Conventional doctors too often dispense vague, boilerplate health advice, urging their patients to eat a healthy diet, exercise and take helpful supplements. Some are lucky enough to also be directed to detoxify their body and manage stress. That’s typically the best most people can expect in terms of practical advice. It is rare to receive specific, individualized answers to such burning questions as:
What is the best diet for this specific problem or my body type?
Which exercise will work best for me—yoga, running, tennis or something else?
Why do I feel stressed so much of the time, and what can I do about it?
What supplements are best for me, and which high-quality products can I trust?
Complementary natural healing modalities can address all of these queries and more. Finding the right mix of treatment and preventive measures requires some creativity and self-knowledge. The experts Natural Awakenings consulted maintain that it is both desirable and possible to assemble an affordable and effective personal health care team that focuses on optimum wellness.
“We need to understand the value of an integrative approach because no single modality treats everything,” says Dr. Jingduan Yang, the Philadelphia-based founder and medical director of the Tao Integrative Medicine. By way of example, he maintains credentials as a physician, a board-certified psychiatrist and an internationally recognized expert on classic forms of Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.
Integrative practitioners see the human body on three levels, Yang explains: structural; biochemical; and bioenergetic, a form of psychotherapy. Ideally, he says, conventional and integrative medicine, plus complementary practitioners, work together to provide the total care an individual patient needs. “Any problem on one level affects all levels, so we assess patients on all three with whatever tools we have,” he says.
While conventional medicine may be able to treat structural problems well and biochemical problems to a certain extent, it falls short on the energetic level. That’s when it’s time to expand the team, counsels Yang. “‘Know yourself’ is the watchword. Get to know what to use and when to use it. It’s the practitioner’s job to educate patients in this way.”
Dr. Andrew Weil, renowned as the father of the integrative medicine movement in the U.S., has remarked, “If I’m in a car accident, don’t take me to an herbalist. If I have bacterial pneumonia, give me antibiotics. But when it comes to maximizing the body’s natural healing potential, a mix of conventional and alternative procedures seems like the only answer.”
Dr. Shekhar Annambhotla, founding director and president of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America, turns to the integrative realm of ayurvedic medicine for healing and wellness. The 5,000-year-old Indian healing tradition incorporates lifestyle changes, yoga and meditation, detoxification, herbs, massage and various other individually targeted healing modalities, depending on the patient’s diagnosis and recommended treatment plan.
“Wellness is a team effort,” advises integrative medicine specialist Dr. Vijay Jain, medical director at Amrit Ayurveda for Total Wellbeing, in Salt Springs, Florida. It’s not only a matter of knowing what needs the practitioners will address at specific times, it’s also knowing who can help when the going gets tough. “Modern medicine has the edge for early detection of disease,” Jain notes. “However, Ayurveda is excellent in determining the earliest imbalances in the mind and body that eventually lead to disease.”
Most experts consulted agree that a personal wellness program should include a practitioner that acts as a gatekeeper and coordinates a care plan to meet individual needs. Jain recommends that the foundation of the team be a licensed medical professional such as an integrative physician (MD), osteopathic doctor (DO) or chiropractor (DC). In most states, any of these professionals can function as a primary care doctor, authorized to order and read laboratory tests, prescribe drugs and access hospital services. In some states, a naturopathic physician (ND) can perform the functions of a primary care doctor in ordering and reading laboratory tests.
As part of a personal wellness team, consider a functional medicine or integrative physician, chiropractor, osteopath, doctor of naturopathy, ayurvedic practitioner, nutritionist, Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor/acupuncturist, herbalist, craniosacral therapist, massage therapist and energy practitioner (such as in Reiki, medical qigong or polarity therapy).
It’s not necessary to see all of them, sources say. Sometimes, one practitioner will be skilled in practicing several modalities, a bonus for patients. Other complementary practitioners may form a supporting team that works with the primary care team, depending on the challenges a patient faces. They will be identified as treatment unfolds and the team evolves over time.
