The Benefits and Integration of Complementary Medical Techniques

by Celia Soto

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a method of health care in which the whole person and their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, nutritional, and social health is considered. It considers the fact that although mind and body are neither two separate things nor one, they are undeniably connected and therefore the body's health must be directly connected with the health efforts of the mind. Alternative medicines focus on non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical techniques which either directly or through physiological cascades increase the person's ability to heal themselves, sometimes referred to as "the doctor within."(3) Medicines such as massage, medical herbalism, spiritual practices (sometimes referred to as guided imagery), acupuncture, and chiropractic treatments are personal health efforts which do incur physiological effects that can boost a person's immune system and the functioning of the organs, as well as providing numerous other health and lifestyle benefits. When used in collaboration with conventional or "allopathic" methods, such as pharmaceuticals and surgery, this is known as complementary medicine. Through the incorporation of these complementary medical techniques, our ability to heal, accept treatments, and understand human health in its entirety will be greatly improved.

One of the fastest growing types of alternative medicine in the U.S. today is homeopathy. Developed over 200 years ago in Germany, the main principle of homeopathy is that "like cures like."(4) The belief is that a substance, such as an herb or mineral, which can cause disease like symptoms in a healthy person, when administered at an extremely diluted amount, could actually help stimulate healing in a person who bears an illness or disease with similar symptoms. Homeopathic treatments are very individualized based on a person's everything from a person's physical health to their emotional, mental, and genetic health. Homeopathic remedies are obtained from natural sources such as plants, minerals, and animals. Then often undergo a process called "potentization," where the remedy is diluted, often to the point where insignificant amounts of the original substance remains. The power is believed to be held in the energetic essence that the substance has left, called the "memory of water" theory, which believes that the imprint of the substance is what stimulates the body to heal itself. (4) In Western medicine it is believed that the placebo effect from highly individualized medical attention attribute to a physiological change in the patient caused by the placebo effect. This causes an increased focus and faith in healing, as well as relaxation and comfort, which all directly boost the body's immune system.(8) Homeopathic supplements are monitored for safety and purity by the FDA in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Only remedies for minor health problems, however, may be sold OTC, without a prescription.

Medical herbalism is the oldest form of medicine known to man, and has been used in some form by all cultures since the beginning of man. It is similar to homeopathy, but differs in the aspects of approach and intention of use. It involves the use of various herbs or mixtures of herbs in small, therapeutic amounts to provide the person with the help of healing, invigorating, soothing, or nourishing natural chemicals. Herbs are prepared in either water as infusions, decoctions, lotions, compresses, and syrups, in alcohol as tinctures, or in oil as ointments. Other common preparations include powders, juices, creams, gargles, and inhalations.(5) An indefinite combination of plants, each of which contains in itself roots, stem, leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, etc., provides many possible natural solutions, the potencies of each to be determined by knowledge of plants, trial, and experience. The development of a treatment must include the considerations of a person's whole health and a very personal and actively involved use of the preparations. The power of its healing is attributed to the combination of the therapeutic chemicals from the herbs and the psychosomatic healing effect incurred by the user. Vitamin supplements are a common form of herbalism, providing us with necessary cofactors and coenzymes for the proper function of enzymes, the biological catalysts of our bodies' processes.

A prominent and widely enjoyed form of alternative medicine, used around the world, is massage therapy. It is a direct as well as indirect way to induce physiological changes, through mechanical response and relaxation response. The kneading and manipulation of the skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and deep connective tissues improves blood flow and lymph node circulation to the area.(2)The improved circulation in turn increases oxygen and nutrient levels to the bodies' muscle and nerve cells. Better cell health removes toxins and waste from the body, increases fluid absorption, reduces swelling, and consequently improves overall organ function.(2) Even the production of stress hormones in the body is decreased. This promotes a state of overall better health and happiness in a person whether they are ill or not. For those who are ill, however, the use of massage therapy as a complement to treatment will boost the speed of recovery as well as reduce irritation due to symptoms. Unfortunately, massage treatments in the U.S. today may be somewhat expensive, as it is also culturally considered to be a luxury or spa treatment, and therefore may be inaccessible for some as a regimented treatment.

