Examining the Alternative
A doctor investigates the promises of natural remedies
Margie Belock is the co-owner and kitchen manager of BB’s Café in Amery, Wisconsin. You’ll find BB’s downtown, across from the Amery Theater, where the marquee reads “CLOSED THANKS F R YOUR BUSINESS.” Margie started BB’s a few years ago because she wanted a place where people could get healthy food that was reasonably priced. But it’s more than a restaurant: It’s become a place of healing, a destination for those whose medical problems—and medication—have them tied up in knots.
Margie and I aren’t supposed to like each other. She is a practitioner of the art of nutritional healing, a purveyor of the likes of sheep sorrel, slippery elm bark, and red-yeast rice. Though widely read, she has no formal training in health sciences. I, on the other hand, am a physician, a subscriber to the New England Journal of Medicine, a purveyor of the randomized, placebo-controlled trial—a pill pusher, scientist, and skeptic.
So why am I here, beneath the pumpkin-colored, pressed-tin ceiling of BB’s Café? I’ve come on the recommendation of a friend who has a strong, well-informed belief in alternative medicine. Though he and I have had many lively conversations comparing our personal medical “faiths,” neither is looking to dismiss or convert the other. Rather, we’ve been hoping to find a certain détente, a peaceful coexistence. To him, Margie is akin to Mother Teresa, a thoughtful, caring woman who is trying to alleviate suffering. To me, she is a window into another way of looking at health and healing. I haven’t come to BB’s to expose or convert her. I just want to meet her, to hear her out, and to see what, if anything, we have in common.
MARGIE’S ROAD TO HEALING BEGAN with personal suffering. In 1988, she began to experience dizziness. Three years later, her vision began deteriorating and her legs became so weak that she found it hard to walk. At that point, a team of physicians thought she had an inoperable brain tumor, but that wasn’t it, and four months later, she was given another diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.
It didn’t take long before the elation of being alive and not dying of brain cancer gave way to the reality of MS. For 11 years, she kept up the fight, taking an increasing number of medications to try to deal with an increasing number of symptoms. But by 2003, she had bottomed out. She had to quit work, and was essentially bedridden. “I was sick of all the drugs,” she recalled. “I was on many, many drugs—like 36 pills a day. My brain became a fog. I thought I had Alzheimer’s.”
Where to go when you’ve hit rock bottom? The local gym, of course. “My daughter took me to the fitness center and set me on the stationary bike, and it took me about 15 minutes to do five turns on the pedals,” Margie recalls. “It was a struggle, but she kept taking me.
“Pretty soon I decided to tackle the drug side of things,” she continues. Having been on the medications so long, she found she couldn’t just quit cold turkey, though she tried. “That lasted about four days.” Instead, Margie began tapering off the medications and replacing them with nutritional supplements she was reading up on. She studied everything she could, starting with an Andrew Weil book and moving up to what she considers the most authoritative text in nutritional healing, Phyllis Balch’s Prescription for Nutritional Healing. (She kept seeing her neurologist, whom she admires and respects, but she didn’t tell him what she was doing until about a year ago: “I finally fessed up,” she says.)
Her reading convinced her that, besides taking nutritional supplements, she needed to change the way she was eating. Today, she eats no pork and very little beef, and she looks for fresh local items and avoids chemicals, preservatives, and additives.
Her regimen resulted in a slow but certain transformation. Her sight returned. The strength in her legs improved, and she traded her scooter for a rolling walker. She still wears leg braces (“I probably always will,” she says), but she zips around the birch floors of her cafe with a speed and agility that suggests she doesn’t need them. Her energy is back and she is, judging by the size of her enterprise, a dynamo.
SINCE HER PERSONAL NADIR, making people feel better has become Margie’s life’s work. A steady stream of folks, some local, some not, come to BB’s to feel well again and seek Margie’s advice. She isn’t one of those people who think that if we just eat right and take a few key supplements, we’ll all be cancer-free and die in our sleep at age 120. But she does believe that nutritional deficits can trigger disease and cripple the immune system, making it difficult to recover from life’s slings and arrows.
