Given the comments on our blog following last week’s post on glandular therapies, let me say first that if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, glandular therapies are definitely not for you. But if you’re a veggie or vegan needing digestive enzymes, there are plenty of plant-based products. You’ll also face no compromise if you need thyroid (Synthroid), adrenal (Cortef), or ovary (birth control pills) hormones. Synthetic versions are readily available for these, as well as for others I’ll review today.
Using the glands or other organs of animals for medicinal treatment, also called organotherapy, goes back to ancient medical times, part of the timeless phenomenon known as “like heals like.” Cultural anthropologists have been encountering this phrase, along with “as above, so below,” quite literally since the dawn of man. Contemporary Western physicians tend not to think too much about these old medical tenets, dismissing them as too arcane to be of any use today even as they routinely prescribe these well-known “like cure like” treatments:
• Flu shots and other immunizations.
• Allergy shots.
• Hormones to prevent pregnancy or hot flashes.
• Hormones to support thyroid or adrenal glands.
Interesting, isn’t it, that in each of these like is literally curing like—the flu vaccine giving you a tiny bit of inactivated flu virus, allergy shots delivering a miniscule amount of what you’re allergic to, and tiny doses of hormones providing what may be missing from your body. How tiny? Birth control pills are currently dosed in micrograms. If you didn’t know, a microgram is one-millionth of a gram.
As a rule, doctors are far more comfortable prescribing synthetic versions of everything.
By the final decades of the 20th century, the development of synthetic hormones brought research using animal-based glandulars to a halt. Yet clinicians did agree that certain animal gland and organ preparations, when taken orally, were quite effective in treating a variety of conditions. What makes these treatments effective? There are probably two reasons. First, and this is especially in the case of glands like the thyroid and adrenals, the glandular is replacing missing hormone. But second, and this is where “like cures like” comes in, the complex molecules of the gland or organ in the supplement provide the precise building blocks necessary for repair or restoration. What better source for the missing components of, for example, a damaged liver than concentrated liver?
Virtually all animal-derived products used medicinally today originate from organically fed livestock that live outdoors and receive no chemicals or antibiotics. The most common method of extracting active ingredients is by immediately freeze-drying the gland or organ to 60 degrees below zero and then placing it into a vacuum chamber to remove water and concentrate the active ingredients.
In addition to integrative doctors like me, naturopathic physicians prescribe glandulars quite frequently. But since most of the 5,000 naturopaths in the US can’t obtain a license in Illinois, Midwesterners are generally unfamiliar with using a naturopath as a primary caregiver. The National University of the Health Sciences in suburban Chicago offers a degree in naturopathic medicine, but in order to practice in Illinois graduates must also hold a “licensable” degree like chiropractic. Virtually all graduates of the other certified naturopathic colleges in North America practice outside our state.
Glandular products and conditions they treat
Since so many glands and organs are used in naturopathic medicine, I’ll list the better-known products and the conditions they treat. If you’re prone to doing your own research, you’ll find clinical studies in conventional medical journals on most of these. Those marked with an * are currently stocked in our apothecary. The others can be ordered and generally arrive in a few days.
Adrenal cortex extract*
Chronic fatigue, asthma, eczema, psoriasis.
Aorta (the largest artery of the cardiovascular system) extracts
Blood vessel diseases: stroke, arteriosclerosis, varicose veins, hemorrhoids.
Bone marrow extracts
Various dementias and stroke damage. Occasionally as part of an anti-aging protocol.
Chronic heart disease of all types.
Exhaustion of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) stress responding circuit, when it’s best used with adrenal cortex extract. Chronic fatigue.
Chronic kidney diseases of all types.
Chronic liver diseases, including chronic hepatitis.
Chronic bronchitis and emphysema; asthma.
Lymph gland (often combined with thymus gland)
Weak immune system; frequent colds and flu.
Male infertility; low sex drive in men.
Female infertility; low sex drive in women.
Poor digestion. Very high doses used for some cancers.
Prevention and/or treatment of prostate disorders.
Immune enhancement. Autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease.
Chronic or recurring viral infections. Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Thyroid (prescription only)
How to use glandular therapy
You might now be wondering “Is this all for me to decide myself, as a do-it-myself doctor? Am I supposed to start taking bits of brain or ovary or hypothalamus without any guidance?” No. But I’m of two minds about this.
On the one hand, when it comes to making your own diagnosis (with the exception of something relatively minor, like a cold or bladder infection), you, like most people, will likely get your diagnosis wrong, regardless the hours invested on the internet. Medical diagnosis is non-syllogistic and this can be highly confusing for people looking up their symptoms on the web. Here’s an example:
The most common syllogism:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore: Socrates is a mortal.
The non-syllogism of medicine:
Brain tumors cause headaches.
I have a headache.
Therefore: I have a brain tumor.
Understand that medical doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, and naturopaths spend years studying this stuff and are simply better at determining what’s wrong with you. So if you have chronic symptoms that concern you, please get a proper diagnosis before you start ordering products and swallowing things or trying any therapy–conventional, alternative, nutritional, glandular, herbal, energy, or otherwise.
On the other hand, remember the proactive patient always (always!) does better than the passive-acceptant one. When it comes to healthcare, feistiness and taking charge of your well-being is a virtue. A big part of being proactive is to first understand your properly diagnosed condition and then to explore alternative therapies. For example, if you’re diagnosed with chronic hepatitis and research glandular therapy for it, you’d find studies showing benefits to taking liver extract for this condition.
You could then show this research to your hepatologist (liver doc), who’s probably never heard of using extracts and, rather than bothering to learn something new, would likely discourage it, claiming they might interfere with what really works (his opinion of the drug he’s prescribing). In this case, you really would need advice from an integrative physician, whose expertise encompasses both pharmaceuticals and glandulars.
David Edelberg, MD