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HEALTH SENSE

Favorite books on alternative medicine

One of the many perks of writing about health is that you end up with a terrific collection of books. A decade ago, most of the tomes on my groaning shelves were the traditional sort -- biology textbooks, medical dictionaries, pharmaceutical references, and the like.

Lately, thanks to a deluge of new titles, I've got an impressive library of books on alternative and complementary medicine as well. Some are so dense and soporific that I wouldn't recommend them to any but the most determined reader. Some are so light and fluffy as to be useless.

But many are quite good. So, without further ado, here are my favorites.

The prettiest, and at $16.47 (on Amazon.com) the least expensive, book in my collection is the "Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine" (2007), which is chock full of colorful images -- thin women doing yoga, peaceful women smelling blossoms, huge garlic heads floating in space.

By contrast, the text explaining things like acupuncture and hypnosis seems a bit bland. But there is lots of good information in the "sidebars," and I really like the book's system of green, yellow, and red traffic lights to signal approval, caution, or disapproval for various treatments. This is especially useful for herbs. Valerian, for instance, the herbal sleeping pill, gets a green light, while kava, the anti-anxiety herb that once appeared so promising, gets a red light because of potential liver toxicity.

Another graphically pleasing, very solid reference is "The Duke Encyclopedia of New Medicine" (more thin women doing yoga, more women running through meadows and getting massaged, more gigantic garlic heads). I like this 2006 book because it costs only $26.37 and has easy-to-use information about how the body works and about specific diseases, as well as a whole separate section on alternative and complementary therapies.

The latter section is excellent, though it includes some crazy stuff I would have left out. Like sophrology, supposedly the study of "harmonious consciousness" (with a picture of a bare-chested guy rock climbing), and "neurocranial restructuring," manipulating the skull bones to treat medical problems. Like the Mayo book, Duke uses red and green color strips with check marks to indicate benefits and risks. To its credit, Duke rates sophrology as having minimal benefit (and minimal risk) and warns people in no uncertain terms to stay away from neurocranial restructuring.

The American Botanical Council's 2003 book, "The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs," has no color pictures but, even at $69.56, is a must-have resource if you're seriously into herbs. It has lots of footnotes on the 29 most commonly used herbs and easy-to-read tables showing what different studies on the major herbs have shown. With chamomile, for example, used worldwide in teas, the ABC guide gives precise descriptions of chemical composition, details its uses for stomach upsets (and for some skin problems), lists dosages, contraindications, regulatory status in 12 countries, and common brand names.

Another excellent source on herbs, for $59.95, is the third edition (2004) of the "PDR for Herbal Medicines" put out by Thomson Healthcare. With writeups on roughly 600 herbs, it's more encyclopedic than the ABC guide, although the ABC guide is easier to use because it summarizes research studies in a more accessible way. Both books are helpful for serious herbalists, herbalist wannabes, and physicians trying to figure out what's in the stuff their patients are taking.

For those seeking a detailed understanding of the scientific basis of "natural medicine," there's a very thorough 2,000-page, two-volume set called the "Textbook of Natural Medicine" by Joseph E. Pizzorno and Michael T. Murray. But it's $229. Far more useful, in my view, and distinctly cheaper at $43.96, is "The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine" (2002), by the same authors, plus Herb Joiner-Bey. It's especially useful for figuring out what dietary supplements may help for various illnesses.

For me, thumbing through the pages of these books is the quickest way to zero in on information I need. Granted, books are more expensive than the free information on the Web, but I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer turning pages. And if you don't want to pay, you can always go to the library.

In fairness, though, there are some great resources on the Internet as well, among them nccam.nih.gov, the site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I also like worstpills.org, run by Public Citizen's Health Research Group; herbalgram.org, run by the previously mentioned American Botanical Council; and a Consumer Reports site, consumerreports.org/mg.

Happy reading and good health!

Judy Foreman is a freelance columnist who can be contacted at foreman@globe.com.

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