Stretching and breathing practices, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, work on the muscles and joints of the body in a way similar to massage therapy, but also incorporates relaxation breathing techniques to lower the heartbeat while providing the body with increased oxygen. This triggers a deep relaxation state as well as invigoration of the full body as a wide range of movements are performed. Stress levels are lowered, and natural endorphins which help subdue pain are released. The deep stimulation of the nervous system brings consciousness of one's body to the forefront of their mind. Maintaining this consciousness while stretching and breathing helps to regulate homeostasis, the natural healthy state of your body, to a normal and beneficial state (whereas the daily stress of our lives in combination with the things that we put into our bodies can shift our homeostasis to a less productively functioning and healing state). The body's ability to grow and repair itself is then enhanced. The practice of stretching and breathing techniques used by a person who is ill or diseased helps reduce stress levels, improve pain, flexibility, and circulation, and speed the healing process(9).

Drumming is an easy and enjoyable therapy to improve health. An hour long drumming session can reverse the body's hormonal stress response, as well as increase the natural killer cell activity, enhancing the immune system.(6) The stress relieving part of drum therapy is often used to treat stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as hold recreational and social benefits. An especially effective form of drumming for healing are drum circles, still commonly found in the U.S. as well as in cultures around the world dating back to early human times, during which a grounding, meditative, recurring drumbeat is built together by a group of people. However, it can also be used alone with effectiveness, as well as used to treat a wide range of illnesses. For example, the counteractive nature of the increase in natural killer cell activity can benefit patients with cancer who are repeatedly undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy which, while fighting the disease, may weaken the body. Chronic pain can also be lessened by the relaxation and corresponding immunoresponse triggered by involvement in music has the ability to improve a person's quality of life and bring positive, healing energies (be it energies, a metaphor for relief, or simply conscious thinking) to the injured area.(1) Patients with Alzheimer's disease who drum are shown to have better communication skills with loved ones, perhaps due to the predictability and pattern of a rhythm to act as a framework for building other repetitive responses and cognitive demands.(6) Similarly, those who have suffered neurological impairment such as brain damage incurred during strokes can use slow, steady rhythms to help retrain the brain to develop recognition and retention of patterns as well as recognize that which does not lie within a pattern, and can aid in muscle coordination and smooth patient's movements (Friedman, Healing Power of the Drum, 1994). Other types of music may bring similar health benefits; the type of music and the way that it is used engages different areas of the mind and holds other healing and relaxing potentials, but drumming and rhythms are the most direct because they are easily recognized, understood, and encourage involvement to the creation and manipulation of the beat.

Spiritual practices such as prayer and rituals play on the body's power of belief and faith, both of which bring strength and motivation to someone who is ill, lower stress levels, and maintain a state of emotional balance necessary to the its optimal functioning and healing. Since there is a direct stimulation of the body in connection to stimulation in our mind (even emotions which we experience are stored or expressed in a physical way), spiritual healers use the uplifting of the mind to simultaneously uplift the body (1). Through the healing of the "soul", the purging of negative energies brings comfort and psychological relief to those who are "healed" in a ceremony. A person with adequate spiritual health often also has more control over intense emotions such as fear which may arise often when dealing with a medical problem. Guided imagery is often integrated into spiritual and shamanistic healing, where a person uses the exploration of imagery in their own mind to look deep within themselves. Also, rituals also direct any guilt or poor feelings about the self becoming sick to an external cause; those who direct blame for the sickness on an external force rather than themselves may heal quicker(1). This removes embodiment of one's self in the sickness, causing the body to enact on its' wrongful presence. Many native cultures, such as the Hmong, the Chinese, and indigenous tribes of North and South America, have been using spiritual or "soul" healing for thousands of years to attempt to manipulate the energies which govern our spiritual-medical connection and bring the healing power of "the doctor within" to the people, both preventatively and therapeutically.

