Good Alternatives: The Benefits of Nontraditional Medicine
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Good Alternatives: The Benefits of Nontraditional Medicine

Gold-standard clinical research shows that some nontraditional medical treatments and supplements really are safe and effective.

Magnets relieve pain! Acupuncture boosts fertility! Ginkgo improves memory! Or not. With so many claims out there, it's tough to know what to believe. That's why we decided to get the facts for you. While many nontraditional treatments haven't exactly lived up to their hype, a number of therapies have proved effective in clinical trials, says Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, associate professor of complementary and alternative medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Some experts object to describing them as alternative but prefer the term integrative, "because we use them to complement, not replace, traditional Western treatments," says Kara Kelly, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Columbia University Medical Center. Three techniques take center stage here as solid treatments -- along with some well-studied supplements you may want to discuss with your doctor.


Needle-phobes, fear not. Even though this millennia-old Chinese therapy involves needles, they're tiny (in fact, teensy), and many people can barely feel them penetrating their skin. "Most patients say acupuncture is relaxing," points out Dr. Fugh-Berman. Why needles? Chinese doctors believed that illnesses were caused by blockages in the body's energy, or qi, and that they could unblock the flow by stimulating specific points in the body. Doctors today know acupuncture stimulates nerve fibers, prompting the brain to release endorphins and enkephalins, opiate-like chemicals that contribute to pain relief, among other things. "Like medication, acupuncture prompts real physiological changes," says Jun Mao, MD, an acupuncturist and instructor in the department of family practice and community medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "Neuroimaging studies show that it alters the part of the brain that senses pain." It can also stimulate the release of the feel-good chemical serotonin.

What we know for sure:

- It can relieve pain. Several clinical studies have proved that acupuncture can help relieve different types of pain. For instance, when researchers funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine studied people with osteoarthritis of the knee, they observed that those who received acupuncture had a 40 percent decrease in pain and nearly a 40 percent improvement in function. The approach has also received the thumbs-up for treating chronic low-back pain and headaches. The best part? Unlike pain meds, acupuncture has no side effects.

- It can reduce nausea and vomiting. No one knows exactly how, but since nausea is triggered by the part of the nervous system that controls involuntary functions and vomiting is controlled by the brain, it presumably interferes with those pathways. Whether you're feeling queasy owing to anesthesia, pregnancy, or chemotherapy, acupuncture can help. In fact, a 2008 review of 40 clinical trials concluded that acupuncture worked as well as commonly used anti-nausea medications.

- It can boost pregnancy and delivery rates. A 2008 review of seven studies found that acupuncture can improve pregnancy and birth rates in women undergoing in vitro fertilization. In the studies, acupuncture was used within one day of embryo transfer.

Promising new research:

With more than 250 recent clinical trials on acupuncture listed in the U.S. government's database, researchers are continuing to zero in on more and more ways you can use this holistic approach to stay healthy. Just this year, studies revealed acupuncture may help relieve menstrual cramps, reduce symptoms in people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, treat depression during pregnancy, ease hot flashes during menopause, and aid in post-stroke rehab.

It worked for me:

"When I was 42, I wanted to get pregnant but was told by five IVF clinics that they wouldn't accept me because of my age. One doctor told me I had only a 1 percent chance of conceiving. It was devastating, but I didn't want to give up. So I did some research and found an IVF specialist in New York City who supports Chinese medicine to enhance fertility. He told me he couldn't promise anything, but he thought he could help. He prescribed Chinese herbal tonics that I drank three times a day. And I had acupuncture every week. It was amazing -- it really helped me relax. On my second round of IVF, in July 2008, I conceived. My pregnancy was healthy, and now I have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter."

-Maggie Raker, 46, Long Meadow, Massachusetts


Hippocrates called medicine "the art of rubbing," and research today shows that massage can indeed be therapeutic. Any type of massage may cause heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones to decline, responses that have many documented positive effects on the body. "Moderate but not intense pressure most effectively stimulates the body's pressure receptors. Those, in turn, send signals to the body to relax," says developmental psychologist Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the University of Miami School of Medicine's Touch Research Institute. And 20 minutes is all it takes to produce the healthy benefits.

What we know for sure:

- It relieves stress. Seems obvious, but science proves it. And since stress is linked to illnesses as diverse as depression and diabetes, reducing it is one of the healthiest things you can do, says Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He and his colleagues recently reported that massage helped relieve anxiety, tension, and pain in patients recovering from heart surgery. Previous studies in stressed-out nurses as well as breast-cancer patients, chronic headache sufferers, cancer patients undergoing radiation, and athletes reached similar conclusions.

- It can relieve aches and pains. Researchers reviewed 13 studies on low-back pain in 2008 and concluded that massage may be beneficial, especially when combined with exercise and education about how to treat the condition. In addition, a study of more than 300 people with advanced cancer found that massage helped relieve pain and improve mood, and researchers from the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle found that it may help relieve neck pain, at least in the short term. Massage also can minimize post-exercise muscle soreness.

- It can speed weight gain in low birth weight babies. Dr. Field and her colleagues recently published a review of the scientific literature and found that underweight babies who receive 10- to 15-minute sessions of massage several times a day gain 47 percent more weight on average than those who don't get massage. And Brazilian researchers reported that underweight infants who had been massaged showed significantly higher mental development scores at age 2 than other low birth weight babies.