Though she has myriad supplements for various disorders, her initial approach is fairly standardized. “I pretty much start everyone out on flax,” she says. “Let’s get your gut working right.” Freshly ground flax seed provides high levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, the same ones found in fish oil; and the hulls from the kernels provide enough fiber to loosen up even the Tin Man’s rusty bowels. “It’s amazing how many people feel better just getting regular. My gosh, they come back feeling night and day,” she says. Next in the process is a 15-day tapering course of acidophilus, one of the various bacteria that populate a healthy colon. Termed “probiotics,” these bacteria have become popularized in live-culture yogurts like Activia, and they’re the same bacteria that are often wiped out by a course of antibiotics. Then comes a diet that’s about 90 percent oatmeal. After that, it’s a long process of reintroducing foods and trying to see what might be the problem. “That’s how I found out pork is not good for me. I would reintroduce a food, and then if I started feeling bad again, I’d take it away. It’s milk products with some people, wheat with some people. The idea is to find out what in their diet might be causing their problems.”
For specific problems, Margie also has more targeted therapies, of which essiac tea is perhaps the most powerful. The dried herbal mix is an ancient Ojibwa Indian herbal remedy made “famous” (perhaps “championed” is a better word) by the Canadian nurse Rene Caisse. Essiac tea contains sheep sorrel, burdock root, slippery elm bark, and rhubarb root, and it’s a favorite of Margie’s for those dealing with cancer. “They [oncologists] take you to the brink of death [with chemotherapy], but they don’t rebuild your body,” she explains.
CLEARLY, MARGIE BELOCK BELIEVES in nutritional therapy. But why does she think it works? “Many of the drugs that doctors use have been synthetically reproduced from natural substances, and that’s a proven fact,” she says. “So the reason that some of this stuff works fine is because it’s the natural form of what you were going to do anyway. And some of our bodies—either as we age or whatever happens—you get cancer and your body is going to get depleted in certain areas, such as mine with the MS. So then you need to replace that with either a supplement or a healthy food, instead of just throwing the chemical form in you.”
And now comes the tough question: Where’s the proof? Margie admits that there are no randomized controlled trials putting essiac tea, for example, up against placebo in cancer patients. “But Renee Caisse has thousands of documented cases of people she has helped cure,” she points out. In Margie’s view, she doesn’t have statistics; she has flesh and blood. She keeps a list of people she knows who have made unexpected recoveries, and she’ll be more than glad to tell you about them. “It’s pretty strange that in the little town of Amery of less than 3,000 people, I could bring that many people to you, including myself, whose health has changed that dramatically.”
So what is it about Margie Belock that physicians like myself find so threatening? For some doctors, it’s everything: nutritional therapy, they feel, is unproven, unscientific, and unregulated—money for nothing. But to cast a deeply skeptical eye on what Margie does is a monocular view of things. Modern medicine has more than its share of fairy tales and wishful thinking, too. Yes, the FDA is our truth police, but the truth is heavily lobbied and frequently bent. As a country, we’ve chosen a health-care system that is long on razzmatazz and technology, and short on living a healthy life. For all of the minutia I learned about death and disease in my medical training, for instance, I never had a single class on what we’re supposed to eat. We’re a country that clings to the bizarre notion that food additives, added for their specific chemical properties, somehow become inert upon ingestion. It’s a Disney-fied, steak-and-potatoes view of things.
One thing’s for sure: Margie Belock runs a break-even operation, and you can’t say that about any other area of health care. Pharmaceutical companies are not the great Satan; the drugs they have created have saved and improved lives. But they are profit-driven, and whatever they say about patients coming first is just marketing drivel. And as Margie is quick to point out, the alternative-medicine market has its share of charlatan infomercial profiteers selling cancer fixes and miracle cures. Both sides have made wildly false claims and profited by them. Conventional medicine just happens to have a fancier stage show.
What Margie has, and what we could all use, is a sense of purpose and humility. “I believe this has become part of my journey…. Your journey might be ready to end. So I believe in people’s journeys, and whether that journey brings you to me, and that’s extended, so be it. But I’m not God, and I don’t profess to be a doctor. You people are doctors. I’m here to just try and help people.”
Craig Bowron is a Twin Cities internist.