Trendy as it may seem, alternative medicine is not new. Some of its practices are centuries old, while some are the subject of current and ongoing research. Others are simply based on common sense: proper nutrition, exercise, and eliminating harmful habits. Following is an overview of four well-known components of alternative medicine: acupuncture, Healing Touch, green tea, and dietary supplements.
While the thought of fighting pain by inserting needles into your flesh might seem contradictory, millions of people worldwide swear by the benefits of this 4000-year-old Chinese practice. Acupuncture is used for everything from neurological conditions to dermatological, emotional, internal and gynecological problems, the adverse effects of chemotherapy, and smoking cessation.
Despite its depiction in fictional movies and sitcoms, acupuncture does not entail randomly jabbing needles into the body. “Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine sterilized needles into the skin at various acupuncture points, most commonly on the lower parts of arms and legs, lower aspect of the abdomen, and along the spine,” says Laurie de Graaf, Licensed Acupuncturist. “The acupuncture points lie along meridians, or channels of energy, beneath the skin. Each point along these channels relates to and affects various parts of the body. The needles stimulate a healing response of the body by creating a balanced flow of energy known as Qi.”
Dr. Xiande Yi, Licensed Acupuncturist, Diplomate in Acupuncture, notes that traditional Chinese medicine has identified some 500 points where needles can be inserted for specific effects. Placement depends on the disorder and which meridian is involved. He says that acupuncture is commonly used for pain disorders in the lower back, shoulders, neck, hips, knees, and for headaches.
Both specialists note that acupuncture needles are much smaller than those used for regular injections. Nor is the entire length of the needle necessarily used. “Most people say they don’t feel pain when the needle is going through the skin, only pressure on the point site when the practitioner taps the needle in,” says Dr. Yi. Needles stay in for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the patient’s condition.
While no physician’s referral is necessary when seeking acupuncture treatment, “An acupuncturist will interview a patient at length to gather past and present medical history, emotional state, and overall well-being,” says de Graaf. “From there, the acupuncturist will observe the skin, body structure, tongue, and feel the patient’s pulse. The practitioner may also palpate the abdomen, spine, acupuncture points, and meridian pathways to feel for trigger points, muscle spasms, or areas of imbalance.”
The documented safety and effectiveness of acupuncture make it a viable treatment for most people. “It can be used alongside conventional medicine in the treatment of acute and chronic disease,” she says. “Some people may have acupuncture treatment as a preventive measure to build their body’s state of well-being.” Still, she cautions, always tell your primary care physician about any adjunct treatments you choose to undergo.
Results from acupuncture usually begin within three treatments, with significant results within six to ten treatments. Patience is key. “We must remember that most alternative therapies tap into the body’s ability to heal itself,” she says.
In most cases, patients will find additional benefits. “Acupuncture treats the body as a whole,” says Dr. Yi. “Many patients not only get relief from the pain, but they also feel their whole body is better, they sleep better, eat better, and have more energy.”
For those who are wary of needles, there is good news. Although needles are more precise, acupressure can also be beneficial. “With modern technology, acupuncturists are now using cold or low-frequency laser therapy on acupuncture points where needles would have been used,” says de Graaf.
Like acupuncture, Healing Touch, a therapy developed by Janet Mentgen, B.A., R.N., in Denver, Colo., centers around the body’s energy and meridians.
Jane Hightower, BA, HTCP/I, LFH/I, is a Healing Touch practitioner and the author of Stone Empowerment: A Resource for Both the Beginner and the Adept, which explores the healing properties of stones and minerals. Having practiced Healing Touch since 1992, her method “assesses the client’s energy system in several ways, using all of their senses.” A practitioner, she explains, “addresses imbalances, clogged energy, and empty or overfull areas using a variety of approaches. However, this work is one of body/mind/spirit, and we do not pretend to know what the results might be.”
In one of her sessions, which can vary according to the practitioner, she reviews the client’s reasons for choosing Healing Touch, then offers them the option of a lying on a table or sitting in a recliner. “This therapy is done with the client fully dressed,” she says. “I assess the energy system, looking for imbalances or blocks, and then do a variety of techniques that address the issues. This is done with very light touch or not touching the physical body. A typical session can take up to an hour, but is often shorter than that.”
The ideal candidate is already receiving good medical care, according to Dr. Robert Pendergrast, a specialist in integrative, pediatric general, and adolescent medicine. “This is a holistic intervention,” he says. “A lot of people intuitively know that humans are spiritual, energetic beings, but most of modern conventional medicine doesn’t address that. Human beings are more complex than what we understand in anatomy classes. Healing Touch addresses what is more than tangible and physical.”
Like acupuncture, Healing Touch therapy is open to anyone. “A patient goes to an energy healer because they feel bad in some way,” says Dr. Pendergrast. “For example, a cancer patient may have had successful surgery and chemotherapy, but still has pain, nausea, and no energy. People who have had a ‘cure’ may still feel bad. A doctor might say, ‘You just have to live with it.’ The Healing Touch practitioner wants to get you back on your feet. The premise is that your energy fields have been disturbed, and this may be at the root of a lot of physical symptoms.”
Hightower frequently works with pre- and post-op patients. “I balance the energies before surgery, work with them in the recovery room when given permission, and in their hospital rooms post-surgery,” she says. “Results range from no headache or nausea from anesthesia to decreased pain to going home earlier.”
