Women’s Alternative Health Care — Make It Work For You

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

Alternative Health Care Choices Questioning WomanMost of the women we see at our medical clinic aren’t really sure they’re making the right choices about their medical care. They come to us because they have an intuitive sense there must be a better way, something healthier. And they’re right!

Why alternative medicine?

Many are frustrated with conventional health care, but leery of alternative medicine because their doctor may not approve. Many are pursuing alternative health care but don’t feel comfortable telling their doctor about it. And quite a few are interested in a different approach but can’t tell truth from hype when it comes to what really works or how to find a good practitioner.

Not surprisingly, a lot of women feel lost in or abandoned by the conventional medical environment. But the truth is that the medical system is going through a period of revolutionary change — for the better — as the conventional and alternative systems begin to merge into what is called “integrative medicine.” You are an agent of that change.

The good news is that by understanding your options and a few guidelines you can enjoy better health than you ever imagined in this new medical environment. We know that because we’ve helped pioneer this new integrative approach to healthcare with our own patients over the past 25 years. We can assure you — it’s what you’re looking for.

So let’s discuss how to bring integrative medicine into your life, right now, so you can begin to enjoy all it has to offer you.

Tips for Personal Success

Practice being still. As little as ten minutes a day spent in quiet meditation can give you numerous physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Focus on deep breathing, which allows oxygen to reach the tissues and quiet the mind, allowing space for your inner voice to emerge and guide you in your life.

What are alternative, complementary and integrative medicine?

First of all, let’s get some terminology straight. It can add to the confusion if you don’t know what your practitioner is talking about.

Conventional or traditional Western medicine is what most of us grew up with: if you get sick, feel a lump or have an accident, you go to the doctor. The physician treats that particular problem — usually through prescription drugs or surgery — and you go home.

This has been a remarkably successful system that has rid the world of diseases and infections that were the scourge of our ancestors. Up until recently, however, little attention was paid to prevention. Preventative medicine is now a buzzword with the insurance companies, meaning eat less, exercise more and take an aspirin or other “safe” drug every day.

Scientific advances like the mapping of DNA may change this approach in the future, but for the most part traditional doctors are rigorously trained to address trauma or disease, not the complexities of how the patient got that way.

Alternative, natural, and holistic medicine are widely used terms for a variety of healing therapies, some of them ancient. Generally speaking, its practitioners look at the “whole” person — mind, body and spirit — to identify underlying imbalances that cause disease. They believe in the body’s own vital energy and its natural restorative powers; most alternative therapies are meant to be preventative.

Treatment occurs in the least invasive, most natural way to foster a well-balanced, well-nourished body that will resist disease, fight infection, heal faster, age gracefully and rarely if ever need more radical intervention.

When we began Women to Women 25 years ago, alternative practitioners were not well-regarded by the medical establishment. I’m happy to report that the National Institute of Health now funds over $100 million of research every year in alternative medicine, and there is a tenured professor in the field at the Harvard Medical School. So we’ve come a long way.

When alternative medicine is used as part of a conventional treatment protocol for a medical condition, the combination is called complementary medicine. Many leading hospitals now offer what they term complementary and alternative medicine. But both camps felt the term implied there was something missing on one side or the other, so it is falling out of favor.

Integrative and functional medicine

Integrative medicine is a newer term that is more encompassing because it conveys that the practice of traditional Western medicine and alternative therapies must be integrated. I can say with confidence that integrative medicine is the future of healthcare. Integrative medicine is now a part of the curriculum at 28 major medical schools around the United States. This is great progress, but unfortunately, as we will discuss in a moment, what is being taught in medical schools is far ahead of what most doctors are telling their patients.

A branch of integrative medicine, called functional medicine, is the guiding principle of our practice at Women to Women. Using evidence-based, proven methods from both the alternative and conventional approaches, we look at the individual core physiology of each woman, including her background and emotional state — whether she is symptomatic or not.

Why is integrative medicine important to your health?

The main reason to bring integrative medicine into your life is simple – you’ll be healthier. As I mentioned before, I’ve seen time and again that integrative medicine results in optimal health. Both traditional and alternative practices have their benefits and their limitations, but together they provide a synergy that can transform your health and fill you with vitality, naturally, for the rest of your life.

And that’s important. A recent eight-year study on U.S. adult health-related quality of life reports that we are living longer but feeling worse on a day-to-day basis — particularly women. Chronic diseases are on the rise and evidenced at younger and younger ages. And drugs have side effects that often diminish our quality of life, as well as shorten it.

In other words, traditional medicine may be keeping us alive longer, but we aren’t enjoying it.

At our practice we see this reality everyday. Women come in whose tests are “normal” by current medical standards but know instinctively that something is wrong. Often they have or are on the verge of developing a serious health condition — they just haven’t reached the disease threshold yet. Luckily, catching a developing condition early means a lot can be done to prevent its progression. Simply adding daily nutritional supplements and making positive changes in diet and lifestyle have altered the health trajectory of most of our patients.

Conventional medicine is very good at disease screening, and often effective in treatment of disease or acute conditions. It just isn’t structured to promote preventative health or support natural, less-invasive methods. So if you stay with the conventional approach exclusively, in our view, you make it more likely you’ll get sick.

