In 21st century America, the health care industry is dominated by pharmaceuticals. According to a 2003 report called “Death by Medicine,” by Drs. Gary Null, Carolyn Dean, Martin Feldman, Debora Rasio, and Dorothy Smith, 783,936 people in the United States die every year from conventional medicine mistakes. Of those deaths, roughly 106,000 were from prescription drugs although—due to underreported cases of adverse drug reactions—that number may actually be as high as 200,000.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of all Americans take at least one prescription drug while one in six takes three or more. As reported by TruthOut.org, an analysis of 168,900 autopsies conducted in Florida in 2007 found that three times as many people were killed by legal drugs than by cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines combined. To make things a little more dramatic: Statistically speaking, prescription drugs are 16,400% more deadly than terrorists.
And that’s not counting the pharmaceuticals that find their way into our drinking water. A 2008 investigation discovered prescription drugs in the water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas—supplies that provide water to 41 million people. In Philadelphia, for example, 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts were discovered in treated drinking water. These included medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems.
Does acupuncture still sound crazy to you?
It should come as no surprise that (so-called) alternative medicine has hit the mainstream and is now a $50-billion health care industry in the US. A recent survey found that 14 of the 18 major HMOs and insurance providers cover at least 11 of 34 alternative therapies and 74% of Americans have chosen this approach at least once.
The methods commonly deemed “New Age” are more typically ancient modalities that have stood the test of time. The “alternatives,” it seems, have been hiding in plain sight all along—homeopathy, massage, hypnosis, Tai Chi, Ayurvedic medicine, herbs, meditation, etc. To follow is a brief description of how five non-Western disciplines treat individuals, not conditions.
Long before Madonna and Sting contorted themselves into a pigeon pose, yoga was the exercise of choice for those in the know. How long? Would you believe more than 5,000 years? The website ABC-of-Yoga.com says, “Earliest archaeological evidence of Yoga’s existence could be found in stone seals which depict figures of Yoga Poses. The stone seals place Yoga’s existence around 3000 B.C.”
Yoga can offer improvement in areas like strength, posture, breathing, stress relief, concentration and more. According to the decidedly mainstream WebMD: “Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga.”
This practice dates back to at least 19th century Germany, if not earlier, and today’s naturopathic physicians (NDs) are trained at accredited medical colleges to follow a system of medicine that assists in the restoration of health by following a set of specific rules. The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians explains the basic assumption “that nature is orderly, and this orderliness is designed to result in ongoing life and well being.” They further detail that this orderliness is “guided by a kind of inner wisdom that everyone has. This inner wisdom can be assisted to return a person to their best balance by naturopathic treatments.”
Of the Americans who have visited an ND, 62% did so because they believed naturopathy combined with conventional medicine would help while 53% did so because they felt conventional medical treatments would not help. More information can be found at naturopathic.org
It’s said that the practice of acupuncture can be traced as far back as Stone Age China when sharpened stones were used as hair-thin needles are today. These needles are placed in various pressure points (called acupoints) throughout the body. “Stimulating these points is believed to promote the body’s natural healing capabilities and enhance its function,” writes Stephanie Watson at HowStuffWorks.com. Watson adds that according to Chinese philosophy, “the body contains two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these forces are in balance, the body is healthy.” In the Western view, acupuncture likely works “by stimulating the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release chemicals called neurotransmitters and hormones. These chemicals dull pain, boost the immune system and regulate various body functions.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Dating back some 2,000 to 3,000 years, TCM includes some of the treatments mentioned above—herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy and Shiatsu massage. The approach has been described as such: “Evaluation of a syndrome not only includes the cause, mechanism, location, and nature of the disease, but also the confrontation between the pathogenic factor and body resistance. Treatment is not based only on the symptoms, but differentiation of syndromes. Therefore, those with an identical disease may be treated in different ways, and on the other hand, different diseases may result in the same syndrome and are treated in similar ways.”
TCM examination may involve (among many other things) close observation of the patient, e.g. tongue, voice, hair, face, posture, gait, eyes, ears, and various odors. As a TCM patient, you expect palpation for tenderness or comparison of relative warmth or coolness of different parts of the body and detailed questions about family, living environment, personal habits, food diet, emotions, menstrual cycle for women, child bearing history, sleep, exercise and anything that may give insight into any potential balances or imbalances in your life.
Close your eyes and imagine catching a whiff of something agreeable—coffee brewing, a fragrant flower or perhaps a delectable spice. Recall the pleasure this scent created and you have essentially begun to understand aromatherapy, which is used to treat a wide range of physical and emotional problems. This basic foundation of aromatherapy dates back thousands of years but the word itself comes courtesy of French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé.
While working at a perfume factory, Gattefossé burned his arm rather badly. The folks at AromaWeb.com explain what happened next: “By reflex, he plunged his burned arm into the closest liquid which happened to be a large container of lavender essential oil. The burn he suffered healed quickly and left no scar. Gattefossé is credited with coining the term aromatherapy in 1928 within an article where he supports the use of using essential oils in their whole without breaking them down into their primary constituents.” Common aromatherapy oils include patchouli, lavender, tea tree oil, lemon, rose and sandalwood.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “The late twentieth century will go down in history, I’m sure, as an era of pharmaceutical buffoonery.” It remains to be seen how we can re-imagine health and medicine in this century. With any medical practice, it’s best to explore such options with caution and curiosity. Often a method is only helpful in the hands of skilled and compassionate practitioner. Whether you choose Pilates or Prozac, do your homework and take responsibility for your own health. Remember: No one knows your mind and body better than you do.