Integrative medicine gains foothold, providing hope for chronic disease
So much of modern medicine comes down to a pill for an ill—treating disease by using drugs, surgery or other interventions. But more people are starting to look beyond that, finding alternative treatments to either replace or complement conventional treatment.
Integrative medicine or functional medicine doctors spend more time listening to patients, investigating their detailed health history, as well as lifestyle and environmental factors that may affect health.
It’s easier than ever to find these practitioners, as integrative practices are increasingly included as part of large academic health centers, such as the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University (formerly known as Northwestern Integrative Medicine), which is associated with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and the Integrative Medicine Program at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
These integrative practices blend conventional medicine with other therapies like Chinese medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic services, herbs, homeopathy, body work, energy medicine, nutrition counseling, relaxation therapy, psychology, Tai Chi, yoga and meditation.
Many patients come searching for a deeper doctor/patient relationship to help them address problems that have long plagued them such as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome or mood disorders, says Melinda Ring, MD, medical director of the Osher Center and assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
“Sometimes they come because they have a chronic issue that hasn’t been helped enough through what conventional medicine has to offer,” Ring says. “Conventional medicine is more disease oriented. You go to your doctor; they try to make a diagnosis, and then they give you a treatment, which is usually a medication or some kind of intervention. In contrast, with an integrative approach, we dig a little deeper to look for underlying conditions that influence what’s happening, for example trying to uncover inflammation, immune disturbances or nutrient deficiencies.”
“Patients end up with a better quality of life: feeling more vibrant, getting restful sleep, being able to achieve the weight loss that they’ve been struggling with for a long time, or recognizing a mind/body connection and how stress impacts health,” she says.
As part of a hospital health system, the integrative centers coordinate care and share health records with specialists such as oncologists or cardiologists. They also emphasize research and evidence-based therapies, says Leslie Mendoza Temple, MD, medical director, Integrative Medicine Program at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
Integrative medicine is no longer on the fringes. Fifty-eight centers in the United States—including Northwestern and NorthShore, plus five more in Mexico and Canada—are part of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine (imconsortium.org). There are now medical fellowships in integrative medicine, so physicians can be fellowship trained. And beginning this year, physicians can become board certified in integrative medicine.
“I feel like my tool box is a lot more expanded than it used to be when I just knew about allopathic Western medicine,” Mendoza Temple says. “With that expanded tool box I have more things to advise patients to try. I don’t feel stuck just giving medications or doing a procedure or vaguely telling people to exercise and reduce their stress.
“For instance, if a patient cannot tolerate statins, I may put them on red yeast rice, tell them to cut out refined carbs from their diet, take some fish oil, get their vitamin D levels up, get them on an exercise program that they actually feel like they can do and check their cholesterol in three or four months.”
For patient Connie Donnelly, Mendoza Temple recommended acupuncture to accompany chemotherapy treatments for Donnelly’s non-Hodgkin’s follicular lymphoma.
“It made such a difference in the way the chemo made you feel,” Donnelly says. “You’d go in there feeling ragged and tired but wired. And after having this acupuncture for 45 minutes, you’d come out of it feeling like a human and in balance, like things weren’t as out of whack as they were. It made you feel pulled together enough so you could go on and face whatever else was going on.”
And when Donnelly’s lymphoma kept growing back, Mendoza Temple advised a medicinal mushroom extract to promote a healthier immune system. “That was over two years ago, and my lymphoma is stable, and since the addition of the essential oils, [it] even seems to be shrinking,” Donnelly says.
Having alternate approaches helped round out her care, says Donnelly. “Including alternative and supportive care, in addition to traditional care, made me feel like someone was watching out for all of me—mind, body and spirit.”