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  » Alternative Medicine  »  An Introduction to CAM

An Introduction to CAM

Amid the clamor about healthcare reform, a quiet but perhaps more momentous revolution is occurring in people's attitudes toward health and healthcare. This new thinking is embodied in the word "holistic." Simply stated, it is a belief that we are beings of many dimensions and that our health (the root of the word means "whole") reflects all we experience. This includes the air we breathe; the food we eat; our thoughts, fears, prayers, hopes, accomplishments, and failures that live on in our memories; our genes and our qi (see below); our bodies, which are grounded to this earth and this moment; and our souls and spirits, and those of the billions with whom we share this planet.

And just as there are many dimensions to our wholeness, there have historically been many different approaches to understanding wellness and illness, most of which we in the West, especially here in the United States, have greeted with disdain. Contemporary Western medicine assumes that the cause of illness is primarily physical-the invasion of a pathogen, the clogging of an artery, the mutation of a gene. The task of a conventional medical practitioner is to identify the physical source of a particular disease and then to find a means of eradicating it. In the case of infection, administering the proper antibiotic will kill the invading bacteria. If the illness is cancer, the malignant cells are removed using surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation-alone or in tandem. When organs fail, they can be replaced with transplants. Perhaps soon we will even be altering DNA to avert certain birth abnormalities.

Central to the conventional mindset is the notion that the mission of medicine is to cure disease, and the principal concern is the nature of the illness. In this regard, conventional medicine stands alone. Almost every other tradition of healing begins with the premise that our individual composition-what makes us each unique-is central to our health and our healing. Moreover, these systems recognize that healing is the work of the body, and medicine's role is to promote the body's ability to perform this task. While a Western physician turns to his medical reference book to find drugs to kill viruses, a homeopath or Chinese herbalist reaches for remedies to boost the immune system and enable it to do its job.

Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine of the Indian subcontinent, is a good example. Ayurvedic tradition holds that each person manifests basic biological energies, or doshas. Our doshas (consisting of three basic types) determine who we are, such as our emotional traits, the kinds of foods we should eat, and the activities that suit us as well as those that do not. Ayurvedic medicine first involves determining the blend of doshas that constitute an individual. It then turns to structuring that person's life to be in concert with his or her constitution. Prevention of illness, rather than the eradication of disease, is the cornerstone of Ayurveda; its primary tools are diet, herbs, and meditation.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees life as a network of intersecting and interconnected energies called qi (pronounced "chee"). Qi is everywhere, in different forms as part of the five elements that constitute all matter-earth, metal, fire, water, and air. As qi flows along pathways in our bodies, called meridians, it animates our organs, which in turn govern our physical, emotional, and spiritual make-up. When our qi flows freely and is distributed equally in the meridians, we experience health and vitality. When the flow is interrupted or out of sync-too much qi in one meridian, too little in another-we have the potential for disease and illness. Almost anything can upset our qi-a broken bone, a touch of wind at the base of the neck, a painful memory. Restoring the proper flow of qi through the use of herbs, diet, exercise, and acupuncture is the essence of TCM. It begins, however, with the art of recognizing the quality of the qi in each individual.

Like Ayurveda and TCM, homeopathy demands a detailed knowledge of a person before a diagnosis can be made. Two people can present the same set of symptoms to a homeopathic doctor, but depending on any one of a number of variables (Do you like salty foods or sweets? When you wake up in the morning, are you sluggish or peppy? What time of day do you usually go to the bathroom?), the diagnosis, and therefore the remedy, can differ.

Ayurveda, TCM, and homeopathy are only three of the many approaches to health, healing, and wellness that are beginning to take root in Western thought. And these seeds that have been planted are already pushing through the hallowed ground of science. Major medical journals have recently reported that older persons who practice tai chi have better balance, fall far less often, and break fewer bones than their counterparts, even those participating in weight-bearing exercise programs. Should we not expect to see tai chi programs in place at nursing homes and senior living centers to prevent injuries?

Regarded as radical and unorthodox when it was first introduced, the Dean Ornish Program for lowering the risk of heart attack is now sanctioned as a reimbursable therapy by health insurers; what few people realize is that the program is based almost entirely on the principles of Ayurveda. At least one prominent surgeon has invited an energy healer to perform his/her technique on patients while the surgeon operated. Newborns are massaged regularly at a Florida hospital. One of the latest drugs in the fight against breast and ovarian cancer, taxol, is a derivative of the Pacific yew plant; Native Americans have been using different varieties of yews for centuries for female reproductive disorders. In line with recent research on circadian rhythms, the effectiveness of certain pharmaceuticals is being enhanced by timing their delivery to precise periods of the day; for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, practitioners of TCM have understood that particular organs are dominant L at different times of the day and have been using that information in their acupuncture and herbal treatments.

These various approaches to health and healing differ as much in their philosophical underpinnings and theories of how we get sick and heal as in the treatments they prescribe. Together, however, these traditions of healing contain the foundation for a new medicine, one that hails health and healing as an essential extension of the whole person, with foremost consideration of individual constitution and environment, and not just as the eradication of disease.

May the quiet revolution's voice grow stronger.

-Leonard A. Wisneski, M.D., F.A.C.P.

Medical Director, Integrative Medicine Communications, Inc.