An ayurvedic practitioner likely will begin by helping to define healthful lifestyle changes, depending on one’s dosha, or energetic temperament. Yoga and meditation would be a likely recommendation, plus specific herbs and perhaps detoxification, says Annambhotla.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture often go hand-in hand with Ayurveda in accordance with the view that illness and disease are caused by imbalances in the body’s energetic flow. Diagnostic techniques employ intuition and pulses to assess and smooth blocks in energy circulation.
Craniosacral therapy is another way to unlock energetic blockages caused by lifestyle stress and other factors that restrict and congest the body’s innate ability to self-correct and remain healthy, says Joyce Harader, a registered craniosacral therapist in Cave Creek, Arizona, and secretary of the board of the Biodynamic Cranial Sacral Therapy Association of North America.
She relied on a whole team to realize a natural way back to health after being diagnosed with lupus in 1992. “Members of my health team fluctuate, depending on what is going on in my life and where I am focusing,” comments Harader. She points out, for example, that nutrition education and general deep-tissue massage can both be helpful as part of a foundational plan toward obtaining and maintaining optimal health.
In fact, many of our experts recommend both a monthly chiropractic adjustment and/or massage, as well as daily yoga and an ongoing meditation practice for wellness and total well-being.
Naturopathic practitioners operating in states where they are licensed can be good sources of nutrition counsel and often recommend herbal remedies for relief. “For chronic illness, you need a chiropractor or drug-free physician like a naturopath on your team. Conventional medicine is generally poor at dealing with chronic illness,” observes Naturopath and Chiropractor Michael Loquasto, Ph.D., who practices in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Loquasto should know. He has practiced integrated modalities for 50 years, employing the knowledge gained through his practice and triple doctorates, which include one in nutrition. Also a master herbalist, he strongly advocates that people start by working with a good integrative or functional medicine medical doctor.
“In some states, like Pennsylvania, chiropractors and osteopaths can perform routine diagnostic work, but in many states they cannot,” he notes. “I recommend undergoing a physical every six months and regular bone density tests, plus colonoscopies.” Loquasto is not in favor of mammograms because of the radiation exposure associated with them, but supports routine breast screening using ultrasound or thermography.
Intuitive listening and observant self-knowledge are crucial parts of any wellness plan. Most people are aware when something doesn’t feel right in their body.
“Libido is a great barometer of health,” suggests Dr. Diana Hoppe, an obstetrician, gynecologist and hormone specialist in San Diego, California. “If you’re not interested in sex, it’s probably a sign that you need to do some investigating.” Reasons for such a decline of interest are wide-ranging says Hoppe. “For men and women, it might be due to hormonal changes, lack of self-esteem, medications, stress, relationship issues, job, family life or lack of sleep. It means that somewhere, things are out of balance,” she says.
Funding a Plan
A personal multifaceted wellness program can be expensive, but there are ways to minimize the cost. “In the new world of high insurance deductibles, people get more for their money from an alternative doctor, especially one knowledgeable in a variety of healing therapies, than a conventional one,” Loquasto advises. Costs for tests may also be lower; plus patients are not expected to pay $150 or more just to walk in the door.
A current trend has medical doctors and chiropractors participating in “umbrella” practices and wellness centers, where several types of practitioners collaborate in one facility. They find that sometimes insurance will pay for certain complementary services, including massage and nutrition education, when doctors or chiropractors prescribe them.
Maintaining wellness in an environment filled with chemical, biological and mental toxins is a substantial, yet worthy, investment. It’s far better than the costly alternative of dealing with regular bouts of sickness or escalating disease. In that light, maintenance looks affordable: an ayurvedic diagnostic session starts at around $100, a consultation with a licensed naturopath at $75 and acupuncture at $100; a massage typically costs about $80 an hour.
While insurance is unlikely to pay for treatments outside the realm of conventional medicine and sometimes, chiropractic, “The cost of these preventive therapies will be much less than the cost of treatment for a serious disease,” advises Loquasto. “You’re worth it.”
Kathleen Barnes is author of more than a dozen natural health books. Her latest is The Calcium Lie II: What Your Doctor Still Doesn’t Know with Dr. Robert Thompson. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.