The Tapestry of Healing

At first glance, mainstream and alternative medicine appear quite different from one another. Yet surprisingly, their various therapies have a good deal in common.

Take mainstream cardiology and Chinese medicine. On the surface, the two seem like polar opposites. They’re based on philosophies so different that practitioners of one often have no idea what practitioners of the other are talking about. In addition, cardiology is high-tech. It relies on sophisticated machinery (such as stress tests and echocardiagrams) and often involves surgery (angioplasty, coronary artery bypass, and heart transplants). By comparison, Chinese medicine is low-tech. It uses virtually no machinery (other than the occasional connection of acupuncture needles to low­power electrical stimulation devices) and resists surgery.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that cardiology and Chinese medicine have almost as many similarities as differences. Both therapies view heart problems in the context of the whole body. Both rely on professional practitioners who interview and examine patients, make diagnoses, prescribe treatments, and provide follow-up care. Both incorporate medicines derived from plants (though most American cardiologists prescribe pharmaceutical versions of plant compounds). Both advocate therapeutic dietary modifications (though cardiology has been doing so only for the last few decades). And both have had success in dealing with a variety of heart problems.

The point is that all healing arts, no matter how distinct they seem, are like the individual threads in fabric. Woven together, they create a tapestry of healing-and a seamless approach to health care.

The chapters ahead provide an overview of the many alternative therapies that make up the tapestry of healing. While they may espouse different philosophies and practices, they have been proven to work through research and observation. Blended together and used properly, they establish a continuum of care that’s the most direct route to optimum health.

The Health-Promoting Quartet

The tapestry of healing has four critical corners: sound nutrition, regular moderate exercise, stress management, and a feeling of connectedness to others and to the natural world. These factors constitute what Michael Lerner, Ph.D., refers to as the health-promoting quartet.

“If you eat well, get regular moderate exercise, and work on your psychological well­being by dealing with stress and embracing connections to the world beyond yourself, you become healthier,” explains Dr. Lerner, cofounder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, an organization based in Bolinas, California, that sponsors weeklong retreats for people with cancer. “Even if you have an illness, you’re healthier than other people with the same illness who don’t focus on these dimensions of well-being. In my experience, cancer patients who embrace the health-promoting quartet often enjoy better outcomes: better responses to treatment, better quality of life, and-in some cases­longer, disease-free survival.”

But the health-promoting quartet is not just for those who are already ill. “It’s also an elegant prescription for a long, healthy life,” says Alan P. Brauer, M.D.

Each component of the health-promoting quartet is fundamental to most alternative therapies. Each one has become well-incorporated into mainstream medicine over the past 25 years or so. And each one lends itself to home care through an array of therapies and practices, including the following:

  • Nutrition: Low-fat eating, vegetarianism, supplementation, and elimination diets
  • Exercise: walking, tai chi, qigong, and yoga.
  • Stress management: meditation, visualization, biofeedback, massage, and music therapy
  • Connectedness: relationships and support groups

You’ll learn more about each of these approaches-as well as practical ways to make them part of your self-care program-in chapters 3 through 15.

Herbs:- The Original Medicines

Medicinal herbs are central to the alternative therapies. Practitioners of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, India’s traditional healing system, often prescribe herbal formulas. Many of the microdose medicines used in homeopathy come from plants. In fact, it was experiments with cinchona bark-the first effective treatment for malaria-that laid the groundwork for the development of homeopathy. Plants also provide the basis for Western herbal medicine, a cross-cultural blend of age-old European, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Native American herbal traditions.

What many people don’t realize is that medicinal herbs are a key link between the alternative therapies and mainstream medicine. For much of the pharmaceutical industry’s 130-year history, researchers have focused on extracting medicinal constituents from plants and repackaging them as drugs. An estimated 25 percent of all pharmaceuticals still come from plant sources.

Chapter 16 presents Western herbal medicine as a separate entity-in part because it lends itself to home care, in part because the herbs it employs are widely available in health food stores, pharmacies, supplement centers, and even some supermarkets. The chapters on homeopathy, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and naturopathy also touch on medicinal herbs, because herbs figure prominently in these alternative healing systems.

Healing Systems: Different Perspectives on Health

Mainstream medicine is a healing system. It has a distinct philosophy that lays the groundwork for a particular approach to diagnosis and treatment. Its proponents say that it can treat an enormous range of illnesses. And it relies on professional practitioners who use standard examination procedures and treatment protocols.

Three alternative therapies-homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and Ayurvedameet these same criteria and so are considered healing systems. They’re discussed in part 2, along with other alternative therapies that are close to being healing systems: naturopathy, which is fast becoming an umbrella term for an amalgam of alternative therapies; and the manipulation therapies (chiropractic, osteopathy, and some schools of bodywork), which focus on musculoskeletal problems but may also have value for other conditions.

Making the Best Choice

Chapter 24 asks the question “Which therapy works best for what?” As you’ll see, the answer has a lot to do with your own circumstances, preferences, and experience. But I’ll offer some advice for blending main­stream and alternative remedies-some of which require professional intervention, but many of which you can use at home.

In fact, home care is always an important component of healing, no matter what therapy you’re using. For an enormous number of minor ailments (such as colds, constipation, and headaches), the do-it-your­self approach can be just as effective as a physician-administered treatment. And often home remedies are cheaper, more convenient, and more empowering.

Of course, more serious health problems (such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) require a doctor’s attention. But even in these cases, home care has its place.