Promising new research:

Massage may help relieve labor pain, fibromyalgia symptoms, and depression, says recent research, but more studies are needed to confirm the effects. Several studies are under way or have been recently completed, so more information should be available in the next year or so.

It worked for me:

"I had ongoing jaw and neck pain from a car accident seven years ago. I tried physical therapy, rolfing, you name it, but nothing helped that much. Then in October last year I began seeing a massage therapist. I can't lie face-down because of the pain, so she had me lie on my side. I saw her once a week for six months, and I still go as often as I can. She massages me from the waist up but concentrates on my jaw and neck. Before I started seeing her, my daily pain level was a 5 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Now it's maybe a 3. I'll always have some pain, but it's so much more manageable now. The change in my life has been dramatic."

-Paula Schenk, 45, Parker, Colorado


Using sensors or electrodes hooked up to monitors, biofeedback lets patients "see" their physiological responses to things like stress or pain. They can then learn to adjust and control their bodily processes, such as heart rate or blood pressure, to get the desired result (such as lower blood pressure). "If you learn to recognize the sensations of relaxation, for example, you can learn to stay in a more relaxed state," explains Daniel Hoch, MD, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

What we know for sure:

- It can relieve headaches and other pain. A review of 55 studies looking at biofeedback for migraines concluded it was effective. "We found that 70 percent of people achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in the frequency of their migraines. The effects last for at least a year after treatment has stopped," says Deborah Stokes, PhD, owner of the Better Brain Center in Alexandria, Virginia. She has studied the effects of neurofeedback (which focuses on brain waves) on headaches.

- It can treat urinary incontinence. Patients focus on contracting the muscles that control flow and have about a 70 percent improvement in symptoms on average. Research shows it's as effective or more effective than pelvic floor exercises, pelvic floor stimulation, vaginal cones, and medication.

- It can relieve anxiety and stress. Several well-controlled, randomized studies have shown that biofeedback is as helpful for reducing anxiety as progressive relaxation or meditation, because it elicits the relaxation response.

- It can reduce blood pressure. Biofeedback can help patients learn to lower their blood pressure, although it doesn't work for everyone every time.

Promising new research:

Biofeedback and its cousin neurofeedback, which focuses more on the brain while teaching patients to relax or respond to certain situations, may help control ADHD, improve sleep, and even help epileptics control seizures. "The idea is that if they spend some time every week trying to learn to generate certain frequencies of brain waves, they can reduce the likelihood of having a seizure," says Dr. Hoch.

It worked for me:

"I've battled anxiety and terrible insomnia for years and have tried therapy and medications to cure it. But nothing helped me that much. I typically wouldn't get more than three to four hours of sleep a night for days, then I'd get so tired I'd sleep for 12 hours straight. Sleeping pills didn't work, so when a friend recommended neurofeedback, I thought, 'Why not give it a try?' I started it in April this year, and after the seventh session I slept through the night. I've been getting seven or eight hours of sleep fairly regularly since then. Neurofeedback trained me to put my mind in a relaxed state. Now my anxiety level is lower than it's been in years, too."

-LeAnne Kline, 37, Venice, California


The Newest "It" Supplements


Who knew? The stuff that makes ball-park mustard yellow is an anti-inflammatory, and many alternative practitioners now prescribe it for pain relief. "I use it for arthritis patients," says David Leopold, MD, a pain expert at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, in San Diego. He recommends 1,000 mg once or twice a day.


Rhodiola is an herb grown in cold climates that looks promising for treating depression and fatigue. "It's been used for years in Scandinavia, but now a number of clinical trials show its efficacy," says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, fellowship director at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Recommended dose: 150 mg once or twice a day.

Algal DHA

This omega-3 fatty acid comes from algae as opposed to fish, so it's less likely to contain ocean pollutants or toxins. It was recently shown to improve memory in healthy people over 55. "About 50 percent of our brains are made of fat," says Michael F. Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and coauthor of the You books. "DHA is an integral component of cell membranes and the major omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain, so it's essential for optimal brain function." Try 600 to 900 mg a day.

Three Supplement All-Stars

1. Fish oil

"It's a superstar, especially when it comes to heart health," says Kevin Barrows, MD, interim director of clinical programs at the University of California in San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. "Fish oil has much cumulative research showing it works just as well as cardiac medicines." Take 1 to 3 g a day to get cardiac benefits, says Dr. Barrows. It may also reduce the risk of depression and help kids with ADHD.

2. Saint-John's-wort

More than 20 clinical trials show that this herbal remedy treats mild to moderate depression. For some it works as well as prescription medications, says Dr. Barrows. The typical dosage is 300 mg three times a day, says Gail Mahady, PhD, associate professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Talk to your doctor before taking it, and for severe depression, it's best to stick with prescription meds.

3. Vitamin D

It's essential for bone health and may be crucial for cancer prevention. It could also protect against multiple sclerosis and possibly even the flu. "Many women have D levels that are too low," says Dr. Low Dog. Have your doctor do a blood test to measure yours. If you're below 32, take a supplement. Up to 2,000 IUs per day is considered safe for most people and is the level cancer researchers are recommending for protective effects.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2010/January 2011.