Is therapy making fools of women?

Vibration treatment, body stress release... Alternative health is booming - on female money. Why? asks Aminatta Forna

A young woman is overheard describing the benefits of a new holistic treatment. "It makes you feel better, lighter," she tries to explain. "That's because your pockets are lighter," snorts her partner. It's a classic exchange in the debate over alternative therapies, which are, overwhelmingly, loved by women and scorned by men. But now the so-called alternatives might become more mainstream than conventional medicine itself.

The King's Fund study, recently launched by Prince Charles, showed there are now 50,000 practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the UK, compared with only 36,000 GPs. Last week, they must have been toasting the Prince with ginseng tea for insisting they be brought in out of the scientific cold. But they really owe their thanks to women.

A Mintel survey published in March showed that, as a nation, we now spend pounds 72 million a year on aromatherapy, homeopathy and herbal medicines alone, never mind all the spin-offs, such as books, candles, meditation kits and healing balls. And most of this is being spent by women. Aromatherapy, according to Mintel, is just one commodity built on the under-35 female market in which sales have increased from pounds 2 million in 1991 to pounds 14 million today. The study also demonstrated that women are twice as likely as men to embrace alternative therapies and to believe the claims of the industry.

Some of the claims being made in the name of CAM are extraordinary, if not flagrant. Of the most fashionable treatments, "metamorphic technique", which involves having your feet and hands rubbed, is said to be good for ME, cancer and autism. Kombucha, a drink concocted out of yeast and bacteria, is supposed to help with arthritis as well as Aids and multiple sclerosis, no less. And proponents of bio-energy, a healing technique akin to reiki, claim to have raised people out of wheelchairs without even touching them. Movie therapy, vibration treatment, inversion therapy (being held upside down), magnet therapy, Body Stress Release, visualisation techniques... the list goes on.

The potential for consumer exploitation has prompted the expected backlash. In America, Californian psychologist Margaret Singer last year published Crazy Therapies, a successful and hard-hitting indictment of alternative health. Here in Britain, Dr Robert Blomfield was struck off for treating a young girl with a brain tumour with herbal teas. This summer, a London health authority stopped sending patients for homeopathic remedies on the basis that they hadn't been proved to work.

Last week, the University of Exeter's Centre for Complementary Health Studies, the only university department in the country devoted to the study of CAM, announced the results of a study showing that acupuncture was no more effective in treating ailments than a placebo or "fake acupuncture". (Seventy patients were given acupuncture as a cure for smoking: the half of the group that received the "fake" treatment reported the same levels of success, about 40 per cent, as the other half, given "real" acupuncture.)

It is no more than the natural sceptics already suspected. Yet, wandering into the famous Neal's Yard complex in central London, even on a quiet weekday afternoon, it's noticeable that the majority of shoppers are well- dressed women ranging from their twenties to their forties. But why? The answers are both simple and complex.

