Alternative Goes Mainstream: Today’s Complementary Trends Support Natural Health Care
Dec 28, 2011 12:32PM
By Kathleen Barnes
Haven’t we all at some time shifted to more healthy foods, enjoyed a massage, consulted with a chiropractor or naturopath, popped a vitamin C supplement or attended a yoga, Tai chi, qigong or Pilates class? Many of us also meditate regularly and pray for sick friends and relatives.
If we’ve engaged in any of these activities, we are among the nearly two-thirds of Americans that use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies each year. While these approaches to wellness have been practiced for millennia, it’s only been in the past decade or so that they have begun to move from the U.S. alternative fringe into the American mainstream.
The widespread use of CAM therapies is due to a confluence of three trends: a growing body of credible scientific research that supports their effectiveness; popular demand for these natural, non-invasive and effective therapies; and growing recognition by conventional practitioners that healing is accomplished through holistic treatments that address body, mind and spirit.
Signs of the Times
Today, even the staid American Medical Association recommends a multivitamin supplement for virtually everyone; you can find a yoga class in almost any YMCA or community college; prestigious medical schools have departments of complementary and alternative medicine; and some hospitals are encouraging their staff to become proficient in energy medicine and healing techniques.
The U.S. government established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 1992, under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, to investigate and evaluate promising unconventional medical practices. In the 21st century, it’s been picked up more widely under the concept of integrative medicine, in which conventional medical and more natural therapies are used to complement one another. This encouraging development also reflects current trends among major categories of therapies that take body, mind and spirit into account.
Acupuncture/Traditional Chinese Medicine
Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) requires a dramatic mental shift away from symptom-related modalities of Western medicine. Here, one’s wellness and illness is based on managing the flow of energy, or chi (pronounced CHEE), through the body. TCM has been used in China and others parts of Asia for 5,000 years.
Its core concept requires that the practitioner treat the underlying causes of disease, rather than just the symptoms. TCM has now become foundational in modern thinking as well, prompting an understanding that the entire organism— body, mind and spirit—must be addressed in order for healing to take place.
“Homotoxicology is the most exciting trend in TCM today,” says Jonathan Wald, an acupuncture physician and academic dean of East West College of Natural Healing, in Sarasota, Florida. He explains: “It’s a blend of homeopathy, acupuncture and herbal medicine, with allopathic diagnostic techniques.” Homotoxicology (sometimes called biopuncture) applies herbal and homeopathic solution injections at specifically related energy meridian points to relieve various disease conditions or pain and rebalance the body.
Another promising development is use of the Ryodaraku machine that measures electrical resistance to identify diseases in their beginning stages, affording early treatment. “I think of Ryodaraku almost as a TCM form of a blood test,” says Wald. “It helps us see what’s going on and we can often correct it with a little electrical stimulation pen.”
Today, TCM and Western allopathic medicine are being considered in concert more often as practitioners find practical common ground in hospitals and clinical settings throughout the United States.
Current energy therapies comprise a broad range of hands-on healing modalities, ranging from Reiki, Healing Touch and Emotional Freedom Techniques (tapping), to an increasing array of hybrids. The Energy Medicine Institute (EnergyMed.org), in Ashland, Oregon, notes that energy medicine can employ a variety of non-invasive methods intended to trigger the body’s natural healing powers, working to activate energies that have become weakened, disturbed or unbalanced.
According to the institute, flow, balance and harmony can be restored and maintained within an energy system by tapping, massaging, pinching, twisting or connecting specific energy points (known as acupoints) on the skin; tracing or swirling the hand over the skin along specific energy pathways; exercises or postures designed for specific energetic effects; focused use of the mind to alter specific energies; and/or surrounding an area with healing energies (one person’s energies impact another’s).
Nicolas Ortner, founder of The Tapping Solution, calls this Emotional Freedom Techniques-based energy modality, “…a combination of ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology.” By tapping on meridian points of the body while repeating certain helpful affirmations about health or emotional situations, energetic blockages can be removed, allowing profound physical and emotional changes to take place.
Ortner is excited about the growing awareness of self-guided healing through energy modalities, including his technique. “We had 350,000 people at our online Tapping World Summit
last year,” he says. “That says something about the need that we are fulfilling.”
Herbalism is widely practiced worldwide to heal body and mind, and herbs and other plants are sometimes used in spiritual healing. Herbs are commonly prescribed by conventional physicians in Europe. In 1978, the German Commission E published a list of more than 300 herbs, noting research attesting to their safety and effectiveness, as well as possible side effects and drug interactions.
The United States has lagged in its acceptance of herbal interventions. Still, Susun Weed, founder of the Wise Woman Center, in Woodstock, New York, and author of four herbal books, including Healing Wise, points out that drug companies have been quick to isolate various herbal medicine components and market them as prescription drugs.
“In the ’60s, I discovered that the weeds in my garden were better medicinal plants than the ones I intentionally planted,” recalls Weed. “Back then, there was a general belief that these alternative systems weren’t ‘real’ medicine.” But it’s more a matter of the Western world catching up with the rest of the world, she notes. “The World Health Organization says that 90 percent of the health care given on this planet is given by women in their own homes, using local plants.”
