The Evolution of Alternative Medicine

In today’s world, 1 in 2 Americans suffer from a chronic disease. Director of the Center for Functional Medicine, Mark Hymen, describes the current response to health issues as an “acute disease system for a chronic disease population.” This seems especially relevant to patients whose disease can be treated, but not cured, as is the case with patients of Nephrotic Syndrome. Are there better methods to treat chronic health problems? And if so, how can we improve these patients’ quality of life in a holistic manner—physically, mentally, and emotionally?

Around the nation, there are currently 50 institutions, ranging from Harvard to Mayo Clinic, that offer integrative, previously known as “alternative,” treatments. These treatments include, but are not limited to, acupuncture, massage, nutrition counseling, and much more.

So what exactly is integrative medicine? At the core of integrative medicine lies a central dogma of “wellness.” The idea of wellness is a more holistic approach to medical treatment, and particularly to the medical treatment of chronic diseases. With the term “alternative,” however, comes residual stigma that these methods are only the source of false hope, and false hope alone. Integrative medicine, therefore, hopes to escape from these negative preconceptions, bridging the gap between alternative approaches and scientific validity. In other words, taking therapies that once were known as alternative medicine and subjecting them to the scientific method as with any other evidence-based medicine.

On a national level, this change in focus was coupled with a change in name; the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine was transformed into the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health. The center’s director confirmed this transformation, stating that the NCCIH had in fact redirected, and narrowed, its aim. When the organization first began, it pursued a wide variety of approaches. Now, however, it has begun to focus in on only the approaches that hold some form of promise and scientific worth.

For instance, in the 1990s, one doctor was putting in around 750 stents a year for patients with high blood pressure. With the help of Dean Ornish, however, a leading physician in lifestyle medicine, the same doctor began taking very ill heart patients and teaching them yoga and meditation. The results were astonishing. There was a 91% reduction in chest pain in her heart patients. More so, this lifestyle change actually began to reverse plaque in her patient’s arteries. Still not convinced? In a five-year research study on Transcendental Meditation, there was a 48% reduction in heart attack, stroke, and sudden death. As one doctors puts it, “to me that’s medicine—meditation is medicine.”

This relationship between mind and body can go both ways: physical health impacts mental health, and the reverse is true as well. When a patient’s mind influences a certain health outcome, this is typically known as the placebo affect. Even without a physical stimulus producing a certain response, there is a response nonetheless. In that regard, the placebo affect can, and maybe should, play an important role in the medical world. As told by Lauren Atlas, director of the NCCIH’s neuroimaging lab, “we’ve known for decades that the placebo affect can engage endogenous opioids—your body’s own pain-relieving substances—to fight pain even without any treatment.”  This is another area of promise, worthy of future research, within the field of integrative medicine.

With the help of the NCCIH, further research will be done on integrative medicine and its role in the future standards of care for those suffering from chronic illnesses.

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