The balance of the body's energies, called its qi (pronounced chi), its Yin and Yang, is the main focus of acupuncture in Traditional Chinese Medicine (7). It is believed that by inserting pins lightly into a person at certain specific acupoints it is possible to manipulate the energy flow at those points in the body. Acupoints are specific to where the nerves in your body run and so certain areas can be stimulated with a desired location to effect in mind. It is debated whether it is truly the manipulation of the body's energies, the stimulation of nerve points, the release of endorphins due to the minor pain responses caused by the needle penetration, the relaxation response of laying and placing faith in a treatment, or the placebo effect of the experience which is the cause of the health benefits that it can provide (7). I believe that is probably dependent on the viewpoints of the patient and a combination of these.

Western medicine is quick to dismiss many CAMs as the placebo effect but this effect holds a lot of healing power for those who take refuge in it(8). A major reason for this is that in order to use alternative therapies the treatment must be used with direct healing intention (8). CAM medicine along with allopathic, western medicine may amplify the effectiveness of treatments and ensure that all possible causes of illness are addressed. Even someone who takes a prescription a few times a day will accept and use the medicine more readily if they believe that it will work and still put a conscious effort towards resting and healing their ailments, as opposed to someone who skeptically takes the pills and does not incorporate other personal health efforts. There are some things which alternative medicine may not be most effective against, just as there may be some things which prescription drugs and surgery may not improve. There may be adverse effects from the combination of poorly interacting therapies. Certain herbal supplements, for example, may actually interfere with some prescriptions (5). I believe that as more concrete research is done on these medicines we will attain a better concept of which CAM should be used with which illnesses and how they can help. The knowledge of these techniques continues to grow with its popularity, as people are beginning to seek out other methods of healing to avoid problems with hospitals, prescriptions, insurance companies, and as people who are sick continue to use these healing tools to enhance their treatment.

There are common physiological effects which are a common result of all of the alternative treatments. This includes increased immune system function, improving the body's ability to prevent and fight illness, increased relaxation, lowering of blood pressure, increased endorphins and pain tolerance, stimulation of growth and repair due to increased blood and bioelectric circulation, and the promotion of an overall feeling of comfort and wellbeing (3). It will also help in the prevention of future health problems.

I believe that Western medicine has a lot to gain from the incorporation of holistic healing, bringing CAM into our culture. It would boost the effectiveness of our own therapies by promoting overall health as well as providing the body with numerous health benefits. It is the conscious manipulation of our own health, a concept that I feel that many Americans have lost a grasp on as they lay back and give their bodies over to doctors and pills and expect them to do all of the "fixing." A holistic approach is not only more effective, but the personalization of the health plan with a specifically determined CAM will give people more faith in the treatment which they are receiving, as well as increase their cooperation and integration of treatment into their lives. In order for this to occur, however, patients and doctors alike must consider all aspects of personal health, a person's whole self, their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, in order to determine the areas which, through personal efforts, may be improved to aid a person in their sickness and to maintain their future health. A more personal connection and increased communication between doctor and patient will only help with the effectiveness of treatment, as well as increase the people's trust and faith in the care that they are receiving. The result of this would be hospitals with more human connection and less stressful atmosphere, which may also in turn create an environment more conducive to healing. An understanding of the psychosomatic tools within our body gives us more control over our own health and over our ailments.

National site for info on CAM medicine:
1.) Blake, April. How Shipibo Healers Cured My Brain Tumor. 2009.
2.) Burgan, Beth. How Does Massage Work? 2004.
3.) Hirsch, Larissa. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2009.
4.) Homeopathy, an Introduction. 2009.
5.) Herbal Medicine.
6.) Documented Medical Benefits of Drumming.
7.) Acupuncture.
8.) Placebo Effect: A Cure in the Mind. 2009.
9.) Do Stretching and Breathing Exercises Really Make a Difference? 2008.

Essay by Celia Soto of The University of Vermont, Burlington, 2009.

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