by Matt Boyce
After our lecture from traditional medicine experts Dr. Boyd and Dr. Stanifer last Thursday there were two points that really resonated with me:
(1) That traditional medicine places a special emphasis on the difference between being cured and being ill.
(2) That traditional medicine should be viewed as a tool in a multi-disciplinary health arsenal, not an alternative to modern medicine.
Keeping these things in mind, it seems, to me at least, that there is a very clear and practical role for traditional medicine in current treatment practices. And after spending some time trying to wrap my head around an example of where I saw an application of traditional medicine in this way, I finally settled on a current event...
Does the name Martin Shkreli ring any bells? Yes, of course it does. Just last month he raised the price of Daraprim, a 62 year old medication commonly used to treat parasitic infections in immunocomprimised patients, from $13.50 a pill to $750 a pill. And in doing so became the Scrooge of the pharmaceutical industry by hoarding wealth and exploiting the poor, drawing condemnation of humanitarians, politicians, and pretty much anyone with a moral compass and internet access.
Meanwhile, another pharmaceutical competitor has stepped up to challenge him, announcing that it will now offer a version of Daraprim for as little as $1 per tablet. But what if there were other alternatives? Enter traditional medicine.
Ok, before I lose you, I do recognize that’s a bit dramatic. I’m not about to argue that traditional medicine should replace a highly effective drug. The development of modern medicine, that is the development of antibiotics and vaccines, is one of the most important scientific developments ever. However, I do feel that “Traditional Medicine: Novel Treatment for AIDS and Cancer Patients” would make one hell of a newspaper headline, and that there is a place for traditional medicine in our current Daraprim predicament.
Let’s begin with focusing on turmeric, one of the first few examples of traditional medicine that was presented to us. As alluded to in our lecture, turmeric may be one of the most beneficial spices in the world, owing largely to the fact that it contains a compound called curcumin. Curcumin has many health benefits, including promoting brain function, protecting against depression, and delaying aging (all of which I hope we can all agree would promote a “sense of overall wellness”). But quite possibly the most important benefit is it’s potent natural anti-inflammatory attributes. While acute inflammation is great and all, as it helps fight pathogens and helps repairs damage, chronic inflammation has been shown to be really bad for our bodies. So bad that some researchers believe it may play a role in heart disease, cancer, metabolic diseases, and a handful of other chronic, Western diseases. As such, any compound that can suppress chronic inflammation, including turmeric, may be viewed as a potential therapy or even prevention of disease, which also happens to be what cancer researchers have to say about the spice.
To shift our attention to another example of traditional medicine, let’s focus on mushrooms. Mushrooms, especially shitake and button varieties, are excellent sources of vitamin D. And why exactly is consuming vitamin D so great? Because while our bodies naturally produce it when exposed to sunlight, many of us are still deficient in vitamin D levels. This could pose a problem, or at least warrant concern, as vitamin D has been shown to help prevent chronic illness, and also helps regulate cellular growth, reduce systemic inflammation, and fight a whole slew of infectious diseases.
The micronutrient’s therapeutic properties have long been recognized, and some recent studies even go as far as to allude to antibiotic like properties being associated with it. In fact, in the pre-antibiotic era, physicians realized that both sun exposure and cod oil could play a protective and therapeutic role against TB. And while the two treatments have their obvious differences they have one thing in common: active forms of vitamin D. So I’ll propose the following question: is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that vitamin D could also help prevent or treat illness in these immunocompromised individuals?
While I personally do not believe that making sure to eat mushrooms sprinkled with turmeric is remotely close to a means to replace treatment by Daraprim in these patients, I don’t think it could hurt to at least acknowledge the health benefits that may be achieved by incorporating these traditional medicinal foods into their diets. Especially if we put the time and resources into understanding the metabolic pathways that underlie their therapeutic properties.
So, to offer a brief summary of what we’ve covered here: We first established that Shkreli is a goon who has put a lot of people in a bad situation. Next, tumeric, in addition to promoting a general sense of wellness may play a role in decreasing the risk of disease and decreasing the risk or progression of cancer, one of the immunocompromised populations that frequently uses Daraprim. We followed that up by covering that mushrooms containing vitamin D could act as a potential therapy to counter infection, much as Daraprim is used as a therapy to counter parasitic infection. Ultimately, combine the two (in the albeit oversimplified scenario I just presented) and you get a one-two punch that could compliment other therapies, or help fill the gaps left by the actions of Shkreli.