Body, Heal Thyself

Alternative Medicine is a More Natural Approach to Health

Roberta Reynolds, a Connecticut restaurant manager, admits she was skeptical about alternative medicine before her father, who had already undergone two brain surgeries for neuralgia, turned to acupuncture as a last resort. After three acupuncture therapies, she says, her father’s symptoms were relieved. Then, in 1995, Reynolds underwent cancer surgery, but says her symptoms returned shortly thereafter. “It was obvious my body was fighting something,” she says, adding that her doctors couldn’t provide answers. “In their eyes they had gotten it all,” she says. But as her fatigue and pain continued, Reynolds turned to an acupuncturist who prescribed regular visits along with twice daily doses of essiac tea, a popular alternative cancer treatment, to “heal” her body.

“Fear and lack of faith in conventional medicine is what drove me to alternative medicine,” says Reynolds. In July 1996, and for the first time since surgery, Reynolds’ tests came back negative, showing no signs of cancer.

What is “Alternative” Medicine?

Alternative medicine, the umbrella classification for treatments such as chiropractic, aromatherapy, homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture and herbology, relies on preventive and holistic measures to heal the body. Alternative medical practices use a “down to Earth” approach that combines a variety of “building up” and support techniques for the body’s natural immune system.

“The mass consciousness of the people is changing and moving to natural healing,” says Marijah McCain, founder of the Herbal Healer Academy in Arizona. “Most doctors don’t understand the basic premise that the body is holistic,” she says, asserting that modern medicine ‘poisons’ the body, instead of cleansing and balancing its natural healing systems.

For example, McCain claims, modern medicine treats cancer by removing the affected body parts, not the pathogens carried in the blood system. The naturopathic approach to cancer, she adds, focuses on regenerating the body by flushing out and building up its own filtering system (kidneys, liver, colon) so that it can naturally and effectively work to fight the cancer itself.

According to The Nutrition Business Journal, 60 percent of doctors said that they have, at some time, referred patients to alternative medical treatments. Those re-emerging or developing treatments include aromatherapy, the use of essential oils and fragrances to stimulate various senses and emotions; acupuncture, the Chinese system of inserting needles to balance the body’s energy flows; meditation, the process of rhythmic breathing and contemplation used to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system; and chiropractic, the adjustment of the spine and joints to relieve pain, injuries and some internal disorders.

Naturopathy combines modern medicine and traditional healing techniques prescribed by a naturopathic physician (ND), who uses non-invasive treatments, such as diet and lifestyle changes, stress management, exercise therapy, herbalism and homeopathy, sometimes in combination with standard medical treatments.

Homeopathy, a 200-year-old practice that regards symptoms as the body’s attempt to heal itself, is itself making a comeback. Homeopathic medicines are very small, prepared doses of plant- and animal-based substances that, their practitioners claim, intensify symptoms to stimulate and cleanse the body. Insomniacs, for example, might be treated with a coffee-based medicine. Common homeopathic herbs, which can be administered by doctors of medicine, osteopathy, naturopathy, dentists and veterinarians, include Apia to relieve insect bites and stings, Arnica to ease bruises, bumps, muscular aches and strains; and Chamomilla, to soothe irritability, teething, colic and digestive upsets. Most homeopathic herbal extracts are taken in homemade or store-bought tincture (steeped in alcohol) form.

Holistic medicine observes the “mind-body” connection, including one’s environment, diet and attitude as related to one’s health and well being. As practiced by licensed medical doctors, chiropractors, exercise physiologists, aromatherapists, massage therapists and yoga instructors, it deals with the body as a whole, instead of isolating unhealthy parts.

Natural Wonders, or Health Danger?

Herbal medicine has mainstream roots. Aspirin was originally isolated from the bark of willow trees. Taxol, an anti-cancer drug, was found in the Pacific yew tree. Saint-John’s Wort is now being tested in the U.S. as an AIDS drug.

The U.S. herbal supplement market grossed over $700 million in 1995, and is projected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2001, according to the American Botanical Council. The journal’s survey revealed that 60 percent of consumers would consider taking an herbal remedy for increasing energy; 56 percent would take more natural remedies to prevent colds; and 54 percent said they would use such products to boost their immune system.

“You don’t only have to take herbs when you’re sick,” says Mindy Green, director of customer services at the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. She says that many herbal products for specific conditions like stress relief, premenstrual syndrome and improved immunity are used in conjunction with other treatments like acupuncture or chiropractic.

Under the Congressional Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, herbal remedies are listed as a dietary supplement, and are no longer required to receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before being marketed. Green says that eventually herbalists would like their products to have their own classification, but until then, the new law enables herbal products to make specific claims—as in “Calming” or “Sleepy Time” tea.

The downside of the regulation is that some unsafe products may make their way to the shelf. Ephedra hit the media’s hot list in March 1996, when a 20-year-old college student died from taking more than the recommended dosage of “Ultimate Xphoria,” a product containing, among other herbal ingredients, ma huang or ephedra. The FDA issued a consumer warning against “ephedrine-containing dietary supplements” last year, citing such adverse reactions as dizziness, irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations.

Moving to Mainstream Acceptance

Aside from recognition by the FDA and the development of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health, another sign of mainstream acceptance is the development of alternative insurance riders.

The Norwalk, Connecticut-based Oxford Health Plans, Inc. which has 1.4 million members in the New England states, began offering an alternative medicine program late in 1996. The company’s independent network of alternative medical providers will offer individual members discounted rates for visits to yoga, massage and dietary/nutritionist practitioners. Companies will also be able to add an alternative medical rider to their existing plans to cover chiropractic, acupuncture and naturopathic services.

Kerry MacKenz

ie, Oxford’s service manager for alternative medicine, says the benefits were added in response to a company survey that indicated 33 percent of Oxford members were already using alternative treatments.

Finding a qualified practitioner who you trust is the best medical advice when looking into alternative treatment. According to its millions of satisfied users, alternative medicine is a proven path to a healthy, natural life.