Alternative medicine: Back to the future


Mind-body concepts have not only re-emerged in the 21st century, they have also established themselves as much as they were set forth by our ancients — Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and Paracelsus — who suggested that health is a balance of the body, mind and spirit and that illness is as much caused by emotional factors as much as disease. Dr. Rajgopal Nidamboor gives us a lowdown on the broad domain of complementary and alternative therapies available to us, today.

When Bernie Siegel, MD, the renowned paediatric surgeon and best-selling author of Love, Medicine and Miracles, documented his medical experiences he underlined the fact that there was apparently a connection between the palpable, visible, audible human body and the mysterious forces and mechanisms interpreted as “mind.” Other eminent physicians who have reported that their findings support such a concept include Drs Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, C Norman Shealy, Larry Dossey, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Dean Ornish, Richard Firshein, and Mark Hyman.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which epitomises Siegel’s insightful synthesis, is a broad domain of healing resources. It includes all alternative health systems, modalities, practices and their accompanying theories.

The fundamental fulcrum of CAM is its approach to whole body healing, as also prevention and treatment of the underlying causes of diseases and conditions, while looking at the whole individual, as one unified whole, not just the parts of the whole, but the sum and substance of the whole. This is evidenced to significantly improve the individual’s — or, the patient’s — overall health and quality of life.

CAM therapies include ayurveda, homeopathy, naturopathy, osteopathy, herbal medicine, new-age healing, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, music therapy, among several others. What’s more, with the rising costs of prescription drugs, or medicine, and the increasing number of reports of the dangers and side – or after-effects associated with them, more and more people are now seeking alternative therapies. Most CAM therapies are considered to be safe and useful — especially in trained, professional hands.

The foundational principles of CAM

The principles of complementary therapy date back to 4,000 years. Picture this. In ancient India and China, it was accepted that wellness and illness were opposite forces, wherefrom wellness held illness in balance. Our ancient physicians, viz., Suśruta and Charaka, observed that achieving balance and harmony of the body, mind and spirit were as much related to good, optimal health — in other words, wellness — as also keeping illness at bay.

This is what CAM aims to achieve, while regulating homeostasis, or harmonious balance.

You have heard of the word, holistic therapy, right? By definition, holistic therapy is any treatment, or therapy session, intended to treat the individual as a whole at all levels — mind, body and spirit. Most complementary, or alternative, therapies bid fair to such a principle.

It may also be mentioned that when a given alternative medicine, or therapy, is used alone, or in place of conventional medicine, it is called “alternative.” When treatment, or therapy, is prescribed along with, or in addition to conventional medicine, it is referred to as “complementary medicine,” as the two practices complement each other.

There is yet another element. Alternative medicine, or therapy, is suggested to be outside of the area, or perimeter, of conventional (modern) medicine — albeit most of the practices are derided by conventional physicians as being unscientific, “snake oil” balderdash.

CAM therapies in a nutshell

Mind-Body/Spiritual: This relates to the emotional and psychological aspects of the individual, or patient’s health. Examples of mind-body or spiritual therapies include hypnosis, breathing techniques, dance, music, art therapy, yoga and meditation

Oriental Medicine: This category of medicine aims to accomplish natural balance by restoring the body’s natural energy flow, called prana, or chi (pronounced “chee”).

Acupuncture: stimulating certain pressure points with needles

Acupressure: massage technique of pressure points

Qi gong: a mind-body-spirit practice that integrates posture, movement and breathing techniques to improve one’s mental and physical health

Reiki (Universal Life Energy): involves the channelling of spiritual energy through the practitioner to help heal, or harmonise, the body.

Ayurveda: India’s ancient, or traditional, system of medicine, Ayurveda means “science of life.” Ayurveda emphasises on the body, mind, and spirit “connect” to help restore harmony in the individual, or patient. This includes special diets, exercise, meditation, herbs, massage, exposure to sunlight and controlled breathing, among others.

Homeopathy: This Western therapy is based on the idea that a patient may be treated by using small doses of a medicine that produces the same symptoms as the patient’s illness. Homeopathy uses extremely diluted extracts from herbs, minerals, animal substances, and so on, as potent remedies for illness, or disease.

Naturopathy: This is a natural approach to healing naturally through diets, herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, homeopathy, exercise, massage, spinal and soft tissue manipulation, acupuncture, hydrotherapy (use of water to promote healing), counselling, light therapy, and other techniques.

Aromatherapy: This therapy uses special scented oils to treat physical and emotional problems. The oils may be inhaled, or applied topically on the skin, sometimes in the form of massage. Types of oils used during aromatherapy include eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, and thyme, among others, aside from several exotic oils and fragrances.

Biological therapies. This form of therapy uses vitamins, minerals, botanicals, or herbal supplements, nutraceuticals (coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid), and phytonutrients (curcumin, resveratrol). This is often used in conjunction with conventional and CAM therapies.

