Integrative Medicine: Healing Through the Ages and Across Continents

Integrative Medicine: Healing Through the Ages and Across Continents

 By Dr. Stacey E. Rosen and Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres 

As a woman of the Lustre generation, you may be interested in therapies from a variety of sources. Are you still using the phrases alternative medicine or complementary medicine? Well, today, to refer to a diverse range of wellness-related medical practices one uses the term integrative medicine. Integrative simply refers to the practice of incorporating a wide range of options into the care of the patient--that is, you.

Today, integrative medicine stands as a partner to traditional allopathic and osteopathic medical therapies. So while an individual may engage in those traditional practices, s/he may also consider adding modalities such as acupuncture, mind-body therapies (such as meditation and yoga), and touch therapies (which include reiki, reflexology, and massage). Integrative medicine practitioners believe that both traditional and integrative medicine are based upon the principles of harnessing the body’s own unique abilities to heal and, whenever possible, incorporating naturally non-invasive options.

We explored these therapies with Dr. Lucy Gade, Medical Director of the Center for Wellness and Integrative Medicine of Northwell Health.

Acupuncture has been central to the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for millennia. As part of TCM, the technique is used to treat and manage a variety of conditions – in fact, there is very little for which a TCM practitioner will not use acupuncture. “The principal application of acupuncture is to free the flow of energy throughout the body. That energy, that life force is called qi (pronounced ‘chi’),“ explains Dr. Gade. When qi is blocked in the body, the result is ill health. How does acupuncture work? Very fine needles are shallowly inserted at particular points on the body. These acupuncture points lie along a virtual web of channels known as meridians, which link together various parts of the body. TCM will often also include the use of botanics (plants and herbs) in their treatment plans.

In recent years, a subset of acupuncture has been developed, known colloquially as medical acupuncture. Its practitioners are medical doctors (generally not also doctors of TCM) and these physicians use acupuncture primarily to manage pain, as well as for smoking cessation and weight management.  Excellent results are often achieved with acupuncture and many people find great relief in its periodic use.  

Reiki is another element often included as part of an integrative program. “The origin of reiki lies in Japan,” says Dr. Gade. It was developed almost a century ago and seeks to enhance the flow of energy in the body. Reiki is literally in the hands of its practitioners, and it is believed  that each person responds to reiki differently, or as Dr. Gade adds, “the response is directly related to the individual’s unique needs.” Unlike acupuncture, which has been studied extensively and the use of which in specific situations is evidence-based, formal scholarly evidence for reiki has not yet been established. However, patients report significant relief after a reiki session, and many integrative medicine specialists support its use.

Many people are familiar with meditation and mindfulness work. Dr. Gade encourages people to sample a variety of meditation classes, as “each class becomes an opportunity for contemplation and self-discovery.” Studies have shown that people who regularly meditate often experience reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as lower blood pressure. There is an old Zen saying that everyone should try to meditate daily for one-half hour--but if you do not have the time for that, then meditate for an hour! Mindfulness is a particular type of meditation that emphasizes present-moment living. It is a unique way of paying attention to the world around you, with heightened awareness and creativity. “Living this way every day becomes a ‘YES’ to aliveness, joy, wholeness and freedom,” explains Dr. Gade.

Reflexology is the practice of applying pressure to various parts of the hand and foot to relieve symptoms. If you examine a reflexology chart of the foot, for example, you would see that the tips of the toes correspond to the frontal sinuses and the base of the big toe to the neck. Every organ has a corresponding zone on the foot. The hand reflexology chart also includes representations of various body parts. Reflexology holds that with the proper and skillful application of pressure, effective relief can be obtained. Like acupuncture, reflexology is organized around the principle of qi--the body’s life energy. When qi is blocked, symptoms of illness arise so reflexology is used to help restore health by unblocking qi. Like reiki, there is controversy over the lack of scientifically acceptable evidence for reflexology, but it continues to be widely used and very popular for the relief it brings to millions of users. Potential benefits have been described as reduced stress and pain (possibly related to improved circulation), as well as a general sense of well-being.

Yoga is a movement practice that incorporates various postures to achieve improved relaxation, strength, and well-being. It has been taught for thousands of years, arising originally in India as part of Hinduism. But it has spread beyond religious practice throughout the world and is very popular in the United States, with more than 20 million adult practitioners in this country alone. Yoga is viewed by most Americans as an excellent and low-impact form of exercise. It has also been shown to be an effective part of the management of cancer patients for the relief of depression, anxiety and insomnia. Dr. Gade encourages yoga as part of a program “to promote health for body and mind.” There are many varieties of yoga and it is left to the practitioner to decide on which one is best suited to her or his needs and preferences.

Therapeutic massage is another very ancient member of the healing arts aimed at enhancing health. Massage is used to relieve pain and other physical discomfort “through gentle manipulation of soft tissue structures,” explains Dr. Gade. The best-known massage types are Swedish and deep tissue, each of which provides different benefits. Swedish massage improves blood flow and promotes relaxation through gentle manipulation. Deep tissue massage is just that: deeper and often used to treat an underlying condition such as spasm. Those who engage in regular massage can expect to enjoy reduced stress, less discomfort (including postoperative pain) and improved mobility.

Tai Chi/Qigong are Chinese disciplines that have been described as moving meditations. Using slow and controlled movements, tai chi/qigong are known to promote excellent balance and bone health as well as a sense of calmness and wellbeing. People who have traveled to China have seen dozens of older folks in public parks going through their tai chi routines. It really is a beautiful sight to behold. “My favorite type of tai chi is Tai Chi Easy, which uses an evidence-based approach,” says Dr. Gade. “It’s a combination of tai chi and qigong and consists of four elements: movement, breathing, meditation and self-massage.” She adds that the practice places only minimal stress on muscles and joints while reducing stress, improving mental clarity, and enhanced injury recovery. “It’s actually safe for people of all ages, regardless of their fitness level and can be done while standing or seated, a real benefit for people with limited walking ability,” she adds.

Pilates also has its roots in the more ancient disciplines. It is a mind/body practice organized around the precept of core strength and the benefits of strengthening the body’s center. According to Dr. Gade, the benefits of Pilates are numerous: “ease of movement, balance, stamina and coordination. Ancillary pluses include confidence, stress relief, vitality and a feeling of centeredness.”   

There are many wonderful opportunities to pursue wellness under the umbrella of integrative medicine. For many women, these modalities are particularly useful because they do not involve the kinds of activities that can lead to injuries and other body troubles. Whether you are interested in Pilates or tai chi or a course of acupuncture, be sure to keep your doctor in the loop. Even though integrative practices are considered risk-free, it’s always a good idea to let those who provide your health care know what you are pursuing.

Wishing you the best of health as you expand your wellness horizons!

Drs. Stacey E. Rosen and Jennifer H. Mieres are cardiologists with decades of experience caring for women with heart disease. They are now are at Northwell Health's Katz Institute for Women's Health. Each of them is passionate about recognizing the distinct health needs of women, and empowering women with information and resources to optimize their health and well-being.

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