Does it work? Only the patient knows, and only they can decide whether they want to continue treatment. “If I am seeing a client for the first time, I often tell them it may be up to six sessions before we know if this is helping,” says Hightower. “We layer problems on and often it requires a peeling away of the layers. At other times one session does it. I work with the client in setting the treatment plan.”
Dr. Pendergrast believes that the results should speak for themselves. “My teachers emphasized that this therapy is designed to help the patient reach their highest goal,” he says, “and what that is is up to the patient.”
It is praised for everything from its antioxidants to its fat-burning properties, its ability to rejuvenate skin, and its energy boost. Can so many benefits come from a collection of leaves? Is green tea a wonder plant, or is the hype much bigger than the brew?
According to Dr. Stephen Hsu, oral biologist and associate professor of oral biology and maxillofacial pathology, this is a rare instance where the facts back up the claims. Dr. Hsu’s research, which is internationally recognized, has discovered remarkable health and healing benefits in green tea’s polyphenols (chemical compounds thought to have antioxidant properties and that can help in the prevention of numerous diseases), including inhibition and destruction of tumor cells in laboratory tests, protection of the autoimmune system, fat reduction, and treatment of skin inflammation.
Drinking multiple cups of green tea daily, or downing capsules, won’t leave you thin and itch-free. Dr. Hsu encourages consuming several cups of green tea every day, but he warns that there is no guarantee that many over-the-counter products are effective, due to the breakdown of green tea’s polyphenols when mixed into water and other ingredients. The antioxidants may be gone, and all you’re left with is pleasant-smelling lotion or an overpriced can of sweetened water. “Some companies make bottled green tea that is supposed to be good for you, but they contain 200 calories per bottle, with no science to support what they say it does,” he says. “The sugar and calories are there, but we don’t know if the good stuff is there too.”
Your best bet: “For people who can enjoy the taste of green tea, I recommend two cups a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” he says. “If you want to drink more, that’s fine, but I recommend no more than six cups a day because of the caffeine. If you can’t stand the taste, you can take a supplement, and there are mints and gum that contain green tea.”
Adding a bit of milk or creamer to your green tea to improve the taste is fine, but watch out for flavored tea. “I always raise a question to see if green tea is the major ingredient, and is there a mixing process that affects activation of the compounds,” Dr. Hsu says. “It’s better to buy plain green tea and add flavorings — honey, sugar, whatever you want — to your liking.” You can also make iced green tea, but be sure to drink it within a week. “The darker it gets in the refrigerator, the more the molecules are oxidized,” he cautions, “and then it loses its effect.” If you prefer decaffeinated green tea, Dr. Hsu gives it the OK as well.
If you’ve never tried green tea, considering incorporating it into your daily beverage intake. “It’s never too late to start and to benefit from it,” says Dr. Hsu, “just like it’s never too late to stop smoking or do anything healthy.”
You’ve seen them everywhere: super-fruits, high-priced miracle fruit juices, powdered greens promising to fulfill all of your nutritional needs. What’s the story behind these pills, powders, and drinks? Can they make us look younger, increase our life spans, and keep us healthy?
“In general, if something sounds too good to be true, it is, of course, usually false,” says registered dietitian Kimberly G. Beavers, MS, RD, LD, CDE. “There are many questions that remain largely unanswered. How does processing affect the nutrient quality? How does this affect the human body? How much do you need? How much is too much? And, of course, is it worth the cost?”
Beavers finds it hard to recommend “miracle foods,” noting a lack of documented research and the fact that so many people have diets lacking in essential fruits and vegetables to begin with. “Adding an antioxidant-rich juice to an unhealthy diet does not make it a healthy diet,” she says. “It is likely that an antioxidant-rich juice is not going to hurt you, and it might help, but first ask yourself: Are there other things I could or should be doing that could yield greater benefits at a much lower cost?”
“My concern is that these are over-marketed and overpriced products,” says Dr. Pendergrast. “Some of them can only be purchased through the Internet. My skepticism comes not only from the hyping of these products, but also that the claims they make are being stretched.”
The super-foods craze comes from our desire to live longer, healthier lives, Beavers reasons. While that’s a noble goal, it shouldn’t mean shelling out $35 for a bottle of juice when there are plenty of fruits and vegetables that can do the job. “This is a very exciting time in the field of nutrition,” she says. “We learn more each day, and just about everything leads us right back to the benefit of eating more fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. How about topping a bowl of oatmeal with dried cherries or fresh blueberries? Pomegranates are delicious — add some to a salad, eat them straight up, make a yogurt/blueberry/flaxmeal smoothie with pomegranate juice. Add more nutrient-rich foods to your diet. That is never bad advice, but balance is key and variety remains important.”
“None of us eat perfectly,” says Dr. Pendergrast, “so my advice is to take a multivitamin and fish oil supplement every day. There is good evidence that fish oil shifts our inner chemistry to anti-inflammatory mode. Unchecked systemic inflammation is one aspect of aging. You want to live strong to the very last and forestall chronic diseases.” He also emphasizes a plant-based diet.
The next time you walk past a shelf full of pills, powders, and enzymes, says Beavers, keep going until you get to the produce aisle. “Not only will vegetables taste better, but also they are significantly less expensive,” she notes. “Again, there is no real point to much of those products, primarily because in many cases human studies have not been conducted to support the benefit of using them. It remains apparent that the health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables, which in part can be attributed to the antioxidants they contain, may have more to do with the consumption of the whole food versus an isolated component.”