Weed reports that across the United States, attendance at herbal conferences has soared. Herbalism is a big idea whose time has come again, and is now being rewoven into family life. “I call it re-weaving the healing cloak of the ancients,” she says. “This is evolutionary medicine.”
Homeopathy, operating on the principle of “like treats like,” involves the use of highly diluted substances to trigger the body’s natural process of healing. According to The Society of Homeopaths, “A substance which causes symptoms when taken in large doses, can be used in small amounts to treat those same symptoms.”
For example, drinking too much coffee can cause sleeplessness and agitation. Thus, when caffeine is made into a homeopathic medicine, it could be used to treat people with these symptoms.
Dana Ullman, author of The Homeopathic Revolution and Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines, notes that the trend in homeopathy in the United States has its debunkers. He attributes this to establishment fears that, “If homeopathy is true, then everything about modern medicine and science is false.”
But, he adds, “The homeopathy deniers ignore or downplay the substantial body of verifying evidence from basic science and clinical research—from outcome studies, cost-effectiveness studies and epidemiological evidence.”
Meditation and Related Therapies
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that 90 percent of all doctor office visits are related to stress. Meditation, breath work, guided imagery and some yoga disciplines are effective ways to slow down the mind, relieve stress and bring body , mind and spirit into balance. More than 1,000 published studies have linked various types of meditation as well as contemplative yoga to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation, stress relief and pain reduction.
Angela Wilson, assistant director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL), affiliated with the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Massachusetts, reports burgeoning interest in these therapies. “Doctors have become very interested in any practice that can help people slow down and calm down,” observes Wilson.
A 2007 NCCAM study found that 9.4 percent of U.S. adults, more than 20 million people, had practiced meditation in the previous year.
Some of the latest IEL research provides scientific proof that Kripalu yoga (often called “meditation in motion”) can act as a buffer, “…helping people to face daily challenges without getting rocked off their feet or off their center,” says Wilson.
She is also excited about a recent Massachusetts General Hospital study. It showed that in just eight weeks of practicing meditation, subjects experienced physiological changes in the part of the limbic system that relates to fear, resulting in less stress and anxiety.
Naturopathic medicine, a general system of natural medicine, includes nutrition, herbalism, homeopathy, acupuncture and energy medicine. Its goal is to holistically address the entire organism—body, mind and spirit.
In general, naturopathic physicians are those that work to support our innate healing abilities. They universally encourage adoption of lifestyle changes that promote optimal health. In states where naturopathic doctors (ND) are licensed, practitioners are required to graduate from a four-year residential naturopathic medical school and pass a board examination. In states that do not license them, people that successfully complete online courses can call themselves a naturopath. Make sure that any consulting naturopathic doctor has graduated from a residential program approved by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (Naturopathic.org).
Carl HangeeBauer, current president of the national association and a doctor of naturopathy with San Francisco Natural Medicine, has long been a proponent of licensing. He observes, “Currently, 16 states license naturopaths, and the trend is toward more licensing states and inclusion in federal programs, as well as loan forgiveness.” He believes this will bring more qualified students to the profession.
Economics is among the many incentives driving consumers to a greater awareness of the benefits of pursuing wellness, as they come to understand how major, long-term medical bills might be reduced by applying common sense, healthy lifestyle practices and other doable steps toward preventing illness in the first place. “Our practice is growing every year. People are willing to pay for quality health care,” remarks Hangee-Bauer.
Nutrition comprises the time-tested foundation of health and includes foods and vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as herbs and spices. Importantly, core values about nutrition vary from culture to culture.
In the United States, the Standard American Diet (SAD) has been off-track for long enough that it has resulted in a widespread health crisis. The problem is that, contrary to the counsel of nutrition experts, many of us have become heavily dependent upon high-fat, high-sugar, heavily processed foods. The typical American’s diet is severely lacking in recommended vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
“The health crisis isn’t limited to the United States,” states Joshua Rosenthal, founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, in New York City. “Fast food and processed foods have invaded other traditional cultures, as well. Today’s chronic diseases that plague our own population now constitute a world health crisis.”
Rosenthal is encouraged by the growing awareness of healthy eating, as taught by 19,000 graduates of his school, providing services in all 50 states and 82 countries. “We are at the beginning of a revolution,” he says. “By 2020, people will see that the quality of our food affects everything. Awareness and education are at the forefront of this revolution, and movements like ours are among the major catalysts for change.”
Overall, today’s trends in CAM therapies are positive, hopeful and helpful. Conventional medicine seems to be becoming more open to a broad range of therapies it once peremptorily relegated to the scientific dustbin.
New research and long-term evidence proves that many of these non-invasive therapies are effective and can work hand-in-hand with conventional therapies. Individually and in combination, they can result in healings and cures once unimaginable to traditional practitioners.
Kathleen Barnes has written 18 books, most of them on natural health and healthy living, and owns the publishing company Take Charge Books. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.