Cure – a book review

I recently read this fantastic book called “Cure”, which is about mind-body medicine and the placebo effect. It’s wonderfully narrated, and talks about alternative medicine from a very fair, scientific viewpoint (it’s written by Jo Marchant, a science journalist).

In essence, the book outlines research and evidence that proves the mind and body are inextricably linked and affect each other, that placebos cause real physiological changes, and how the scientific establishment still doesn’t always take seriously how strongly things like empathy, support and social elements affect symptoms and disease. I actually started writing a blog post about mind-body medicine and how important thoughts and beliefs are, and then I read the book which was pretty much a longer, more detailed and better written narrative of exactly my thoughts, so I figured I’d just write a quasi- book review instead!

The book intertwines stories from around the world of the power of the mind; from using virtual reality worlds to reduce pain and anxiety in burns victims in Harborview medical centre in Seattle, to hypnosis to improve severe IBS symptoms in London. It mentions various already published as well as yet-to-be published studies on such “alternative” modes of treatment, as well as depressing anecdotes of the  rigid medical system rejecting potentially useful treatments.

For example Dr Whorwell is a consultant gastroenterologist who used gut focused hypnotherapy to help his IBS patients. He found that it helped 70-80% of patients where all other treatments had failed. He set up a hypnotherapy unit  to build evidence to show that it worked. In one study of 200 patients followed up over 5 years, 81% remained well.

Yet there is nowhere that will accept that it should probably be tried in larger samples of patients for whom other treatments have failed. Even though it absolutely makes sense; the hypnotherapy is essentially teaching patients about their gut, and putting them in a relaxed state where they feel more connected to their gut, and can influence relaxation of their guts (stress/anxiety and an overactive gut are closely tied to IBS symptoms). The results are significantly better than can be explained by placebo alone. But he says no-one will fund the research because it’s not a drug, and evidence is dismissed just because it can’t all be randomised controlled double blind studies (which can only really be done for pills/medicines, where it’s easy to “blind” the patient and researcher as to what the treatment is; it’s hard to give fake hypnosis).

There’s also there’s the sobering narrative of how overmedicalised we have made childbirth. From giving in birth in hospital rooms, in an non-ideal position (he best position for childbirth is to squat, but instead most women lie on their backs so midwives/doctors can easily check on how things are going.) The WHO says the caesarian rate should be no more than 10% IF you are only doing C-sections where they are truly needed. In the US and UK this number is  33% and 25% respectively,  because the medical system has come to rely on this “easy” fix , despite its potential complications. As it turns out also, the only scientifically proven, evidence based method of reducing C-sections is for a woman to have with her a trusted capable person  (e.g doula) with her – an element that will not even be touched upon by most obstetricians.

If you want to understand the effectiveness of mind body therapies and learn about real world examples where they work and offer an alternative to many problems of the modern medical system, this is a good one. A really good intro book too, for the skeptics who haven’t yet seriously thought about alternative medicine and are open minded enough to entertain the idea that there can actually be GOOD that comes out of thinking outside the box and trying things that aren’t the norm.


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