From Ayurveda and reflexology to black cohosh root and saw palmetto berries, complementary medicine is a billion-dollar business in today’s world. This school of drug-free doctoring views the mind and the body as an integrated system—meaning they influence each other—and depends on your commitment to staying well.
Tired of a seemingly invasive, apathetic and expensive medical system, many patients are swarming to naturopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists and chiropractors, among other complementary practitioners. In the United States alone, approximately 38 percent of adults (about four out of 10) and approximately 12 percent of children (about one in nine) are using some form of complementary therapy, spending about $34 billion annually. Yet how do you know which of these nonconventional treatments is effective and safe? And what about conventional medications? Can prescribed pharmaceuticals with all their rigorous testing really promote healing without causing undesirable side effects? (After all, about 100,000 deaths a year occur in U.S. hospitals because of adverse reactions to common medications or medical error.)
There are credible answers, and your medical doctor holds the key. Ideally, your MD should be the utmost authority for patients who want to understand the rapidly growing field of Integrative Medicine, a term popularized by Andrew Weil, MD (“Dr. Weil”), that describes a method of healing that focuses on health rather than on disease, in which doctor and patient work in partnership, employing both conventional and less-established complementary therapies to support the natural capacity for healing we all possess.
How does this work? First, education and information about such complementary medicine can empower doctors to guide their patients through the maze of therapies available—distinguishing between natural therapies that are helpful and harmful, as well as ensuring that there is no contraindication between conventional and complementary therapies that a patient is using. Second, this knowledge will provide doctors with the skills to help patients optimize treatment of the symptoms associated with chronic illness. “Oftentimes, with many different conditions, complementary therapies and lifestyle changes like switching to a plant-based diet and exercising daily are cheaper, safer and far more effective than medicine,” says Kimberly Smith, MD, an internal medicine doctor in Tampa, Fla.
Mehmet Oz, MD (“Dr. Oz”), serves as an authoritative TV role model for both patients and physicians alike as he encourages viewers to take a more active role in their healthcare. Oz educates the public daily on the numerous lifestyle changes—such as quitting smoking, exercising regularly and losing weight—that can impact illness and even reverse some health conditions. Additionally, Oz discusses little known herbal supplements and food cures with millions of people, recently crossing a line that causes other physicians to squirm.
But why squirm when complementary therapies can be safely and effectively integrated with a responsible conventional medicine prescription? And why can’t a medical doctor be the informed spokesperson about these integrative therapies? After all, the public demands it. Weary of Western medicine that promotes drugs and surgery as the way to end diseases, people want to know more about detoxification and fasting, herbal therapies, homeopathic treatments, chiropractic, acupuncture and lifestyle measures—which require patients to actively participate in key decisions about their own health.
Rheumatologist Harris McIlwain, MD, believes patients are tired of doctors limiting access to care that may help them. McIlwain feels this is the physician’s responsibility—that doctors must research and discuss complementary and lifestyle medicine, and explain how to safely integrate these with conventional therapies. In his book Diet for a Pain-Free Life, McIlwain recommends many non-medication treatments for inflammatory arthritis. “Some foods taken into the diet can help lower pain and inflammation, while other foods can be removed from the diet that cause an increase in inflammation,” McIlwain states. “Many patients find improvement in pain and stiffness with these dietary changes, which can lower inflammation and help improve energy.” Other treatments McIlwain surveys include natural dietary supplements, physiotherapy, massage therapy, acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, meditation, detoxification and relaxation therapy.
At the core of this debate, the public has become dissatisfied with the “old guard” of medicine limiting their treatment. Perhaps current medicine, by focusing on isolated systems and the corresponding parts of the body (heart, lungs, liver and so on), has lost sight of the fact that we are much more than just the total of our component biological parts. But there’s a growing body of scientists and medical doctors who believe that if a therapy is safe with no substantiated side effects, it can be considered along with your scientifically proven conventional medical treatments.
One thing is for sure—whether you are ill, about to undergo surgery, frequently sick or want to feel your best and pursue longevity, here’s three ways to heal your body naturally:
1. Never stop your prescriptions without discussing it with your doctor. That said, complementary therapies may boost healing and allow you to take lower prescribed dosages or even stop medicine altogether. Talk to your doctor about any new alternative treatment you want to consider. Blood or other lab tests or imaging may be necessary to confirm the benefits.
2. If you don’t take prescription drugs but are battling pre-diagnosis symptoms related to gastrointestinal (GI), kidney, liver, vascular or heart disease, allowing your body to heal naturally with dietary changes, exercise and other complementary therapies may be life-changing.
3. If you’re in pursuit of health enhancement (looking and feeling your best each day), know that most doctors are trained to think with approach, unless they concentrate on this specialty. Doctors focusing on health enhancement include hormonal specialists, combination medical and naturopathic clinicians, and other allied health professionals such as a life coach, nutritionist, exercise physiologist, herbalist, acupuncturist, massage therapist, psychologist or personal trainer. Be sure to check the credentials of any doctor or professional you choose and make sure you also have a medical doctor (MD) for the “big stuff” like bacterial infections or cancer.