Perhaps it's an attempt by Gen-Xers to find divinity outside the realm of organized religion. Maybe it's the aging Baby Boomers grasping at the outer fringes of medicine, hoping to find a cure to their own mortality. Or it could be fin de siecle paranoia, looking for meaning at the millennium's end. Whatever the reason, in recent years alternative medicine--such as herbal remedies, reflexology, aromatherapy and massage--have skyrocketed in popularity. Now, instead of trekking to a health food store, believers in natural remedies can buy herbal cough drops and St. John's Wort supplements at any neighborhood grocery store. And although the availability of such natural "cures" has increased, some critics charge that alternative healing is just New Age snake oil.
My journey of wisdom began in late October in the sacred temple on the Scioto, Veteran's Memorial Hall. The Universal Light Expo, the largest gathering of New Age gurus in Ohio, was in full swing and the north hall looked like it had been attacked by gypsies. Booths selling jewlery, crystals and herbs formed a giant maze. Spiritual counselors swathed in colorful, important robes strutted though a crowd filled with curious onlookers and Tibetan Monks. The expo featured guidance in the form of psychics, animal spirit guides, tarot card readers, palm readers and aura photography. It also offered a large dose of alternative medicine, including reflexology, massage, herbal remedies, Reiki, ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy and feng shui.
After choking down a sample of pureed alge--said to improve memory--I played with several devices of torture sold as massage tools. But surely there's more to alternative medicine than slimy green liquid drinks and vibrators. I decided to investigate.
My first stop was to witness local veternarian Donn Griffith in action. Griffith incorporates acupuncture, herbal medicine and chiropractic in his treatment of animals. Griffith allowed me to observe his treatment of Randy, a 14-year-old Dalmatian. It was obvious Randy was elderly. He walked with a slight limp, moved stiffly and was a bit deaf.
Griffith explained that Randy suffered from arthritis in his hips and legs. He was lifted onto an examining table and as his owner held him steady, Griffith performed a chiropractic adjustment. He got Randy to relax and inserted acupuncture needles around a sore on Randy's leg, which Griffith said would increase the blood flow to the area and speed up the healing.
This is the true test, I thought. If Randy yelps or whimpers during the acupuncture, I'll know those who claim it's painless are lying. Randy, however, didn't make a sound. He calmly laid on the table, seemingly oblivious to the needles in his leg. In fact, he didn't even turn to look at his leg when the needles went in. For Randy, it seemed that acupuncture didn't hurt.
And while it was informative to watch alternative medicine in practice, even if it was practiced on an animal, this reporter underwent several alternative therapies to gain first-hand experience of their supposed benefits. I will admit I was skeptical. Anyone who has watched infomercials about amazing herbal weight-loss plans or all-natural, painless ways to remove every hair on a woman's body has to be. The claims are too fantastical, even too comical, to be believed. Yet, I began this assignment with an open mind. I wanted to be proven wrong. I wanted something in this experience to change the way I view alternative and traditional medicine.
To uncover the theraputic benefits of massage, I made an appointment with Jan Lindner, a licensed massage therapist in Grandview with 15 years of experience. Lindner descibed massage as "an oil change for the muscles," claiming that massage increases the blood flow to the muscles which gives the muscles more oxygen and flushes out metabolic waste. Lindner said she often treats elderly patients who experiance joint inflamation and athletes for muscle fatigue.
When I arrived, Lindner escorted me to the "massage room"; while she remained in the waiting room I undressed and got comfortable on the massage table. Lindner entered the room and turned on some relaxation music, the kind made by monks and certified to reduce stress levels. She then presented several scents of massage oil and asked me to pick my favorite (I chose a citrus-lavender blend). Starting with my arms and hands, Lindner vigorously rubbed my upper torso, concentrating on my shoulders, which often get tight when I'm stressed. As she worked, I hovered somewhere between consciousness and sleep.
When she was finished, the muscle fatigue I normally feel during a work day had disappeared. My shoulders felt relaxed and loose. Overall, my body felt better after the massage. I was beginning to feel that if all alternative therapies are like massage they have my stamp of approval.
My next adventure was at the Center on High, a house that has been converted into a alternative healing commune of sorts. The Center offers everything from aromatherapy to animal communication. I had come to see Tere Banks, a self-proclaimed aromatherapy expert.
