Amazing but true - Pentagon researchers are examining alternative medicine

Shape of Things to Come

What has five sides and has taken a sudden interest in acupuncture?

You might not believe the answer.

Pigs fly

I did NOT see this one coming.

One of the drug industry’s biggest customers is the U.S. Department of Defense. So it was not just surprising, it was downright staggering to come across this headline in USA Today: “Pentagon Researches Alternative Treatments.”

According to the article, Pentagon officials have started examining acupuncture, yoga, meditation, and other alternative therapies to help deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among troops called on to serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Pentagon” and “acupuncture” in the same sentence? I believe a pig wearing a jetpack just flew by my window.

This isn’t a whim spearheaded by some loose cannon military doctor. Acupuncture and other alternative therapies are already in use in some military hospitals, and the Defense Department will devote about $5 million to alternative therapy research this year.

This is significantly more than the zero dollars the Defense Department spent on alternative therapy research in 2007. Which is the same amount they spent in 2006. And 2005. And 2004…etc.

Research that started this past summer has already shown acupuncture to be effective in relieving depression and PTSD symptoms. An Army colonel told USA Today that improvements “were relatively rapid and clinically significant.” Upcoming research includes a trial to test the effects of meditation on emotional resilience, and an acupuncture study in patients who experience headaches linked to mild brain damage from bomb blasts.

The USA Today article noted that although this may seem unique, the National Institutes of Health spends around $300 million each year in the study of alternative medicine.

Sure – that probably sounds impressive to some, but bear in mind that Bristol-Myers Squibb executives spent well over $300 million in 2006 in the advertisement and promotion (not research) of one of their drugs. That’s right: ONE of their drugs.

Major relief

USA Today reports that a 2007 military survey found use of herbal remedies to be quite common among Navy personnel and Marines. Specific herbals weren’t mentioned, but given the widespread depression problems among servicemen I’ll bet St. John’s wort is at the top of the list.

And it certainly should be according to a new study in the Cochrane review – a journal that features analysis of medical research.

Researchers examined nearly 30 studies, from several different countries, that tested a variety of St. John’s wort products in more than 5,400 subjects. Each of the trials included patients with major depression.

Results showed that St. John’s wort was significantly more effective than placebo, and even more effective than antidepressant drugs in alleviating symptoms of major depression. Far fewer side effects occurred in the St. John’s wort group compared to the antidepressant group.

Researchers also correctly warn that purity and potency of St. John’s wort extracts vary widely. And although side effects are minor and uncommon, St. John’s wort may compromise efficacy of prescription drugs. So talk to your doctor before adding this herbal treatment to your daily regimen.

You can find more information about potential conflicts between St. John’s wort and diabetic medications in the e-alert “Heart Floss” (3/23/05). [Jen: Please use this link for the highlighted text above:

“Pentagon Researches Alternative Treatments” Gregg Zoroya, USA Today, 10/7/08,
“St. John’s Wort for Major Depression” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2008, Issue 4, 10/8/08,