Medical school is hard. Not crazy hard, but it’s a lot of work. There’s the four years of undergrad including the basic science requirements, the admission process, med school itself, and the post-graduate training. It’s vigorous for a number of reasons, some more and less useful. One of the useful bits is the firm grounding in the basic sciences. Since our bodies are a sack of chemistry, physics, biology, and biochemistry, it makes sense to understand these topics before getting into the fun stuff.
Anatomy and physiology cover the normal workings of the human body. Pathology and pathophysiology cover what goes wrong with these processes. Human biology is very well—if incompletely—understood. And while it is complex, there is nothing spooky or supernatural about it; it’s just biology (and chemistry, physics, etc.).
And while there is nothing supernatural about human medicine, it’s not in any way mundane. It’s beautiful, fascinating, at times even mysterious.
Imagine a medical student who didn’t buy this whole science thing. Imagine he’s in the anatomy lab, his lab partners meticulously hunting for the thoracic duct and the azygous vein (“which azygous vein, the right or the left?”). He looks at the mess of meat on the slab and thinks, “all that is well and good, but where’s the qi? I can’t find my merridians!”
This is the folly of so-called “other medicines” like Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic medicine. They are based on millennia of pre-scientific folk lore, often mixed with excellent observations about the natural course of diseases. But they don’t hold a cupping candle to medicine based on how the body actually works. If you know anything about biology, reading something like this piece from the Huffington Post seem silly, absurd. But people take it very seriously.
Aside from being logically inconsistent, the piece, called “Less Bloat, More Gloat: Using Chinese Medicine to Fight Winter Fat” should have been listed under “fiction”. The logical inconsistency comes in the first paragraph. After the title’s “fighting winter fat”, the author, talking about weight gain in the winter, says:
You’re most likely experiencing water weight. Those skinny jeans fit a little skinnier, your fingers and ankles feel swollen, your eyes look like the aftermath of a party girl who got a little too tipsy last night, you feel bloated and you just know everyone will be talking about your newly risen muffin top at the party.
So is it fat, or is it “water weight”? The author, Grace Suc Coscia, has a bunch of initials after her name, none of which convince me that she would know the difference. From her bio:
Grace combines ancient wisdom with cutting-edge science to empower clients to stay lean and sexy for life. For the past 12 years she has maintained a busy practice in Venice, California. Grace integrates a science-based combination of Eastern medicine, Chinese herbology, acupuncture, and genetic, adrenal, and food sensitivity testing to help clients attain efficacious results that transcend the limited Western medicine perspective.
There is nothing here that makes sense. Here’s the thing: we’re not talking about “cultural hegemony” or “traditional knowledge”; we’re talking about biology. Biology doesn’t care what you believe about the human body. The way it works is the way it works, and no appeal to ancient folk lore can change this. Let’s take a look at Coscia’s “science-based combination”.
Traditional Chinese medicine and herbology focuses on a cycle of five elements to which nature rotates. Since you’re part of nature, you also experience these changes. From this Eastern perspective, winter becomes the water season. That’s one reason why water weight becomes such a drag during the frigid months.
Where do you even start with this kind of idiocy? Let’s get one thing straight: there is no “cycle of elements”. There are about 118 known “elements”, fewer that naturally exist. These elements are palpable, measurable, and make up everything around us. They don’t metaphorically comprise everything that is; they are all matter (barring a few possible exceptions such as dark matter). This is not some sort of metaphor or analogy. This is how it is. There is no “Eastern perspective”, no “water season” that causes “water weight” in winter months.
She does mention that salt intake affects water balance. But that’s about the only thing that makes sense. Among the gems:
And don’t forget winter is water season. Drink eight to 10 glasses of purified water throughout your day, but minimize liquids during meals since too many liquids can dilute your stomach acid and inhibit protein digestion.
Wait—are we getting too much water or too little? I lost track. And don’t get me started on “adrenal support”.
I love fiction. I’m currently reading Moby Dick to my daughter, a surprisingly funny novel given the seriousness of its themes. But few things are as serious as human health, and making up stories about it is neither entertaining nor instructive. It’s dangerous.
I’ll leave you with this little sample of fictional medicine.