Tom Monte

World Medicine: The East West Guide to Healing Your Body

Review by Connor P. Wood, 2009

World Medicine: The East West Guide to Healing Your Body. By Tom Monte and the editors of EastWest Natural Health. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1993. 340 pages. $15. 95.

This book, written for a lay audience with an eye to the practical challenges of maintaining health, sets out to provide a “comprehensive view of six traditional medical systems,” thus (ideally) allowing readers to integrate a variety of perspectives on each of the body’s major organs and systems. The author, Tom Monte, is a journalist and writer with no academic affiliation who specializes in alternative health topics; the book was written in collaboration with Natural Health magazine.

The book is divided into three major sections, not including the introduction and epilogue. Throughout the text, quotes from luminaries in the sidebars illustrate points and provide a variety of unique perspectives for discussion. The majority of opinions, both in the sidebars and in the text itself, express skepticism toward conventional medicine as it is currently practiced in the industrialized world, although this skepticism is generally less hostile in tone than it is slightly exasperated. This ideological predisposition serves as the thematic unifier for the book’s chapters and sections and the overall raison d’Ítre for the text.

Indeed, the introduction wastes no time in taking modern medicine to task for being a system in which “(m)ost treatments are designed to suppress symptoms or kill the invader” rather than facilitate overall health (3). Monte continues, “How often do we stop to think that perhaps those symptoms are really the body’s way of telling us that something in our behavior is causing an underlying disease?” (3). By the end of the introduction the author has set up a dichotomy in which the West is equated with objectification, atomization, and mechanistic science and the East with subjectivity, holism, and synthesis.

Part One provides an overview of the six different medical systems referred to in the remainder of the book. By far the largest amount of space is devoted to the traditional Chinese and South Asian Ayurvedic systems, which together receive the same number of pages as the other systems combined. Chinese medicine is presented as a holistic system based on the interactive duality of yin and yang, or the positive and negative universal principles, and their product qi, or life force. Topics covered include acupuncture, meridians or life force lines, and the five element theory, in which the organs of the body are respectively linked to the five elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood) and seasons (summer, late summer, fall, winter, and spring). Ayurveda likewise divides the body into five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether), and it recognizes the body as animated by three doshas, or vital forces. These doshas--vata, pitta, and kapha--roughly correspond to the nervous system and intellectual aspirations, the metabolic processes and passions, and the capacity for personal stability, respectively. Various body types and proclivities for certain diseases are associated with the three doshas.

Greek medicine, naturopathy, homeopathy, and conventional Western medicine are the remaining systems treated in Part One. Each of these four short chapters feels somewhat clipped and even perfunctory, but the most important aspects of each, in the context of a cross-disciplinary self-help textbook on the body, are briefly touched upon. These include the four humors--blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile--of Greek medicine, all of which must be in balance for optimal health to result; the Law of Infinitesimals of homeopathy, which asserts that the energetic essence of medicines remains in solutions after many successive dilutions; the vital force of life and self-healing properties attributed to the body by naturopaths; and modern medicine’s concentration on curing individual ills and uncovering material causes for disease.

The chapter on modern medicine (Chapter 6) is predictably unsympathetic to many of its subject’s tenets and practices, but not all the criticism is prejudicial or ideologically grounded. Monte offers a highly lucid and fairly compelling articulation of the stumbling blocks of modern medicine, including “its overreliance on extremely expensive tests, procedures, and technologies” and that “many common drugs and surgical procedures have undergone insufficient testing” (56). The author’s bias is obvious here but, given the well-styled arguments, not necessarily unwarranted.

The next part concerns the individual organs, their common maladies, and the methods of treatment offered by various healing traditions. The organs treated include the stomach, intestines, liver, heart, lungs, and brain, along with the more obscure (in the West) spleen and the gall bladder. The kidneys, bladder, and skin are also given a chapter each. In general, each chapter begins with a conventional, Western description of the organ’s function, location, constituents, and relationship to the body system as a whole. Following these introductions, which are clearly written and reliably informative for lay readers with little knowledge of physiology, the Chinese understanding of the organ in question is proffered. According to Chinese medicine, each organ is related to a given element and time of year, and all organs are interrelated in a complex cycle of nourishment and control; thus, for example, because the earth element nourishes metal, the spleen and stomach (both of which are earth organs) are responsible for sending qi to the lungs and colon, both metal organs.

