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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.

Elitism and Wellness Trends (Wellness Spells Series)

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Before I get too deep into my Wellness Spells series, I would like to address something that has been on my mind. Lately, I have seen a lot of very thoughtful posts that are critical of wellness or lifestyle trends. The particular ones I am seeing getting a lot of flak lately: minimalism, veganism/plant-based living, yoga, and the tiny house movement. There have been others, but those I have seen the most. The general critique is that such practices make a lifestyle that is common or compulsory for some into something glamorized, expensive, and/or culturally insensitive and accessible only by the elite.

Let’s take minimalism as an example. Criticisms of the minimalist movement are that it glamorizes a lifestyle that is compulsory for many (by limiting spending), that it simultaneously is inaccessible for persons living month-to-month due to an emphasis on making expensive, quality purchases rather than smaller, more frequent purchases, and that it is mostly taken up by people of a certain status.

I think these criticisms are definitely worth addressing and am grateful that someone has done so, but as someone who spends a lot of time promoting wellness, I would like to take a closer look at them and address a few issues with the criticisms. First, I do think that these criticisms tend to come about in the height of these trends, after they have, essentially, been turned into commercial commodities, marketed, and after the most extremist forms of these lifestyles have been highlighted:

  • A critic of the tiny house movement is rarely looking at the baby boomer unemployed during the recession who lost his home, had no money left for retirement, and hoped that downsizing  and turning away from conventional ideas of “more square footage is better” would allow him to live peacefully; they are looking at the 100K deluxe mobile tiny home with the sauna and the heated floor they see on TV or on Pinterest.
  • A critic of yoga isn’t looking at the early Eastern yogis who sought to spread their practices to the West when they felt that people here were lacking wellness practices and spiritual connection; they are looking at the expensive classes, pricey workout clothes, and an emphasis on appearance with no spiritual, cultural, or historical understanding.
  • A critic of minimalism isn’t looking at a young graduate who is loaded with student loan debt and is trying to simplify and prioritize her spending habits to save money and invest in what she truly wants out of life; they are looking at the glossy minimalist loft apartments in magazines and the corporate executives who chose to ascribe to a simpler lifestyle after becoming highly successful and who only own 100 things.

It should be said: to be able to focus on our self-actualization is a privilege in and of itself. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it falls at the top of the pyramid. When we are concerned for our safety or we have nothing to eat, we will not be able to prioritize nourishing our own potential. Even wellness in and of itself is hard to focus on if illness is an issue. So, in that way alone, I can’t in good conscience say that there isn’t an aspect of elitism in wellness trends that we should be aware of.

We are all in different places in terms of what we need in life. That doesn’t mean, though, that taking the time to address self-actualization if we are fortunate enough to be able to do so is a bad thing; in fact, I would argue that it is the responsible choice to make. This kind of emotional growth can and should come with an awareness of the disparities in the world and a drive to help rectify that.

Along that line, I also think that people are realizing that even the most privileged lifestyles have their downsides. I once heard an explanation to justify minimalism that went something like, “Excessive consumerism is a first-world problem, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.”** I truly believe that living an overly-consumerist lifestyle is toxic, both to our own well-being and to the world at large. We are consuming too many products, too much meat and junk food, too much television, too much plastic, too much of our own time and money, just too much of everything. All of this distracts from focusing on our well-being and having a deeper awareness of the world around us. Taking the time to re-assess and prioritize what we really want and need to let into our lives and what kind of person we want to be is necessary.

I have two suggestions:

First, if you yourself follow any kind of trend, be it a wellness trend or something else, consider looking a bit more into its foundations and stripping it down to the essentials. Does this trend have an important cultural history and are you aware of what that is? Have you given thought to what this trend means to you, personally, and how it has changed your life? Are you caught up in the pricey goods, the bells and whistles, because you feel that you need those things in order to follow this trend? Does the reality of the trend truly match the fantasy that is being sold? Does the trend have scientific validity? Have you thought about where you purchase the products for your trend and if they are made ethically? Have you thought about if the way you talk about the trend is sensitive to others?

And secondly, for the critics, I would also suggest stripping these trends down to their essentials. Pay less attention to the designer stores, TV shows, and extremists and more to the everyday, heartfelt stories found online, the people trying to make the best out of bad situations, working with what they have, and finding hope in small changes that bring them joy. Research where the trends started and why. Ask yourself why the trend bothers you; is it because the trend is inherently insensitive, because you just don’t like it, or maybe even because you feel uncomfortable with the idea of personal growth? Whatever you do, by all means don’t stop bringing up valid criticisms, just please do so respectfully and with a comprehensive understanding of the trend itself.

So, today’s Wellness Spell is:

A critical eye with a joyful heart.

To me this phrase means to examine our passions in life to really get to the root of them, but to also take note of what makes us happy. We shouldn’t ignore the things that truly tickle our heart; in one way or another they are trying to tell us something. At times, though, this may mean finding a different method to reach that same feeling or digging a little deeper into just what it means to us and why.

I hope this has been helpful; I really value wellness myself and wish to continue promoting it in a respectful way. It is very exciting to me that so many wellness practices are coming to the forefront right now and I think that is great. If you have any additional thoughts on the matter that I didn’t cover, please let me know.

**If anyone can help me find this quote and credit it, please let me know! I think it may have been from a documentary but can’t find it.

 

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