First, many products are specifically pushed at women. At Neal's Yard there is a preponderance of feminine unguents, such as body creams and scents. Colette Harris, who writes for the CAM mag Here's Health (circulation 50,000) says: "Our reader profile is definitely the woman in her late thirties with children. But then that's who we aim at. Women are presumed to be the main health-carers in their families." Similarly, Top Sante, one of several new health titles, blends conventional and alternative therapies at will and includes features on "holistic beauty" and hypnotherapy. The giant cosmetics companies, too, h ave been quick to jump on the bandwagon. But there's more to it than simple marketing. The failure of conventional medicine, and the disinclination or the inability on the part of GPs to spend time with their patients, has boosted the appeal of alternatives. Dr George Lewith of the Centre for t he Study of Complementary Medicine explains: "It's unusual for a general practitioner to spend time to develop an understanding as to why a person has become ill and work towards managing their illness." The more diplomatic GPs I spoke to said women tend to comprise a large part of a group referred to as the "worried well". People with whom there is nothing wrong, but who are constantly at the doctor's surgery. Alternative practitioners, who often spend more than an hour with each patient, insist on complicated (and expensive) regimes and weekly visits, give patients what they are looking for. It's also difficult to deny the fact that women now suffer from a host of entirely new (or newly identified) "ailments" which medical doctors are likely to ignore but which the alternative remedies industry has successfully targeted. So, many products or treatments are marketed as remedies for ME, irritable bowel syndrome, the menopause (now considered "treatable") and PMS. Yet, in recent tests, paraffin oil was proven to be as effective as evening primrose oil, which is a pounds 32 million industryof its own, in combating the symptoms of PMS. Like the placebo acupuncture tests, evening primrose oil was shown to work because people thought it worked, not because of anything inherent in the product. A 1995 study of homeopathy published in the British M edical Journal found the same thing. And that lends currency to the "it's all in the mind" argument. Women are prime sufferers of the "malade imaginaire". Dr Garth Wood, author of The Myth of Neurosis and whose new work is entitled Lies, Damned Lies and Psychotherapy, is investigating the efficacy as well as the appeal of new "natural Prozacs" suchas S t John's Wort and the hormone DHEA. As a psychiatrist, he's open to scientific evidence about the substances, but is scornful of the trend towards new therapies. "It's a modern disease of affluence, materialism and idleness. Frankly, the cult of the'exp ert' has met the cult of the victim." One professional woman, who confessed to trying colonic irrigation, colour therapy, iridology, homeopathy and crystal therapy, told me, "They all have a good 'bedside manner' and an aura of professionalism. And they pay you a lot of attention." But she a dded, "There's something more, which has to do with the spiritual gap which traditional remedies have failed to solve. For me, it has more to do with religion and seeking something else." In fact, alternative health is a belief system in itself which inspires remarkable strength of feeling. When I asked Tom Griffin of the company Plexus Bio-Energetics whether he would submit his work to scientific analysis he retorted: "Eighty per cent of people are not happy with conventional medicine. That's the reality. Why should we have to pander to [the scientific establishment's] viewpoint?" Ros Coward is the author of The Whole Truth: the Myth of Alternative Health, in which she argues that health has taken over as the new moral battleground and CAM has taken on an almost religious ideology. Conventional science has come to be linked with p atriarchy, a notion first planted by the natural childbirth lobby of the Seventies, and associated with "chemicals, pollutants, technology, sin, corruption and toxicity". Alternative treatments, on the other hand, "stress words and phrases such as 'whole ' person, 'total' well-being, harmony and purity." Qualities often associated with women and that some women like to believe about themselves. "People like Anita Roddick have made a career on the idea that women have some connection with nature that men don't," observes Coward. It's a stereotype of women oft repeated in the world of complementary medicine. Margot McCarthy of the Neal's Yard Therapy Rooms (about two-thirds of her clients are women) became a homeopath while her brother became a scientist. She claims women are ap t to be more "intuitive" and men more "cerebral". When you've heard this a few times it gets irritating. Coward sums up the feelings of the critical observer. "It doesn't show women in their best light. There is a need to be more critical and more rigoro us and not just to reject that as a male response." Despite Prince Charles' words, the battle between two schools of thought may have only just begun. Professor Edzard Ernst, who carried out the trials on acupuncture at Exeter University, has plans to investigate the Bach Flower Remedies, among them the Rescue Remedy, that perennial in the handbag of the urban woman. "Does it work or is it an ingenious placebo?" he asks rhetorically. Thousands of women will tell him it works for them. Unwittingly, Professor Ernst raises the spectre of an uncomfortable idea, which is the thought of thousands of women allowing themselves to be duped by an ersatz science because they feel happier believing than not. The reason that women have alwaysturn ed to religion in larger numbers than men is generally thought to be because of something lacking in their own lives, namely the ability to control their own destiny. It is a displacement activity. Maybe our obsession with health, with our bodies and our "inner selves", is just another opium for a new era.

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