The Natural Path
by Laurel Kallenbach

Holistic healing solutions take hold

Alternative medicine has moved one step higher on the ladder of health care reform. According to a recent study by the University of Iowa, people who use alternative and herbal remedies are more likely to offer their physician this information than they were seven years ago. Long-time herb users know that discussing usage of alternative therapies with a medical doctor used to get you a stern lecture. Could it be that physicians are more receptive? Or maybe patients care more about getting balanced, holistic health care than about what their doctors may think. Whatever the reason, these findings underscore that in the arena of mainstream acceptance, alternative medicine has come a long way; and perhaps, the time for a truly complementary system of health care has finally arrived.

The popularity of alternative therapies is surging, as millions of Americans visit practitioners of naturopathic, Chinese, ayurvedic and herbal medicine. Even a few insurance companies, such as Prudential and Aetna US Healthcare, are testing the waters by offering coverage for select treatments such as acupuncture. "PPOs [insurance providers] are very interested in preventive care," says Karen Greenrose, president of the American Association of Preferred Provider Organizations. "However, they're conservative about their approach to alternative medicine. They want to make sure that practitioners have credentials, are licensed to provide treatment and that liability is not an issue."

If the popularity of alternative therapies continues, within a decade many should have won a recognized place alongside allopathic medicine. "Insurance companies are jumping on the bandwagon because they realize it will save them money in the long run," says David Molony, executive director of the American Association of Oriental Medicine, who also has noticed some insurance policies cover herbal remedies. Before this practice becomes widespread, however, he predicts that allopathic and complementary medicine will need to forge a cooperative relationship.

"We'll see a new era of medicine in this country — if we can balance medicine's use of heroic methods to prolong patients' lives with natural therapies to improve people's quality of life," Molony says.

To illustrate how practitioners from different fields can work together, we've assembled a multiexpert health care team: a nutritionist, a naturopath and a Chinese doctor. Here's how these holistic doctors would help two patients — one with diabetes and one with arthritis — lead a healthier lifestyle.

Nutrition
"The good news is many people stabilize their blood sugar quite effectively with diet and supplements," says nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, M.S., C.N.S., of Bozeman, Mont., whose most recent book isThe Living Beauty Detox Program (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000). She emphasizes that Miles needs to lose weight and eat foods high in fiber, which help control blood sugar. "I would redesign his diet to include plenty of vegetables, protein and essential fatty acids (EFAs)," she says. "In addition to eliminating sugar, he must drastically reduce refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and white rice, which metabolize very quickly into blood sugar and are associated with increased diabetes risk."

Protein at each meal is essential to steady blood sugar, advises Gittleman. Beans, lentils and chickpeas provide protein as well as complex carbs for long-term energy. She recommends taking 3 to 4 grams of EFAs, such as evening primrose oil or flaxseed oil, daily. "Small amounts of fat will satisfy his appetite longer and reduce sugar and carbohydrate cravings," she adds.

Miles could also benefit from a supplement program. Gittleman suggests he take 400 to 800 mg per day of magnesium, which improves the body's insulin use. Chromium (200 mcg two to three times daily) can help cells become more insulin sensitive, thereby balancing blood sugar.

Naturopathic Medicine
Because Miles is seeking treatment early on, he has a good chance of preventing his diabetes from becoming insulin dependent, notes Susan Allen, N.D., who practices at Hawthorne Holistic Health Care in Portland, Ore. "The naturopathic principle is to help the body's natural ability to heal itself rather than just squelch symptoms," she explains. "We use diet, herbs, supplements and physical medicine to allow the body to process blood sugar better."

In addition to dietary changes, Allen counsels Miles to start exercising. Walking briskly four to five times a week is a start, she says. Then twice a week he should swim or lift weights. Exercise also lowers stress, which can factor into the severity of diabetic symptoms.

Allen also advocates the use of herbal medicine to regulate blood sugar. Gymnema sylvestre is particularly good for lowering blood sugar, as are devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). Antioxidants from bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), blueberry (Vitis angustifolium, V. corymbosum) or vitamin C can lessen the chances of retinopathy, diabetes-induced eye damage.

