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Is Wellness “Alternative Medicine?” (Wellness Spells Series)

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I’ll admit, nothing quite grinds my gears like a conversation about alternative medicine. I think this is largely because I usually take a middle line between extreme approaches to the subject and… people don’t like that. So I get grief from both sides. In fact, I’ve gotten to a place where I generally avoid conversations about alternative medicine altogether. I guess we all have our Achilles heel; alternative medicine conversations seem to be mine. But what better reason to talk about it, right?

First off, what is alternative medicine? I think this is part of the discrepancy, at least for me, as I seem to run into two very different definitions online:

The first definition is any medicine that has not been scientifically proven to be effective, or has been scientifically disproved.

The second definition is any medicine that is not considered part of mainstream medicine.

Here, I think, is where the issues begin. I’ve heard it said so many times: “Alternative medicine that is scientifically proven is just medicine.” That’s all good and well, but where do wellness practices that have been scientifically-proven to be effective, yet are not incorporated into “mainstream” medicine fall?

To give just a few examples:

  • Meditation has been found to reduce anxiety.
  • Yoga has physical and mental health benefits.
  • There are a number of natural herbs and remedies that have been effective for literally thousands of years against various ailments.
  • And let’s not forget the importance of a plant-based diet in terms of our health.

Sure, in fairness, there are plenty of alternative practices that have not been scientifically proven or have even been disproved, and are being marketed by naive-but-well-intended salespeople at best and snake oil salesmen at worst. Who wants to fork over tons of money for a “remedy” that doesn’t work or is even harmful to us? Then there are herbal supplements that are largely unregulated. Certainly it makes sense to avoid those and stick to traditional medicine, then, right?

Here’s the problem with that plan, though. Traditional Western medicine tends to be illness-focused. It’s primary goal, at least as it plays out in the healthcare system, is the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses.

Traditional Western medicine tends NOT to be wellness-focused. There is not a strong focus on prevention, or on improving our wellness, or on looking at the body as a holistic system, at least not in practice.

If you are like me, most of your doctors visits follow this trend:

Symptoms>Diagnosis>Medication

I can count on one hand the number of times I was asked about my diet, or asked about the stress of my lifestyle, or if I rested when I felt ill, or really had any treatments or practices recommended to me other than medication. It’s happened, but it’s been rare.

If we are always only focusing on illness, we are essentially playing a game of wack-a-mole with our health, beating down diseases when they arise, but not looking at the full picture of what we can do to be truly healthy.

Now, I will point out that this varies significantly depending on what part of the world, or even what part of the US, you live in. I live in the American South, so I can only speak to my own experience. I have had others in different parts of the world say their experience is completely different. If you do live in an area that incorporates lots of wellness practices, great! I think -or hope- we will all be headed in that direction eventually.

This isn’t to blame doctors, or other healthcare professionals, either. I think there are several reasons for this mindset. For one thing, it’s the way we have always viewed and practiced health. It’s hard to change an ingrained system attached to a trillion-dollar industry. For another, healthcare is expensive for patients. We often don’t go to the doctor unless we have tried several home remedies ourselves, if even then. For another, there are lifestyle issues. I can’t hold American doctors responsible for the American diet when many of them fight so hard to oppose it, and we as patients don’t always take the time to ask questions about our wellness. And then there are just legal issues, like needing a diagnosis for insurance reasons or having limited time to spend with each patient.

One top of that, some of us received more quality health education in schools than others. Some of us live in food deserts where we don’t have access to healthy food. Then the surge of issues like heart disease and diabetes can be so overwhelming that a wellness focus may seem like a distant dream. And we are all inundated every day with ads and commercials for unhealthy food. So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

On the flip side of the illness-focused industry are those who have jumped on the wellness bandwagon and have become opposed to traditional medicine altogether. Let’s be clear: medication is not bad; far from it. Many medications, like insulin, are essential in keeping people alive. Vaccinations prevent the spread of deadly diseases. Anxiety medication can curb severe chronic disorders. I would never, ever, advocate not following a medical professional’s advice, especially with regards to life-saving medication. Furthermore, it isn’t helpful to deny legitimate scientific findings, whether they support the evidence of traditional medicine or more alternative methods.

The “wellness bandwagon” can become especially problematic when it comes to mental illness. Yes, diet, exercise, and sleep have a positive impact on mental health. However, there is often an impression that if a person with severe depression would “just exercise” they would feel better. Here’s my tip: if you wouldn’t suggest something to someone with a life-threatening physical illness, please don’t suggest it to someone with a mental illness. That person with severe depression may need their antidepressants to live just as much as a cancer patient needs chemotherapy. In the quest towards holistic medicine, persons with mental illnesses seem to be the first to be demonized. It’s important to trust that those persons with mental illness have worked through a treatment plan with their doctors, just as we would for someone with a physical illness.

Ultimately, I think what we need is to move away from the term “alternative medicine” with regards to scientifically-proven wellness practices and to use terms like holistic medicine, preventative medicine, and complementary medicine. In that way, we can distinguish between valid, but underused, practices and those which truly have no scientific validity. From there, we can begin to address our bodies as holistic systems that might need a combination of diet, exercise, meditation and other wellness practices, and sometimes traditional medications as well in order to optimally function.