Herbert Benson, MD, the pioneering mind-body physician, and author of the landmark book, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, summed it up aptly: “Alternative medicine is given serious due in light of the traditional practice of Western medicine.” He observed, “Writer Luigi Barzini suggests that Americans (for instance) are compelled to act because we believe ‘the main purpose of a man’s life is to solve problems.’ Despite the fact that the body is the grandest problem-solver there is, quietly and perpetually sustaining life, overcoming billions of obstacles without our conscious imperatives for it to do so, we don’t trust it. Instead we turn to our medicine cabinets. Our doctors’ first impulse is to prescribe something for us, and we fully expect to emerge from these visits with a prescription in hand. But, at the same time, record numbers of Americans (as also millions of people worldwide) are spending record numbers of their healthcare dollars on unconventional healers — chiropractors, acupuncturists, herbalists, and so on — who they trust will care more about them as individuals than as sums of parts. While some studies show that patients are generally happy with their own doctors, managed care, with its provider lists and required numbers of patients a doctor must see each day, makes this relationship between doctor and patient harder to preserve.”

Healing, a personal evolution

To paraphrase Rudolph Ballentine, MD, author of Radical Healing: Integrating the World’s Great Therapeutic Traditions to Create a New Transformative Medicine, the integration and interaction of Western and Eastern medicines make for an exciting path: ‘Radical Healing’ is built on these unifying concepts; they are the practical essence of a medicine that is simple and universal, rooted in the perennial principle of healing as personal evolution. Ballentine adds, “Each of the great healing traditions has arisen in its own culture to help resolve problems peculiar to that setting, so each — e.g., Ayurveda, homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), European and Native American herbology, nutrition, and psychotherapeutic bodywork — has its weaknesses as well as strengths. By integrating them, superimposing one upon another in layer after layer of complementary perspectives and techniques, we can arrive at an amalgam that is far more potent and thorough than any one of them taken alone.”

C Norman Shealy, MD, PhD, author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Natural Remedies, underlines yet another facet. He avers that the physician’s role is to be a ‘triage officer,’ one who quickly assesses the status of patients and what immediate treatment they need. Triage is usually associated with victims of accidents, war, or natural disaster and is geared to saving as many people as possible. A triage officer would stand at the door when a patient is significantly ill and advise when medicine, or surgery, is truly needed to save life, or function. As Eugene A Stead Jr, MD, Shealy’s professor of medicine, highlighted. “When life and function are not at risk, as in the vast majority of symptomatic illnesses, the patient should ‘go into the department stores and choose that which most appeals.” The “department store,” of course, was his analogy for all the alternative methods of healing that are now available to us.

Focus on the individual, not just the disease

The late author Norman Cousins, most renowned for his bestselling Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, and Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, and teacher at the UCLA School of Medicine and contributing essayist for The Power to Heal: Ancient Arts & Modern Medicine, put it so succinctly, “(Clearly), in our modern age, treatment for any disease requires the best that medical science has to offer; all the emotional determination in the world usually falls short without prompt and consistent medical intervention. But, just as clearly, treating physical illness without paying corresponding attention to emotional needs can have only a partial effect.” He also observed, “More than 2,000 years after the death of Hippocrates, we are coming back to the original Hippocratic ideal of the patient not as a passive vessel into which the physician pours therapeutic skills and medicaments, but as a sovereign human being capable of generating powerful responses to disease. These powerful responses won’t reverse every incidence of disease or illness; otherwise, we would live forever. But, by beginning to recognise these powers, we are enhancing vital elements of the recovery process,” while looking at the individual as one integrated whole, and not just parts of the whole.

Cousins, who was a high-profile American proponent of combining conventional and alternative medicine for years before his death in 1990, at age 78, was afflicted (in the early 1970s) with ankylosing spondylitis — a life-threatening degenerative spinal disease. When he was given a gloomy prognosis, he decided to take massive doses of vitamin C, in addition to his physician’s treatments, and introduced laughter as the best medicine of all. He deluged his days with Marx Brothers’ films, Candid Camera episodes, humorous books — anything and everything funny that elicited belly laughter for at least ten minutes at a time. After each laugh session, Cousins’ doctor tested his blood sedimentation rate — an indicator of the status of inflammation in the body — and, it was found that it dropped consistently, until 1976, when Cousins recovered from the disease. The first published account of Cousins’ experience appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and Cousins received an honorary degree in medicine from Yale University. Since then, laughter has actually been scientifically measured and shown to reduce stress and pain — this outcome, in essence, being initiated, or created, by changes in our hormonal and also immune systems.

This isn’t all. Just think of increased antibody production in the upper respiratory tract, amplified lymphocytes, or cells that fight tumours and viruses, lung “expansion” and also augmented heart rate “engineered” through a pleasurable exercise called laughing. This not only encourages people, but also makes it imperative for them to heed to the fundamental tenets of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as also the Holy Bible’s Proverbs 17:22: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

Rajgopal Nidamboor

Rajgopal Nidamboor, PhD, is a wellness physician, independent researcher and author. Website: