, and migraine to the beginnings of osteoporosis.

"Some women breeze through menopause without any symptoms, and if they are not at risk for osteoporosis or coronary heart disease, they may not need any treatment for menopausal or postmenopausal problems," Parrot says. "For those with symptoms, hormone replacement therapy is a very good option for women who do not have medical contraindications or negative side effects to it, or who are not stressed by the idea of taking it."

But according to one survey, as few as 15 percent of menopausal women use hormone replacement therapy. Another survey reveals that one-third of women use at least one alternative therapy to treat a medical problem, and 70 percent of alternative medicine users do not inform their medical doctors of this use. Women with menopausal symptoms who can't (for medical reasons) or don't want to use hormone replacement therapy, as well as their primary health care givers, need information about the medical alternatives.

Parrot took a sabbatic leave two years ago to study issues pertinent to women's health and alternatives to traditional Western medicine. She went to medical conferences, spent time on a Zuni Indian Reservation, talked to practitioners in various fields, read the research that was available, and began to gather information about the complementary alternative care that more and more women were beginning to seek.

One thing she discovered was that other countries are ahead of us in the field of alternative medicine. Elsewhere, medical researchers have conducted controlled scientific studies and obtained measurable, documented results on therapies that, in the United States at least, are still stigmatized as being nontraditional at best, or at worst, quackery.

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