You may know the term best as “alternative” medicine, but this moniker is no longer accurate. Better described as holistic health, naturopathic or even complementary, this form of integrative medicine has become more mainstream.
Rather than looking at just specific symptoms, holistic health is more comprehensive. Practitioners look at the whole person, taking into consideration lifestyle, diet, relationships, genetics, health history, and a myriad of other things, says Dr. Holly Lucille, ND, RN, a nationally recognized and licensed naturopathic doctor, who adds that “It’s much more than taking St. John’s Wort over Prozac.”
Holistic health practitioners then identify the causes that connect the symptoms, and treat them together using natural remedies, says Senia Mae Tuominen, a holistic health expert who practices traditional Chinese Medicine, has a license in acupuncture and is a certified herbalist. She would never separate irritable bowel symptoms and PMS, for example, or migraines and anxiety. “All these symptoms are connected and therefore can’t be isolated or treated separately.”
A variety of techniques can be used, such as at Tuominen’s clinic, where they employ acupuncture, herbal medicine, food therapy, and breathing techniques to treat common conditions like IBS, PMS, chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, and immune issues.
Most importantly, because health issues are complex, holistic medicine individualizes its treatments and doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, says Tuominen. “Five patients may present with similar symptoms, and we will treat them in five different ways,” she continues.
Holistic health is being incorporated into oncology treatments as a way to mitigate side effects, decrease stress, and enhance a feeling of well-being, which is what Dr. Marleen Meyers, director of the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program, views as important in improving patient and caregiver lives.
“Holistic measures give [patients] hope with very little if any side effects,” says Dr. Meyers. “Many family members have also incorporated holistic measures for their own health and stress reduction.” She describes them as a very low risk treatment that allows patients to feel “whole” and focus on wellness more than sickness, which is ultimately very empowering.
Millions of women use holistic health approaches every year. In 2012, 44 million American women used a variety of holistic health treatments ranging from supplements to acupuncture, meditation to yoga, according to an article in National Health Statistics Reports (February 2015). In fact, the same researchers found that 65 percent of holistic medicine users are women.
Some women use holistic medicine exclusively, while others combine it with traditional methods, says Tuominen. She says holistic approaches are best when an issue is lifestyle-related or traditional methods don’t treat it effectively, like IBS, PMS, or insomnia. When it comes to some conditions like fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even MS, these are conditions that predominantly affect women, says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, board certified internist, director of the Practitioners Alliance Network, and author of the free iPhone application “Cures A-Z.”
Standard medicine offers three medications for fibromyalgia that only modestly mask the pain, Dr. Teitelbaum says, but published research has shown that the SHINE (Sleep, Hormones, Infections, Nutrition and Exercise) Protocol helps 91 percent of people with fibromyalgia, with an average 91 percent improvement in quality of life. “Holistic medicine gets to the root cause and is very effective,” he says.
Indeed, Dr. Teitelbaum calls himself a MD science geek who has read and/or reviewed literally tens of thousands of studies, and came to realize that there are thousands of studies supporting the use of holistic treatments. He says that doctors are simply not trained to handle the most common day-to-day problems – the kind that won’t kill you but may leave you wishing you were dead. For these, research shows natural remedies to often be very helpful.
Lorrie Thomas Ross is a believer in holistic health for herself and her family. Anytime she got sick, she says her traditional doctors threw antibiotics at her, but the real recovery always happened with the holistic healthcare. “Holistic medicine treated the cause, Western medicine band-aided the problem,” she says.
Ross started exploring holistic health because she wanted care. She felt like a number at traditional doctor’s offices and was appalled at how she was pushed pharmaceuticals when they weren’t needed. “I wanted to be a patient, not a customer,” she says. She loves that she’s now asked questions about her diet, exercise, family history, psychology, community, and lifestyle. She feels that she’s treated like a person, rather than a name on a medical chart. “I walk away from holistic appointments educated and what I learn trickles through to my whole family,” says Ross.
Finding a Reliable Practitioner
When Ross moved, she had to really do her research to find a reliable holistic practitioner. She used the web, read reviews, asked moms’ groups, and sought referrals. She found her current doctor from her periodontist, of all people.
Dr. Lucille recommends inquiring about the educational background of the practitioner as well as any other credentials and regulatory boards s/he might be involved with. For example, you could ask about the educational facility. Was it online, where was it, and was it accredited? Any licensed practitioner also has a NPI number, or National Provider Identifier, so you could ask for this number as well.
An important caveat to all of this is if you have a new or persistent symptom, it’s crucial to see your health care provider to rule out a significant medical issue before embarking on holistic treatment, cautions Dr. Meyers.
Many common health issues can be helped holistically. Read on for some key tips amassed from several sources:
• Stress reduction: yoga, mindfulness training, meditation
• Chronic pain: acupuncture, cut back on inflammatory foods
• Sinus congestion: Cut back on dairy, neti pot
• Anxiety: Sleep, cut caffeine, daily relaxation, acupuncture
• Fatigue: Eat cooked (body uses less energy to digest) & more protein-rich foods
• Insomnia: Turn off electronic devices at least two hours before bed, herbal medicine, chamomile or valerian root-based teas, melatonin, lavender
The Path of the Future
Holistic health is truly all about bettering your quality of life. Holistic health practitioners are your partners. This idea is no longer “kooky.” After all, 20 years ago, people thought yoga was weird and hardly did it, Tuominen points out, but now there’s practically a yoga place on every corner.
“What seems alternative now may be more widespread in [the] future, so don’t write it off,” Tuominen says. “Although these holistic treatments may seem alternative, many have been used successfully for thousands of years, and there’s a reason they have staying power.”