You know a handful of people who swear by acupuncture. Meditation studios are popping up in major cities. And herbs like turmeric and cumin are being praised for their health benefits by holistic and traditional doctors alike.
These alternative treatments are growing in popularity for a reason. There is promising research suggesting the potential health benefits of taking a more holistic approach to wellness — from combating stress to reducing pain.
Research conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish, MD, revealed that a holistic approach to health helped reverse heart disease, de-clogging arteries and increasing blood flow. San Francisco-based Ornish is the clinical professor of medicine and founder of the non-profit Preventative Medicine Research Institute. In another study, Ornish prescribed a group of prostate cancer patients a healthy lifestyle program (including moderate aerobic exercise, yoga or meditation, a weekly support group session, and a low-fat vegan diet). After a year, not only were markers indicating the presence of prostate cancer decreased, but the genes that promote heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and diabetes were “turned off.”
The research reveals promising health benefits by incorporating alternative practices into a treatment and prevention plan, in addition to regular doctor visits and traditional medicine. Here are some popular practices you may consider adding to your own health regimen to help boost immunity, reduce stress and fight disease.
The ancient Chinese practice of inserting very thin needles into your skin at certain points on your body to influence energy flow (or “chi”) is being used to help relieve dozens of ailments.
“The benefits of acupuncture in a hectic lifestyle are endless,” says Dr. Gabrielle Francis, naturopathic doctor, chiropractor, licensed acupuncturist and certified massage therapist. “I’ve used the technique to treat clients recovering from addiction, reducing cravings, lessening withdrawal symptoms, combating anxiety and depression, bolstering creativity, improving sleep, relieving pain, eliminating constipation, alleviating headaches, stopping smoking, and beating jet lag, fatigue, and insomnia.”
Plants are often recognized for their healing and therapeutic properties, and are a strong focus in homeopathic medicine.
“The commonly used herbs—I like to call them pantry herbs, because here in India they are very much a part of our daily diet—help improve a few of the very important physiological functions of the body: digestion, assimilation, absorption, and tissue regeneration,” says Dr. Niveditha Srinivasamurthy, Ayurveda Specialist and consultant at icliniq.
“Herbs lack the dry mouth, drowsiness, expense, and dependency that pharmaceuticals used for allergies [can cause],” says Melanie Angelis, MSCAM, owner of The Grecian Garden, a holistic care center. “We use them in our practice. We blend essential oils to clear nasal passageways for anesthesia, and make elderberry extracts for clients. We have several case reports about elderberry syrup coming to the rescue when nothing else would.”
Elderberry is a natural remedy used to prevent the flu, boost the immune system and treat sinus pain, back and leg pain (sciatica), nerve pain (neuralgia), and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). A study published in the Journal of International Medical Research confirmed that a small amount of elderberry extract relieved flu symptoms, on average, four days quicker than other types of medication.
Other herbs with links to health benefits include:
- Turmeric, promoting anti-inflammatory responses similar to pharmaceutical drugs.
- Ginger, which reduces nausea.
- Rosemary, which can help combat seasonal allergies including nasal congestion.
It’s important to note that certain herbal medicines are not always FDA tested or approved, so please consult a medical doctor before using.
The mind body connection is a strong focus for alternative therapies, and yoga and meditation are at the forefront.
“This form of therapy infuses asana (postures) with breath, visualization and guided meditation,” says Alexandra Pony, Certified Yoga Therapist and Instructor, Fermentation Expert, Nutrition Consultant, Thai Massage Practitioner and Reiki Master. “It’s a very powerful tool to help reduce stress, deal with emotional or physical blockages and move the body on [multiple] levels.”
Researchers from the Psychiatry Department of Islamic Azad University in Iran found that a two-month yoga regimen significantly reduced anxiety levels. The researchers explain that “yoga can be considered as a complementary therapy or an alternative method for medical therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders.”
Another study conducted by the Division of Yoga & Life Sciences at the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation in India revealed that practicing yoga is more effective than physical therapy at reducing pain, anxiety and depression, and improving spinal mobility.
Food not only provides the body with energy to function, but it supplies the nutrients required to build and regenerate body tissue, bone, muscle, fat and blood. And over the past decade there has been a growing interest in focusing on nutrition as a pathway to prevent disease, detoxify the body, and help ease negative symptoms caused by traditional medical treatments.
A great example of this is the growing popularity of fermented foods. “One of the simplest ways to decrease inflammation and harmful pathogens is by taking probiotic supplements and eating probiotic food – such as traditionally prepared sauerkraut,” says Angelis.
“Fermented foods have a myriad of health benefits. They have been a part of traditional cultures for millennia but they are becoming increasingly more popular,” adds Pony. “Fermented foods (like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, Kombucha) are rich in probiotics which help boost immunity and aid in digestion. Research is coming out about linking gut health and cognitive disorders (bipolar, depression, etc.). Seeing food as medicine is a great tool to take your health in your own hands.”
Massage therapy is more than just a spa day visit for some pampering. A study conducted by the William Harvey Research Institute in London and the Immunology Research Centre in Belgrade, Serbia found that the therapeutic effect of massage can boost the immune system and can be practiced alongside standard drug-based medical treatment.
Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine agreed that those who undergo massage therapy experience changes in their body’s immune and endocrine responses, including a decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase in lymphocytes, or cells that help the immune system defend the body from harmful substances. Massage therapy can also help lower blood pressure, not only during medical treatment, but up to 72 hours afterwards.
The Reiki practice is a hands-on approach similar to massage, but with a softer touch. According to the International Association of Reiki Professionals, the practice is a type of spiritual healing, or energy work, where practitioners apply a light touch or take a hands-off approach, holding their hands slightly above the body. The channeling of energy can result in stress reduction and relaxation, which helps create a healing environment in the body. It has become a popular tool in complementing traditional medical treatment.
Research conducted by Hartford Hospital in Connecticut indicated that Reiki improved patient sleep by 86 percent, reduced pain by 78 percent, reduced nausea by 80 percent, and reduced anxiety during pregnancy by 94 percent.
“Reiki is a wonderful adjunct to any traditional medicine,” says Pony. “It won’t negatively impact your health or medications in any way. It just gently moves energy through your body. It’s an effective relaxation technique, so it’s particularly wonderful for adrenal fatigue/exhaustion, stress and anxiety.”
Taking a more well-rounded approach to your overall health and wellness can bring significant benefits. If you’re interested in adding any of these homeopathic practices to your wellness routine, check with your primary care physician and review your employee benefits. You may find that your health benefits include coverage for some of these non-traditional treatments.
More information from Dr. Dean Ornish’s study on holistic practices can be found here.