Toward Real AlternativesSpirit in the Material World — By Stephen Simpson on September 29, 2009 at 12:00 pm
The Kava plant grows in southeast Asia and the islands of the south Pacific. Pacific Islanders have known about its calming properties for centuries. They use the plant in beverage form to treat anxiety and insomnia. It’s also popular with tourists trying to relax into a vacation. One benefit of Kava is that, unlike many prescription anti-anxiety drugs, it’s not sedating unless taken in large amounts. It’s also not physically addictive. When I weaned myself off Vicodin following back surgery this summer, Kava tea took the edge off the withdrawal without knocking me out.
About ten years ago, Kava became popular in Europe as an alternative medication for anxiety. That’s when reports of liver toxicity started to emerge. A large research study in Germany found that Kava can lead to liver damage. This resulted in several countries banning Kava. In the United States, the FDA published a warning about Kava and restricted large wholesale trade of the plant. You can only find Kava in small specialty shops in the U.S.A. Worse, there’s no regulation of Kava, as there would be with an FDA-approved drug. Though Kava has the potential to be a cheap alternative to addictive, sedating anti-anxiolytics such as Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium, it won’t be widely available anytime soon.
This might sound reasonable except for a couple inconvenient facts:
1. Many of the people who sustained liver damage in the German study were mixing Kava with alcohol and/or other pills harmful to the liver. The study also included people who mistakenly used the toxic leaves and stems, instead of the root. Oh, one more thing – a major pharmaceutical company that makes anti-anxiety drugs funded the study. Anyone in the mood for a conspiracy theory?
2. Guess what one is of the most common dangers for FDA-approved prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the Western world. That’s right – liver damage.
We need to expand the national conversation about healthcare beyond mudslinging and hysterics about socialism and euthanasia. The question shouldn’t just be “Who’s paying?” but also “How can we make healthcare better and more efficient? How can we make it easier to be healthy?” A major step toward improving healthcare would be the funding of large-scale independent studies of homeopathic remedies. We need this type of research to find out which alternative remedies work and which ones don’t. For example, many in the homeopathic industry praise shark cartilage as cure for everything from arthritis to cancer. Along with the popularity of shark-fin soup in China and Japan, this has put several species of shark on the endangered list. A few small studies have found shark cartilage does nothing, at best. If the shark that “donated” the cartilage lived in polluted waters, it can make you sick. Massive research studies are needed to separate the homeopathic wheat from the fraudulent chaff.
Pharmaceutical companies spend the most money on drug research. The FDA makes them prove something works safely. The government and the AMA do their best to ensure the studies are reliable and valid. Sometimes questionable results and dangerous drugs turn up, but most of the time the research is solid. For all our griping about drug companies, they’ve given us medicines that change and save lives. However, a drug company has no motivation to perform scientific research on a drug like Kava because they can’t patent it. I don’t blame them for not funding studies on something from which they can’t profit. Public and private grants need to fund university research of these drugs. You need to study thousands of people to get statistically reliable results when health issues are on the line. That’s expensive. Insurance companies and drug companies aren’t going to pay, so who will? The government? I’m all for that, but I shudder when I think about the bare-knuckle debate that would ensue as lobbyists run up bills in the millions.
Maybe the Church needs to do it.
If you need a soup kitchen or a house built or a bunch of Bibles, we’re on it. We’ll spend plenty of cash to bedazzle the unsaved with multimedia presentations, because Power Point brings people to Jesus, yo. But maybe it’s time for us to think differently when it comes to serving God and our fellow humans. Think about how revolutionary a medical study funded by a congregation or a denomination would be. What if your church became famous for making Kava available and safe? In fairness, denominations fund universities that do great research, but perhaps we should start taking an interest in things like medicine and science that extends beyond debates about politics, creation, or abortion. There are lots of ways to change the world.