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Generation Tea, Holistic Health

A New Kind of Health Care: Taking alternative medicine mainstream.
Written by: Sheryll Alexander - Rated 4.85 out of 5, 13 people have rated it.

More Americans are putting their health in their own hands. As a teenager with a chronic, degenerative skin disease, I was sort of forced into taking an alternative path to regain my health. In the late 1970s, my form of severe scalp psoriasis had no known cause and very few curative therapies. My dermatologist recounted some good results for his patients who underwent weekly ultraviolet light treatments, but he didn't recommend it for me because of my fair complexion and a family history of skin cancer. Desperate for relief from the pain, itching and embarrasment, I remember finding only one book in the Yorba Linda library that linked nutrition and disease.

The book I found, "Are You Confused?" by Swedish doctor Paavo Airola, outlined the doctor's studies of diet and the most long-lived cultures on the planet. He concluded that a diet rich in unprocessed, whole foods including grains, fruits, vegetables, soft cheeses, homeade yogurt, lactic acid foods (such as pickles and sauerkraut) and little meat helped these people live longer, healthier lives.

I took Dr. Airola's words to heart and began to slowly change my diet from fast food, white bread and candy to a more vegetarian and whole grains existence. My psoriasis did get somewhat better, but ebbed and flowed over the years in a succession of good and bad times. My 20-year search for better health has led me to try many alternative therapies (herbal medicine, chiropractic, energy work, blue-green algae, meditation, positive thinking, yoga) in an attempt to cure myself, all with varying degrees of success.

America has gone alternative.
In my Eastside Costa Mesa, California neighborhood, yoga, chiropractic and massage centers are more prevalent than doctors' offices. The mega-health-food store down the street is a Mecca for people who eat organic foods and shop for self-help books, herbal medicines and vitamins. Clearly my neighbors have found health benefits through the use of complimentary and alternative (CAM) therapies.

In fact, CAM therapies have become the norm for most Americans. A recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that nearly 2/3s of American adults use some for of CAM. The survey asked 31,000 adults about 27 types of therapies ranging from acupuncture and chiropractic to the use of herbs and prayer. About 36% of those surveyed admitted to using one or more of the CAM therapies, and the number rose to 62% if prayer was added to the mix.

"These new finding confirm the extent to which Americans have turned to (CAM) approaches with the hope that they would help treat and prevent disease and enhance quality of life," says Dr. Stephen Straus, director of the government-funded National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Edward Sondik, the director for the National Center for Health Statistics, says that the government is now seeing that "a sizeable percentage of the public puts their personal health into ther own hands."

Public pushes CAM research.
It is this majority of Americans - not the American Medical Association - that is pushing CAM research and its integration into conventional medicine, says Dr. John Longhurst, director UCI's (University of California, Irvine) Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine. "We wouldn't have any (CAM research) if the politicians hadn't told the medical community that they must do it," he says. "It started about 10 years ago throught the political process when the government began funding research through the newly-formed National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine."

Longhurst says that there's a huge bap between what the public wants and what the medical community believes in and promotes. "We know so little about CAM and yet it has the potential for significantly impacting our wellness," he explains, "but I wouldn't say that the average physician embraces it."

One reason why most physicians are CAM disbelievers is because, as medial students, doctors are not taught anything about these alternative therapies, says Longhurst, who went to China to study acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). "When I went to medical school, areas that are now embraced by our center were taught in a course called 'quackery in medicine,'" he says. "We are trying to rectify this (at UCI) by providing instruction in selected CAM therapies as part of our regular, medical-student curriculum."

The Integrated future of medicine.
Increased education and belief by conventional doctors in the viability of CAM therapies is driving the medical industry into the future: integrative medicine. In this new world, you can visit your doctor and be prescribed anything from the latest drug to a series of acupunture treatments to a recommended dose of daily meditation.

Integrative medical doctors emphasize the healing of the "whole" person and not just the physical body. "Integrative medicine takes into account the whole body and multiple organ systems," says Longhurst. An experienced cardiologist, Longhurst studied the nervous system and began to understand how acupuncture stimulates underlying neuro-pathways and subsequently reduces blood pressure. "As the public is becoming more and more involved with their own care, I think that they are seeking other forms of therapy, such as acupunture and traditional Chinese medicine," says Longhurst. "It's incumbent upon physicians to know more so we can advise when they should and when they shouldn't be using these therapies."

Longhurst says another reason why patients like CAM therapies is that conventional doctors have less and less time to spend with patients. "A managed-care doctor spends about 15 minutes with a patient once a year," says Longhurst, "but a typical CAM practitioner spends 30-60 minutes with you." More personal interaction with a therapist, Longhurst says, gives practitioners time to look at you as a whole person and develop a better plan for healing.

Although most herbal and botanical medicines are not under FDA control, integrative doctors do understand that CAM therapies have much lower side effect rates than conventional drugs. "The fact that these therapies have a low incedence of side effects means that in some ways they are superior to Western medicine," says Longhurst. "Even a relatively safe drug, like aspirin, can cause bleeding ulcers, so it's nice to know that we can use most CAM therapies with confidence that patients won't have a disastrous problem."

Yes, I am a believer in most CAM treatments. Once a hardcore believer in alternative medicine and vegetarianism, I have accepted that conventional medicine is at times necessary and life-saving.

And what's the harm in someone getting better simply by believing that the therapy will help them in some way? (Even conventional medicine believes in the viability of the placebo effect.) For myself, I wonder how I can have a complete psoriatic remission while eating junk food and using no regular CAM or conventional medical therapy.

Perhaps the answer is simply that I have finally integrated my life. I love the community and home in which I live. I'm involved in a loving, equal relationship and satisfying family life. Although sometimes stressful, I enjoy my freelance writing career with no set schedule and no boss. Life is good and hopefully my body will continue to respond in kind.

-Orange County Metro
Sheryll Alexander is a lifestyles writer based in Costa Mesa. She is a regular contributor to Orange County Metro magazine.

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