Acupuncture
"Oriental medical doctors do acupuncture and prescribe herbs to bring about total balance in a person," explains David Molony, Dipl.Ac., C.H., of Catasauqua, Pa. "In almost every case, healing is facilitated if the person enjoys life and respects their body."

Chinese medicine calls diabetes "thirsting and wasting disease," Molony says, because thirst is a symptom and diabetes is considered a deficiency. Acupuncture for Miles would build and strengthen his spleen and stomach qi (pronounced "chee"), or life force. If he feels pain in the pancreas area, Molony might place needles in points that correlate to the organ. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is one blood sugar-lowering Chinese herb he might take.

Nutrition
"Nutritional imbalances or food sensitivities often play a hidden but important role in arthritis," says Gittleman. "Certain foods can be irritating and inflammatory, and ironically, they're often foods we overeat, like wheat, dairy or citrus fruits." To be on the safe side, she recommends Deanna temporarily eliminate these allergens, as well as alcohol and sugar, to detoxify her system and help identify whether arthritic symptoms are triggered when she starts eating those foods again. She should also eliminate common joint irritants from the nightshade family: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes and tobacco.

Gittleman can't rave enough about oils from cold-water fish (salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel), which are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that help control arthritis. "Deanna should eat a portion of salmon three to four times a week," she says. Or, she can take fish-liver oil, flaxseed oil or a supplement extracted from the New Zealand green-lipped mussel that controls swelling.

Naturopathic Medicine
Longtime use of anti-inflammatories like Advil, Tylenol and aspirin will actually break down joints and can damage the lining of the gut, warns Allen. She advises Deanna to taper off pain relievers, which can contribute to digestive disturbance. "Often, people's arthritis will get better when they improve their digestion and the health of the gastrointestinal tract," she notes.

For acute arthritis flair-ups, Allen prescribes red pepper cream, a strong anti-inflammatory that reduces the neurotransmitter called "substance P." This neurotransmitter controls the brain's perception of pain. Arnica cream, rubbed over sore areas, is another option for alleviating pain.

Among Allen's arsenal of arthritis remedies are the anti-inflammatory herbs white willow (Salix alba), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens). Antispasmodic herbs include black cohosh (Cimicfuga racemosa), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and kava (Piper methysticum).

Glucosamine sulfate, which actually helps rebuild joint tissue, is an excellent and scientifically validated osteoarthritis treatment, Allen says. She recommends 600 mg taken three times a day for at least two or three months. It doesn't work overnight, she warns, so Deanna must be patient.

Acupuncture
For Deanna's particular symptoms — including the thin, white coat on her tongue and the fact that her joint pain worsens in damp weather — Molony would treat her for deficiency of qi and blood. "I'd use acupuncture and moxabustion to warm her up," he says. "To help with pain I would insert needles around her fingers, knees and on other points to stimulate blood and build qi." Moxabustion, the burning of the moxa herb over acu-points around the joints and on her abdomen, would invite heat into her system, he explains.

Deanna will probably feel better immediately after her first acupuncture treatment for arthritis, says Molony. However, that improved joint mobility will dissipate over a day or two, so she'll require weekly visits for awhile, then less frequently as she improves.

To build his patient's qi and blood, Molony would probably administer a dong quai/ginseng herb formula or a qiang-huo/turmeric formula. He would also advise Deanna to steer clear of cold foods, drink warm teas, get mild exercise and keep her hands warm, possibly with a hot paraffin hand treatment.

We're lucky to live in an age when we benefit from a smorgasbord of complementary therapies. What will the future hold? Surely we'll witness a growing fusion of modern technology with ancient tradition. Let's just hope we never lose sight of the body's innate wisdom and the realization that we must always work with, rather than against, its natural ability to heal itself.

Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer Laurel Kallenbach stands by holistic medicine as the way to live a long, healthy life.

Photography by Joe Hancock