Banks said she got her start in aromatherapy at a time when her life was in crisis. Her daughter gave her a few essential oils that were supposed to reduce stress; Banks liked them so much she invested in a book about aromatherapy and her interest continued from there. The basic principal of aromatherapy is simple: a pleasant smell can trigger good feelings that will help a person relax when stressed, Banks said. For example, if memories of Christmas are particularly happy for a person, essential oils that remind that person of the scents of Christmas could help them relax when inhaled. Banks however, seemed to be realistic about the scope of her treatment: "I don't profess I can cure anything and I don't believe I can treat anything," she said.
Bank's clients come to her for a variety of reasons, some hoping to soothe irritated sinuses with aromatherapy, others wanting a personalized scent created exclusively for them. She said her two biggest sellers are her headache oil and sinitus oil. In order to create the appropriate scent for her client's needs, Banks has them sniff a variety of scents before she begins blending.
After smelling what seemed like a endless array of oils--she keeps 200 on hand--I chose the earthy scent of patchouli (which a friend of mine calls "dirty hippie smell"), sandalwood, amber and neroli. Banks mixed the essential oils together and diluted them with a base oil, because the essential oils are too strong to use alone. Although I enjoy using the body oil as a mosturizer, and it's pleasant to smell, I have yet to experience the radical mood altering effects of aromatherapy.
After my visit with Banks, I waited in the Centers' community room until Cathy De Angelis, a hypnotherapist, arrived. De Angelis took me to her room and asked me to relax in a comfy recliner. She explained that she does stress reduction and past and present life regression hypnotherapy. (De Angelis only performed stress reduction hypnotherapy with me, so I didn't find out who I was 100 years ago.)
As we began the session, De Angelis played New Age music, this time lacking monks but bursting with cheesy flutes. She asked me to focus on my breathing and then, in a very soft hypnotist voice, proceeded to tell me to relax certain parts of my body. I concentrated on trying to relax and then became stressed because I couldn't. Then I wondered, "Hey, maybe I am hypnotized, but I just don't know it." Which was followed by, "If I'm wondering if I'm hypnotized, I'm probably not." My neurotic thoughts continued for several minutes, while I remained perfectly still and tried to listen to De Angelis' instructions. After a few minutes, my hands and body went numb with relaxation, but I still wasn't sure if it was due to hypnosis or just total inactivity. Admittedly, I did feel more relaxed after the session was over, but I'm not convinced I was hypnotized.
Modern medicine or New Age snake oil?
My next experiences were at Good Medicine, an alternative therapy clinic in Grandview, where I encountered deep tissue massage, reflexology, Reiki and Genesis sound therapy. The massage, performed by Wendy Adaska, a licensed massage therapist, was similar to my first massage, but Adaska also included deep tissue massage, a somewhat painful practice in which she pinched "trigger" points on my body to massage beyond the surface muscles. I experienced the same relaxed muscles and good feeling as I did following my first massage (perhaps even more so because my second massage lasted longer).
Jane Wilson, one of the founders of Good Medicine, led my next session. She performed Reiki and foot reflexology on me. Reflexology is the principal that there are "reflex" areas in the hands and feet that correspond with major organs and glands in the body. Practitioners believe that stimulating the reflex points can ease pain or ailments in the affected area of the body. Wilson used gentle pressure all over my foot as part of the therapy. While it certainly felt good, I am unsure how to tell if my organs have been "reflexed," but maybe I'm not supposed to know--I usually don't spend a lot of time worrying if my pancreas needs a tune up.
When Wilson performed Reiki, my objectivity flew out the window and the specter of skepticism returned. Reiki is a newfangled term for the old-fashioned "laying of hands." TV evangelists also use this practice, but they usually claim their healing powers come from God. The theory behind Reiki is that each person contains an energy field within their body that can become disturbed or out of balance due to stress or disease. A Reiki practitioner supposedly transfers energy from her body through her hands to the energy field of the person being treated. Sort of using the Force so to speak (but Star Wars, of course, is science fiction).
Reiki is in many ways more of a religion than medicine; perhaps those who strongly believe they can be cured by someone else's energy field could experience benefits, but I did not.
