From acupuncture to yoga, more people are turning to holistic options for their chronic conditions. Experts explain why alternative medicine can be a path to optimal health.
Written by Lennie Omalza
When it comes to health, our thoughts might immediately turn to doctor’s appointments, diet, and exercise. But being healthy is about more than eating balanced meals and ensuring your vaccinations are up to date — it’s a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. And though traditional western medicine is often the go-to when we’re not feeling our best, there are a plethora of other alternatives available.
According to data from the National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of adults in the U.S. use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapy. This includes all medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not considered conventional medicine. Sometimes called integrative medicine, these treatments can include acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, energy therapies, reflexology, CBD therapy, and ayurvedic medicine, among others.
Though there is a wide range of CAM therapies available, they all have a few things in common. Treatments are highly individualized, aimed at the causes of illness rather than its symptoms, and designed to support the body’s natural healing processes. The primary goal of CAM is usually prevention over treatment, and it focuses on the whole person.
Whether CAM therapy is used in lieu of or in conjunction with traditional medicine depends on the person, the ailments they are looking to address, and what they have already done about any current health issues. Martha Graziano, an herbalist and licensed acupuncturist who holds a Master’s degree in physiology, says she understands the need for both traditional and alternative medicines. And, contrary to what people might think, some alternative therapies are backed by science.
“There are articles on the neuroscience and the neurophysiology of acupuncture,” Martha says, adding that she can personally attest to acupuncture’s benefits. After a platelet donation caused serious nerve damage, hindering some of her everyday activities, acupuncture was the only treatment that helped. The strategic needle insertion therapy has even aided her allergies — after receiving regular acupuncture, she has been able to stop taking allergy shots.
Though Martha has the scientific research and firsthand experience to vouch for acupuncture’s efficacy, some might question the credentials of those who offer alternative medicine. But a little-known fact about CAM therapy practitioners is that like with other types of professional specialists, there are often licenses to earn and regulations they must adhere to.
Chiropractors, for example, must earn a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, pass the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners exam, and obtain a state license. Reflexologists are often subject to the same laws that govern massage therapists — a license to practice reflexology isn’t granted until a state-certified course in massage is completed. And though teaching yoga doesn’t currently have any legal requirements, most gyms and yoga studios won’t hire an instructor unless they’re certified.
“People … don’t realize [that what I do is] a full profession,” Martha says. “Acupuncture is a four-year program. You have to take national boards, you have to get licensed through the Kentucky Medical Licensing Board, [and you] have to take continuing education credits.”
Despite these measures, most CAM therapies are not covered by insurance — though some practitioners will accept payment from a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA). Martha welcomes both HSAs and FSAs at Classical Acupuncture & Herbs, as does clinical ayurvedic specialist Paige Pearman.
Like Martha, Paige also believes in the power of utilizing both traditional and alternative medicine to maximize health. At Luv Yourself, her wellness center in St. Matthews, patients can visit her for ayurvedic health counseling, and her mother — who is a psychologist — for mental health concerns.
Paige describes ayurveda, which is a more-than-5,000-year-old holistic healing system, as a disease prevention model. She explains that with western medicine, we often address severe health issues with pharmaceuticals or surgeries. “[With] ayurveda,” she says, “we’re looking at keeping the body from getting sick in the first place.”
Ayurvedic health coach Marissa Hutter adds that in ayurvedic medicine, there are six stages of disease. “By the time something shows up on a scan — like a tumor or something,” she explains, “you’re already in stage five. Part of the reason ayurveda is so brilliant is it’s able to look at symptoms early on.”
Health issues are always easier to address when caught in early stages, and Marissa stresses that it’s important to take symptoms seriously; no matter how minor something may seem, it should never be dismissed. “It is your natural birthright to feel joyful, happy, healthy, and active,” she says. Alternative therapies can address overall health before a person is affected by serious ailments.
Paige adds, “It would be a beautiful day when western medicines can embrace alternative therapies. … If the two worlds fused, we’d have a beautiful system because we’d have disease prevention, and when people are really sick, they’d have [a wide range of treatments available.]”
Top 10 Most Commonly Used CAM Therapies in the U.S.
- Prayer for own health – 43%
- Prayer by others for the respondent’s health – 24%
- Natural products (herbs, other botanicals, enzymes, etc.) – 19%
- Deep breathing exercises – 12%
- Participation in prayer group for own health – 10%
- Meditation – 8%
- Chiropractic care – 8%
- Yoga – 5%
- Massage – 5%
- Diet-based therapies (Atkins, Pritikin, Ornish, Zone diets, etc.) – 4%
(Source: Survey by Centers for Disease Control & Prevention)