Given the framework and order presented in the introduction, one would expect to find a section on Ayurveda following each chapter’s section on traditional Chinese medicine, but in the majority of chapters this anticipated section is truncated or omitted. Naturopathy and homeopathy fare even worse, relegated to a mere paragraph or sentence of dietary and herbal recommendations, and Greek medicine is almost totally ignored. Given the publisher's goal of providing a comprehensive view of the body’s systems through the lenses of different medical traditions, such lacunae seem curious.

The third part concerns the senses, which in many alternative, traditional, and non-Western medical systems are intimately linked not just to general well-being but to the health of specific organs. The ears and kidneys, for example, are interrelated according to Chinese medicine, and thus disorders of the kidneys are liable to adversely affect the capacity for hearing. In the chapter on taste, the five tastes of China (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty) and the six tastes of India (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) are each given a treatment, and their various ways of interacting with the qi systems of the body or the doshas explained. Other senses’ manners of affecting body systems, the flow of energy, and the overall balance of health are presented in their respective chapters.

The final part concerns body systems, including the circulatory, muscular, skeletal, nervous, endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. Neither Chinese medicine nor Ayurveda have correlates for physiological systems, and because of this Monte’s treatment in these chapters focuses primarily on Western descriptions of their processes and, in terms of preventative and curative care, dietary admonishments. A generally suspicious stance toward Western medicine is maintained throughout.

One is left uncertain, after finishing the book, as to whether it accomplishes its stated goal. Only very short shrift is given to both naturopathy and homeopathy in any given chapter, and the delineations between the different alternative traditions are frustratingly vague throughout. It is often difficult to tell when Monte has ceased writing about the Chinese view of a given organ or condition and begun to address it using, for example, a naturopathic or Ayurvedic mode of analysis, because without subheadings the sections tend to bleed into one another and no consistent template is used for each chapter. The resulting onslaught of information seems to convey the message that there are two ways of describing every organ, every illness, and even health itself: the Western way and the “traditional” way. Implied in this logical structure is the assumption that the traditional ways are all more or less in agreement, and hence interchangeable. The product of this fuzziness and lack of organizational clarity is a curious kind of Western chauvinism that is certainly the opposite of what Monte intended and counter to the spirit in which I believe he wrote. A second edition of the book would do well to systematize the order and manner in which the different traditions are presented and highlight their divergent characteristics as well as their fundamental points of agreement.

A more extensive treatment of Ayurveda would likewise be a welcome addition to any further editions of the book. In the decade and a half since its publication, a great deal more information on Ayurvedic practices has become available in the West, and the inclusion of more comprehensive sections dealing with South Asian medicine would help balance out what is, as it stands, essentially a comparative study of Chinese and Western medical traditions, with a handful of other traditions referred to only occasionally, seemingly for color. In a similar vein, more references to contemporary research into the efficacy of the different medical systems—the availability of which has also grown by leaps and bounds since 1993—would produce a more objective, usefully informative handbook for casual readers.

World Medicine is a laudable first attempt to synthesize and comparatively analyze medical traditions that in other books are almost universally examined in isolation from one another. Much of the advice offered is of the common-sense variety, including the reduction of red meat in the diet, the liberal consumption of vegetables, and the willingness to trust that the body will heal itself if given the chance. In my opinion there is no upper limit to the amount of such advice one can benefit from reading. Nevertheless, the book suffers from an idealogical bias against Western medicine and a disconcerting inconsistency in structure, raising the question of whether the author, bound to ideals as much as to facts, is dissembling by omitting information that may counter his arguments or cast Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, or the other traditions in a poor light. This is profoundly frustrating when one finds it likely, as I do, that different medical traditions offer valid treatments and perspectives in some nonzero proportion to their misguided ones. If we are truly interested in learning more about health and well-being, we should be willing to examine alien traditions with an open mind, willing to acknowledge both their failings and advantages. Sixteen years on, perhaps Tom Monte would agree.