Brad Lemley, Editorial Director of, on Alternative vs. Conventional Medicine

By: Brad Lemley, Editorial Director,

April 22nd, 2008 • Mind-Body MedicinePrint Print

Regarding the alternative medicine/conventional medicine debate, I think of everything in terms of evolution. If you look at what’s wrong with people’s health, it’s almost always rooted in divergence from the crucible in which we evolved:

People are obese, because they don’t exercise. “Exercise” is a word we invented for an activity that replicates the physical activity once required for survival, as we evolved in low-tech environments.

People are Vitamin D deficient, because they’re inside all the time, rather than outdoors — where we evolved. They’re vitamin deficient in general, because they don’t eat fruits and vegetables; they eat processed food, which did not exist in quantity even 100 years ago.

To that end, complementary medicine — botanicals, plants, and positive lifestyle changes (like eating whole foods and increasing exercise) promote overall health. Healthy living is basically any activity that is consistent with our evolutionary upbringing.

Conversely, the problem with conventional medicine is its emphasis on novel chemical creations. The profit systems push in the direction of increasing novelty, to patent and make money on drugs. In effect, pharmaceutical companies expose the human body to substances with which our bodies share no evolutionary history.

There’s a lot of arrogance in medical science. I think that there are untoward consequences in ingesting these novel creations, and our science is not nearly sophisticated enough to puzzle it through.

I have written about science, biology, biochemistry, and human physiology for the last 15-20 years. Through this work, I am well aware that the complexities of enzymic, cellular, sub-cellular, and mitochondrial reactions are astounding.

Things like pharmaceutical painkillers, or statin drugs, are just monkey wrenches in this delicate mechanism. I think they do more harm than good.

My inclination has always been toward lifestyle interventions that won’t harm us. And what Dr. Weil talks about is, you have to always do risk/benefit analysis. If you’ve got a non-emergency medical problem, the first thing you do is the low-risk interventions, and you move on to higher risk interventions only after determining that the low-risk ones don’t work.

He also doesn’t demand such strong evidentiary chains for low-risk interventions, because they don’t have such a hard thing to prove. If jogging helps your headache, jogging is low risk — so you don’t really need to have 100,000 people go through an epidemiologic study of jogging. The risk profile is based on common-sense: You’re not going to hurt yourself.

With my own pain, my inclination was always to try everything I possibly could, short of drugs, to see if I could solve the problem. I still feel that way. And it was, in fact, a non-drug intervention that solved my case — namely, rolfing, a deep-tissue massage that finally succeeded in breaking the tension-pain-tension feedback cycle.

Brad Lemley is the editorial director of, Andrew Weil’s website. Previously, Brad worked as a television reporter and anchor, a radio reporter, and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Life, Discover, and other leading periodicals, and he co-authored two books, including It’s Not What Happens to You, It’s What You Do about It. In his spare time, Brad is a woodworker, house renovator, and dedicated fitness enthusiast.


Eric Roberts May 25th, 2008

I am an anthropologist and have been studing evolutionary psychology
for 9 years. It took millions of years for evolution to make humans. We
are designed for a hunting and gathering life style. A proper diet for us
is similar to that of hunter/gatherers of the last million or more years –
A lot of vegetable foods, nuts, fruits, and and maybe a little meat or fish.
We have to exercise because we are adapted for fairly vigorous activity
on a daily basis. I could not agree more with Mr. Lemley’s conclusion
that “divergence from the crucible in which we evolved” is the principle
cause of human illness.

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