How do I integrate my healthcare?

In the ideal world you would have a practitioner who is educated in alternative therapies and who would guide you to the best local specialist, as we do at Women to Women. This rarely happened in the past but it’s becoming more common — because women like you are demanding it. For many years now there have been more visits to complementary and alternative practitioners than to conventional practitioners — enough of a trend that doctors and insurance companies are taking notice.

At Women to Women we integrate these methods seamlessly. For example, we will often use visualization before surgery and affirmations afterwards with our breast cancer patients. These patients have less pain and go home earlier than most other breast cancer surgery patients.

Whether or not you’ve had experience with alternative health care, the best ways to get results from integrative medicine are straightforward:

Find a conventional practitioner you can talk to. Maybe you already have one. If not, ask your friends and family for references. Our article on talking about bioidentical hormones with your doctor provides some valuable advice about talking to a conventional practitioner. Some physicians will feel threatened by a patient’s desire to bring alternative practitioners onto their team. This is partly due to a lack of training (especially among older doctors) and partly a lack of openness to change. Proceed with the notion that knowledge is power and what matters here is your health, not your doctor’s authority.

If you can’t find a conventional practitioner who will work with you on an integrative basis, go anyway. You must not ignore the value of regular medical check-ups for disease screening; you must not self-diagnose.

Listen to your intuition. When it comes to your health, you are the authority, and your body is the expert. If you have a diagnosis but the plan of treatment sounds inappropriate to you — conventional or alternative — pay attention and discuss alternatives with your practitioner. If you know something doesn’t feel right but your conventional tests are normal, don’t ignore your body’s wisdom. This is a perfect time to begin experimenting with alternative medicine.

Remember, neither the conventional nor the alternative methods are guaranteed to help everyone with a given condition. People are simply too unique. You have to find what works for you. Sometimes what’s best is to use the conventional approach (for example, medications) as a bridge until natural methods (for example, dietary changes and nutritional supplements) have time to get traction.

Do your due diligence. The best way to find a good alternative practitioner is through the referral of a doctor or health practitioner you trust. If that isn’t possible, ask your friends and family for a personal reference. Do some research into different alternative treatments and consider what you feel most comfortable with. For a list of treatments we’ve used successfully with our patients, see below. Look up your state’s requirements for certification in the field you are interested in. Read as much as you can. Ask questions. Only take supplements from well-recognized, tested sources.

Finding the right alternative treatment

There are so many alternative medical treatments to choose from. Some, such as acupuncture, are very well established. Many others have at least some supportive studies. Others we have found to be useful in the hands of the right practitioner.

Unfortunately, many alternative therapies don’t adapt well to standard, double–blind placebo controlled studies developed to test pharmaceuticals, and there aren’t the kinds of funds for this research that drug companies spend routinely.

That being said, the following is a list of alternative practices that have been effective for our patients:

Ayurvedic medicine
Bach flower essences
Chelation therapy
Emotional Freedom Techniques
Guided imagery
Herbal remedies
Movement and exercise therapy
Nutrition therapy
Reiki/energy medicine
Relaxation response
Spiritual healing/healing through prayer
Therapeutic touch
Traditional Chinese/Oriental Medicine (TCM/OM)

There are other forms of alternative medicine, such as iridology, that are more controversial. Please proceed cautiously if you are interested in such lesser-known techniques until more is known about them.

Finding an alternative practitioner

There are unqualified or ineffective practitioners in both conventional and alternative medicine, so be cautious whenever you choose any health care provider. There are studies that indicate that medical error is among the top ten causes of death in America. Outright quacks are rare, but they exist too. Beware of extravagant claims for any treatment.

One of the problems is that certification standards vary so much from state to state. But almost every state now has some kind of certification process. Look for the following:

  • Trained, licensed and certified in their particular field
  • Recommendations from other practitioners or friends
  • The atmosphere and the practitioner feel safe and comfortable to you
  • Your opinion is valued and your questions are fully answeredG
  • Guidelines for the technique and length of the procedure are set at the first visit
  • Some verifiable evidence of successful results in the treatment of your concern
  • Ability to work with other healthcare professionals in your life

You can do it!

You may run into obstacles, but they can be overcome. If you live in a remote area, don’t have health insurance, or find that your health insurance doesn’t reimburse for alternative care, there is still a lot you can do to integrate your healthcare simply by activating your body’s own curative powers through nutrition and lifestyle. Taking a high-quality, daily nutritional supplement, getting moderate exercise, and reducing your stress is an affordable foundation we all need.

In addition, use your computer or your local library to research other ways to expand your healthcare options. Books and articles abound on how to naturally reduce stress, relax and balance your life right at home. We have provided information on a range of topics related to women’s health right here on our website, and we are adding new material every week. Browse our list of our articles, and/or sign up for our newsletter!

Some women are chagrined when they hear us advocate that you take control of your own healthcare. It can seem like more work, and leave them longing for the simpler times when they just did what their doctor told them to do. But if you take the path we suggest, you’ll find yourself back in touch with your body, feeling better than you ever have, and getting what you want. Your health will become the core of strength that supports all the other things you want to do and enjoy in your life. We’re here to cheer you on and help make it happen.