The last treatment I experienced was the Genesis sound machine. The machine itself is a very large bed supported by metal bars that give the appearance of a jungle gym. Speakers are placed on the structure around the bed, with large woofers directly underneath. Tina Shinn, who operates the Genesis, instructed me to lay on the bed and relax. The bed measured my biofeedback, the natural electric impulses a body generates. The computer read my biofeedback and created sounds to correspond with the readings. Apparently, my body naturally sounds like a horror movie.
After that disturbing revelation, Shinn turned off the biofeedback and pumped Paul Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints through the speakers. The woofers under the bed caused the entire machine to vibrate with the African drums in the music. I relaxed on the bed, enjoying the rich sound the multiple speakers produced. The Genesis treatment was by far my favorite off all the therapies I researched. Being able to simply relax and absorb great music made me feel better than any of the more invasive therapies I received.
Although I wanted to explore acupunture first hand, I decided that because I wasn't suffering from a particular ailment, becoming a human pin cushion for the sake of research was a bad idea. Luckily, Alive photocolumnist Dan Shellenbarger, also a self-described skeptic, went to an acupunturist for relief of his allergies and was willing to share his experience (see sidebar).
Through all of my alternative treatments, I kept one thing in mind: I'm not here seeking physical relief, I'm just here to research the therapy. But many people seek out alternative medicine to cure ailments modern science can't. Any use of these therapies to cure serious health problems is potentially stupid and dangerous. Even if some benefits can be reaped from alternative therapies, they aren't strong enough to discount the solid science behind traditional medicine.
Dr. Theresa Hom agrees. Hom has been a medical doctor since 1987, but also includes acupuncture and herbal remedies in her treatment of patients. "I think no one system has the answers to everyones problems," Hom explained. She said she views her use of acupuncture and herbal remedies as complementary--not alternative--medicine. She also remains skeptical of alternative cures that "claim to solve all of your problems."
Bill MacDonald, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, says a decline in organized religion and a rise in the elderly population has given the alternative medicine industry its biggest push. He claims that beginning in the early 1970s, belief in traditional religion plummeted in America and the dependence on prayer to cure what medical science couldn't shifted to a reliance on alternative medicine and healing. Instead of turning to a priest when a loved one was sick, Americans found themselves seeking out gurus of natural healing.
But, MacDonald feels that a willingness to explore therapies outside of traditional medicine has coincided with a market ripe for such products. "Proportionally, the elderly population is increasing and there had been an increase in age-related illnesses," he said. "There are more people looking for cures so there's a demand."
MacDonald also blames the media, whom he says noticed the alternative medicine trend, but "have not advanced any skepticism." He feels that the media have hastily embraced the miracle cures, but have taken the time to explore the scientific basis of the claims.
As for the consumer, beware of miracle cures, cautions Kurt Butler, a nutritionist who wrote A Consumers Guide to "Alternative Medicine." Butler attempts to de-bunk every type of alternative therapy in use, claiming many are misguided and potentially dangerous. Unfortunately, Butler presents little evidence to back his skepticism even as he criticizes practitioners of alternative medicine for the lack of evidence their cures work.
However, Butler's advice is solid. Before seeking the help of an alternative healer, consult a physician. Research therapies for their validity before spending money on them and investigate the potential dangers of natural and herbal drugs.
Despite the skepticism, the popularity of alternative medicine continues to rise. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on November 11 stating that "Extrapolations to the U.S. population suggest a 47.3 percent increase in total visits to alternative medicine practitioners, from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997, thereby exceeding total visits to all U.S. primary care physicians."
Disturbingly, there was not a significant increase in the number of alternative thearpy patients who report their treatments to their physicians, according to the study, which means many doctors prescribe medication that their patients unaware of the herbs or vitamins the patient takes that could lethally interact with their prescription. And Americans are paying more for their miracle cures. The report states that the total out-of-pocket expenses in 1997 for alternative therapies was around $12.2 billion, which exceeded the amount of out-of-pocket expenses for all U.S. hospitilizations.
The fact that the JAMA study was conducted at all says something for alternative medicine's dramatic rise in popularity--basically, the austere American Medical Association was forced to scientificly address the type of fringe practices it would probably rather ignore. Until those who object to the benefits of alternative therapies prevail in popular opinion, non-traditional medicine is here to stay. But that doesn't mean the critics won't continue to voice their opinions. As sociology professor MacDonald said, "I think most of it is pretty much bunk."