I’ve always been passionate about good food, nutrition and how to help the whole person maintain or achieve wellness. Back in the mid-late ‘90s, I started studying “alternative medicine.” After reading many books (nope, not online but actual printed books!) I began teaching classes to nurses at the hospital where I worked as a clinical dietitian in the cardiac surgery unit. Increasingly, patients were taking unregulated supplements and some were showing signs of these self-prescribed remedies interfering with their medications or surgical procedures.
For the past 15 years I’ve worked as a Senior Nutritionist for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Harvard Teaching hospital, and was part of the start-up team for the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies. The Zakim center began with Lenny Zakim; the former president of the New England Anti-Defamation League’s quest to treat his cancer using the best of Eastern Medicine and Western Medicine, from practitioners who worked together and studied new approaches using peer reviewed science.
It’s not just semantics.
Let’s take a look at what Integrative Medicine actually means. There are major differences with the language used to describe this rapidly growing field. Integrative medicine is meant to look at the whole person as an approach for optimal care. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) began back in 1992 and was first called The Office of Unconventional Medicine. Not such a positive name! This center within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has evolved into the current NCCIH, with many variations in between. Prior to NCCIH, it was referred to as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
Complementary essentially means “alongside of” and Alternative means “instead of”. Neither truly represent the goal of integrating or weaving together the best of both worlds (traditional, time-tested eastern therapies with modern, peer-reviewed western medicine).
CAM or IT use has increased greatly over the years. The largest and most comprehensive survey of CAM use showed that 8.2 million Americans used acupuncture in their lifetime and 1.2 million had used it within the past year. Dietary supplement use is also high especially among adults with cancer or other chronic illness. While 50% of US adults report taking supplements, 64-81% of cancer survivors report its use, with up to 1/3 of them starting use after diagnosis. As many as 68% of physicians are unaware of their patient’s supplement use. It’s important to update your supplement list at each doctor’s visit when you update your medication list, as there are many potential contraindications or cautions.
Let’s take a closer look at examples of integrative therapies.
- Nutrition may include discussion around specific diets even vegan and plant-based diets can be considered IT vs mainstream by some. Much nutrition counseling for IT involves discussions about the benefits and possible risks of taking specific dietary supplements and vitamins/minerals as well as specific foods to include or avoid based on various health conditions or goals.
- Integrative Medicine Physician/Nurse Practitioner Consultations help provide a more medical-based viewpoint of IT and often practitioners assist in communicating wellness goals and therapies with “regular” doctors on your health care team.
- Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices. It aims to restore and maintain health through the stimulation of specific points on the body. There are many types of acupuncture and practices within this discipline and a great deal of evidence-based science demonstrating a variety of indications and benefits. The FDA regulates acupuncture needles and many states require licensure for practitioners.
- Reiki is an ancient Japanese energy-based therapeutic practice that involves light or no touch therapy to help promote stress reduction, relaxation and healing.
- Massage therapy is more than just going to a spa for a relaxing rub down. Massage therapists can be trained to treat persons with specific conditions like depression, cancer or lymphedema. Massage therapy involves many types of massage, including reflexology, which utilize therapeutic touch and its many benefits.
- Mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis are also referred to as mind-body therapies. Mindfulness practice in general, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness may help with many conditions and overall wellness, including eating disorders and weight management/obesity.
- Hypnosis therapy has been used in the operating room to reduce pain, fatigue, nausea, anxiety and even anesthesia use in certain procedures like breast core-needle biopsy.
- Music Therapy is used to help treat and manage symptoms related to mental health, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, pain and depression.
- Expressive Arts and Creative Arts Therapy is used internationally and combine visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing and other creative processes.
- Exercise Therapies like Qi Gong, Yoga and Tai Chi. These movement based integrative therapies may help to mitigate pathways of damaging inflammation in the body.
There are many benefits of integrative therapies, including:
- Reduced fatigue, pain and anxiety
- Aiding digestion and alleviating issues like nausea, constipation or bowel irregularities.
- Stress reduction
- Promoting sleep
- Helping low back pain, neuropathy and neck pain
- Relieving headaches and hot flashes
- Improving saliva production and treating dry mouth due to medical treatments like radiation therapy.
Reliable Resources to learn more:
General Health & Medicine:
Cancer Specific/Oncology Integrative Medicine
- Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies
- Society for Integrative Oncology
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Integrative Medicine
- The Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Integrative Medicine Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
In our increasingly global culture, it’s my sincere hope that as our communication and connection abilities expand so will our minds and openness to integrating all that world has to offer when it comes to truly caring for ourselves and others.