So, a few tips:

  • Consider finding an accredited, holistic medical practitioner who is willing to discuss the wellness of your body as a whole, including diet and potentially non-traditional practices like meditation or home remedies. Or, if your traditional family doctor doesn’t bring it up on their own, express an interest. Who knows? They may be thrilled that you are trying to be proactive about your health.
  • If you use a wellness method, consider doing some research on your own to check the scientific validity or your practice. Some practices, like acupuncture, or massage, have produced some limited results but may or may not be helpful in treating your particular ailment.
  • Consider the cultural history of your wellness practice. “Exotic” does not automatically equate to more effective and in turn may be disrespectful to other cultures. On the flip side, be aware of how making fun of other cultural practices may come across to those within that culture. For more on this, check out my post on Elitism and Wellness. 
  • Don’t shell out tons of money for something that promises to be a miracle cure. You will get much better results from good sleep, moderate exercise, and eating a largely plant-based diet.
  • Don’t quit taking any medication, especially life-saving medication, because of alternative medicine. Don’t avoid important preventative practices like vaccinations. Discuss any concerns about this with your doctor. If you have a wellness practice that is helpful to you and you have a serious illness, it may be that you can incorporate your practice with your traditional medication for a more holistic approach.
  • Don’t judge or blame others who need traditional medication to live or to have a good quality of life. This is especially important for “invisible” illnesses such as depression or chronic pain.

Today’s Wellness Spell is:

Be your own advocate.

By this I mean, take your health into your own hands. Do the research and check your sources carefully. Look at the original studies. Come to your doctor’s with a list of questions. Put in the work needed to make your body healthy. Don’t turn away from a truth about health simply because it makes you uncomfortable, whether about traditional or less traditional practices. Recognize that your body is a system and treat it as such.

Any additional thoughts that I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments below.

Let Your Bodies Work their Magic

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(No, it’s not what you’re thinking.) I am currently recovering from a sinus infection- and taking the first antibiotics I’ve had to take in over four years.

I used to be the queen of sinus infections, colds, bronchitis, I even got pneumonia twice in elementary school. Sure, I had a bad immune system as a kid, but even as an adult, I couldn’t get through the winter without going to the doctor several times. What changed?

Four years ago, I got the worst sinus infection I had ever had. I had been diagnosed with chronic Eustachian tube dysfunction about a year prior to this infection, and without going into too much detail, the stuff in my head just… wasn’t going anywhere. Anyway, after a month of trying different antibiotics and having that ugly word, “surgery” looming over my head, a combination of an obscure antibiotic and several other medications eventually worked.

There were many lessons that I could have garnered from this experience. What it led me to, personally, was the resolve to rest at the first sign of illness. As I told myself, had a medical excuse. My boss, who had witnessed the whole sinus infection saga, understood. But more importantly, I started to wonder, why aren’t we ALL encouraged to stay home every time we’re sick? Why don’t we ALL have a medical excuse for taking care of our bodies? Why did it take a more serious diagnosis before I felt comfortable staying home?

Each and every one of us ALWAYS deserves to treat our bodies well. First off, our bodies are often the best medicine. I realized firsthand that this was true when I started listening to mine, feeding it the right stuff, and resting to let it do what it was supposed to do: heal me. And wouldn’t you know, that almost always works really well? Not to mention it can save a lot of money in doctor’s bills.

Then there’s the fact that we can be more productive if we let ourselves rest. Rather than missing a full week of work because our slight head cold turned into something more serious, we can just miss a day or two, then come back revitalized.

And finally, we won’t infect others if we stay at home. That means more productivity in the long-term, instead of having an illness spread from one person to the other. Not to mention, less people getting serious infections means less people taking antibiotics, which means less antibiotic resistance.

I’m not blaming the work force, or those who are ill, and I’m certainly not blaming doctors (bless them, they tried to tell me this for years.) I think we simply have a culture nowadays that doesn’t know how to slow down and let our bodies work their own magic. All too often, sick days are discouraged, if not openly in the workplace, then within our culture as a whole. There’s a certain “brave aura” to working steadfastly through an illness, but when that illness is a minor infection, it just strikes me as a little silly.

Moms have it especially hard. Working mothers have to split their sick days between themselves and their children. Stay-at-home moms don’t get sick days, period.

We also live in a culture that focuses on sickness, not wellness. Insurance won’t even cover most appointments and procedures without a diagnosis, which means that we have by necessity stopped looking at our bodies as a whole, beautiful, interconnected system, a system that was made to heal itself in many ways, if treated correctly. Instead we look at parts and pieces and point fingers at causes which are so often secondary and temporary. I had a doctor just last year stretch the truth a bit on a test that I needed for very valid reasons, just to ensure that it was covered.

What all of this boils down to is that we as a culture have very little incentive to respect the natural healing functions our bodies provide. But we need to. Being kind to our bodies and letting them do their thing isn’t just necessary; it is rewarding and amazing to experience and oh so beautiful. Now I’ll admit, it’s not a cure-all (that darn tube in my ear still isn’t working right- more on that later), but if you are the “just work through it” type, or if you are working in a culture that is, I challenge you to be brave the next time you come down with an illness and stand up for your own health. Give your body the rest, fluids, and nutrients it needs to function optimally. And on that note, I’m going to get some rest.

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