When we think of health care, we usually think of traditional medical care that involves the diagnosis and treatment of chronic illness, cancer, etc., which many people refer to as “Western medicine.”
In addition to the type of medical care we have all grown up with, there are several other approaches to health care that are known as “complementary” and “alternative.” Other areas of nontraditional health care include “integrative medicine” as well as “functional medicine.” So, what do all these terms mean and why should we think about using these types of health care?
In general, these are different approaches to health care with a history of use and origins outside of mainstream medicine; and although the term CAM uses the words complementary and alternative together and often interchangeably, these two words refer to somewhat different concepts of health care.
“Complementary” refers to using non-mainstream health care together with traditional or conventional medical care. The term “alternative” refers to using non-mainstream health care in place of traditional health care.
Another term we hear is “integrative medicine.” Think of the use of massage therapy or guided imagery. These are ways of treating a person using nontraditional means to help them heal. They integrate traditional medical care with alternative therapies. As an example, some cancer treatment centers use integrative health care programs which offer acupuncture or meditation to help manage symptoms and side effects of the cancer along with its traditional treatments (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, etc.).
It is interesting to see that “integrative health care” is happening now and is a growing trend among people who understand the benefits. For these individuals it is important to utilize any and all means of health care that will help them treat their illness or, in the case when a person does not have a defined illness, simply stay healthy. The National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) uses the term “complementary health approaches” when discussing natural products or, mind and body health care practices.
“Natural” products include herbs and botanicals, vitamins, minerals and probiotics which are often marketed as dietary supplements. Evidence shows that the value of these alternative products is significantly underestimated. When you look at the research and the scientific evidence for the use of botanicals (herbs and plants) for the treatment and prevention of illness and disease, the evidence is overwhelming. There are hundreds if not thousands of research reports that support the use of natural products for treatment and prevention. Examples include fish oil, echinacea, and mineral supplements. It is interesting to remember that penicillin comes from a fungus; and digoxin, a heart medication, comes from the foxglove plant. When we talk about using anti-oxidants to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, we need to understand that most of these come from plants.
NCCAM also includes “mind and body practices” as other forms of alternative health care. These include acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, osteopathic manipulation, chiropractic therapies, tai chi, yoga, hypnotherapy, to name a few. NCCAM is the government’s lead agency for scientific research on health care practices outside of mainstream medicine. Its mission is to define through scientific investigation the usefulness and safety of complementary health care approaches and to understand their roles in improving health. This scientific evidence will help people make informed decisions about their health care. More information about this organization can be found at nccam.nih.gov/about/ataglance.
Another area of complementary medicine is called “functional medicine,” which focuses on alternative treatments emphasizing the interaction between the environment and the gastrointestinal, endocrine and immune systems. Knowing the function of these systems within the body helps to understand the approach of functional medicine. The gastrointestinal (GI) system is the first line of defense the body has to bacteria, viruses, toxins, chemical, and other potentially harmful substances. Maintaining a healthy GI tract is necessary if we are going to be able to ward off these invaders. The endocrine system is the chemical system of the body which contains and controls the hundreds of hormones that keep us healthy. Knowing that there are so many environmental, health and life factors that affect our hormones is a no-brainer to understand why it is so important to keep this system healthy. The immune system allows us to fight infections and probably also helps us to deal with cancer cells and other illnesses.
Keeping the body functional should be one of the most important goals for health care. How do you do this? The answer to this is what I like to refer to as lifestyle management. This is a daily approach to life that allows you to maintain good health:
• a functional GI, endocrine and immune system;
• a sound and productive brain;
• a musculoskeletal system that allows you to move around and do all the physical things you want to do every day;
• a social and spiritual personality that brings you happiness and fulfillment and enables you to give back, pay it forward and to be grateful for all the blessings you have.
I can tell you from personal and professional experience that one of the most rewarding things you can do is to practice lifestyle management. I do this in my medical practice and in my personal life. It is so enjoyable to see a person take control of their health by taking control of their life. When they realize the power they have over their health, and all the benefits they get from keeping good health practices as the No. 1 priority in life, it is amazing to see what a person can accomplish and what a wonderful life they can enjoy!
Functional medicine is practiced by many physicians who find it important to not only treat a person’s illness but also to prevent illness, disease and disability. The American Board of Functional Medicine (ABFM) is an independent organization that certifies physicians who practice functional medicine.
I believe in and have practiced traditional medical care as a board certified internist for 20 years so I can attest to the significant benefits of this approach. With the addition of complementary health care products and services, we add another dimension to our health care and make available many other prevention and treatment approaches. Therefore, the recommendation would be to continue to rely on traditional medical/health care and add on complementary products, services and treatment approaches as necessary. This will enable you to take full advantage of all that is offered from Western and Eastern philosophies.
Dr. Salvatore Lacagnina is vice president of health and wellness for Lee Memorial Health System. Dr.Sal@Leememorial.org
This was first published July 17, 2014 by new-press.com and is republished here with the author’s permission.