The Natural Way

Take Care When Choosing a Holistic Practitioner

Americans spend billions of dollars a year on holistic healers, for both the services they provide and the remedies they prescribe. According to a survey released last May by the National Institutes of Health, 36 percent of adults in the U.S. use some form of alternative medicine. When vitamins and prayer that are specifically used for health reasons are included under this umbrella, the percentage skyrockets to 62 percent. These statistics reveal a cultural shift in the way we perceive healthcare and medicine.

© Lisa Blackshear

Complementary, My Dear Watson

So-called "complementary" medicine refers to treatments prescribed in addition to mainstream remedies. Buoyed by recent research, physicians are increasingly recommending complementary care for their patients, including such mind-body therapies as meditation, acupuncture, massage, reiki and yoga, as well as internationally recognized forms of botanical healing such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

These holistic practices can also help minimize the environmental impact of healthcare. Ric Scalzo, co-author of Herbal Solutions for Healthy Living and Traditional Medicines from the Earth, as well as founder of Gaia Herbs, says, "Synthesizing a [conventional] drug requires a lot of solvents, and these are non-ingestible, toxic substances that must be disposed of as toxic waste." Further, many animals are often tested on. In contrast, according to Scalzo, "A lot of the pre-clinical research on botanical medicine is done through in-vitro studies, and if no toxicity is found, human trials can occur." Many of the supplements used in botanical medicine are also grown organically and sustainably.

Another common criticism of conventional medicine is that modern pharmaceuticals may be widely over prescribed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called overuse of antibiotics a health crisis.

As reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine last year, a recent study at a school in Georgia found that daily meditation reduced middle-schoolers" blood pressure, lowering their risk of developing cardiovascular problems later in life.

A UCLA study found that curcumin, the yellow pigment in the Indian spice curry, may be a potential weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. As reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the team who conducted the research said that curcumin was more effective in preventing the build up of plaque in the brain than many of the leading drugs that are currently being tested. "Curcumin has been used for thousands of years as a safe anti-inflammatory in a variety of ailments as part of Indian traditional medicine," noted UCLA professor of medicine Gregory Cole. "Recent successful studies in animal models support a growing interest in its possible use for diseases of aging involving oxidative damage and inflammation like Alzheimer"s, cancer and heart disease," Cole adds.

Medical schools, including Georgetown and the University of Minnesota, are receiving grants from the government and other organizations to finance clinical studies and to integrate complementary techniques into their curricula. Seventy-nine of the nation’s 125 accredited M.D. programs include complementary medicine in one or more of their required courses. Prominent medical institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, are using natural and mind-body treatments on their patients to encourage recovery from the more invasive conventional practices of surgery and chemotherapy.

Herbal teacher Susun Weed, author of Healing Wise and founder of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York, explains, "Ideally, we want to start with the least-invasive forms of medicine. Working in serenity and energy therapies will hopefully keep us from needing to use herbs and pharmaceuticals to mask our symptoms."

Buyer Beware

"Alternative" therapies are used in place of, rather than in conjunction with, conventional treatments. Although the difference between the two can seem hazy at times, many physicians emphasize a distinction between complementary and alternative treatment, deriding a course of treatment that relies on alternatives alone.

Physicians and holistic practitioners agree that in order to minimize risk and maximize the benefits of holistic medicine, consumers need to find a qualified provider. In a study by the National Institutes of Health, only 12 percent of those using holistic therapies had sought care from a licensed practitioner. Dr. Barrie Cassileth, the chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, says, "It is extremely important to seek care from a licensed, respected practitioner. Too often, I see patients who have a serious illness, which can be treated, instead go to some practitioner who may not be qualified to treat their condition. By the time the patient realizes they’re not getting better, it could be too late."

In order to choose the most appropriate form of holistic care, it is best to start by consulting your primary doctor. There are scams on the Internet and in other media. The Mayo Clinic warns consumers to look out for red-flag phrases such as: "satisfaction guaranteed," "miracle cure" or "new discovery."

The Way of the Naturopath

Along with prescribing remedies, one of the primary goals of the naturopath is to teach the patient. Naturopaths apply natural, nontoxic therapies in order to diagnose and treat what they consider to be the root cause of illness. Working with the patient’s inherent capacity for self-healing, these practitioners employ various remedies, such as nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy and stress management. The naturopathic goal is prevention through a healthy lifestyle and patient education. Conventional medicine tends to diagnose and treat disease once it is already present.

The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) advises seeing a practitioner who has passed the board exams and graduated from one of the four schools that offer four-year degrees: Bastyr University, National College of Naturopathic Medicine, University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine and the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences. Karen Howard, executive director of the AANP, says, "We advise the public to request information on providers regarding licensure. If they are seeking treatment, and live in a licensed state, or want to see a physician-level trained provider in an unlicensed state, we suggest they use our schools as the gold standard."

Ask your insurance company what will be covered. Often, if services fall outside insurance coverage, naturopathic physicians and therapists will reduce fees on a sliding scale.

KIMBERLY JORDAN ALLEN is a freelance writer who partakes in massage, acupuncture and herbal medicine.