Alternative medicine is complementary, not quackery

Non-Western health approaches are often unfairly stigmatized.

Jenna H. Beyer

Three years ago, Dr. Renee Wellhouse looked into my eyes and diagnosed me with a hormonal imbalance, a severe gluten intolerance and several other conditions. Sitting in an office chair A.C. Slater style, she squinted harder into my right iris, flashlight in hand, and heaved an ominous, disappointed sigh. âÄúDo you get skippy heartbeats?âÄù she asked. I answered yes. âÄúYou have a heart irregularity,âÄù she said. âÄúIt probably runs in your family.âÄù Dr. Renee, as they called her at The Wellhouse Center in Madison, Wis., was a medical doctor who began studying non-Western health approaches after five organ-removal surgeries failed to cure her of cancer. By integrating other health approaches into her regimen, she was able to heal herself and countless others after establishing her own private clinic. Dr. Renee used iridology, an ancient complementary alternative medicine technique linking colorations in the iris to specific organs or areas of the body that are overactive or distressed, to begin her consultation procedure. She fine-tuned her diagnoses after analyzing my blood, saliva and urine, and she put me on a specific regimen of cleanses designed to restore my kidney function and identify my food sensitivities. But when I asked for details about the heart irregularity, Dr. Renee said, âÄúThatâÄôs a cardiology question, and cardiology is not my field.âÄù I was disappointed to only get part of the story, but I respected her honesty and her refusal to make a judgment about a matter on which she was not an expert. Three days into my cleanse, caffeine withdrawal headaches departed, and I experienced a deep sense of calm. After three months I was thinner, more energetic and had a clearer presence of mind than IâÄôd ever known. Three years later, I still have the empowerment that comes with having done the hard work to truly know my physical self. Unfortunately, the experience I had at The Wellhouse Center doesnâÄôt match the perception many people have of alternative medicine. And, to be fair, it isnâÄôt the level of intuitive, precise health care provided to all who seek non-Western intervention, which I also know from personal experience. A student group at the University is trying to change that. The Integrative Health Education Action League (I-HEAL), connects medical students wanting to explore âÄúintegrative medicine,âÄù or a medicine that is not limited to what is typically taught in Western medical schools. Group officer and second-year medical student P.J. Lally said I-HEAL received several e-mails from people unhappy about a recent homeopathic workshop and the insinuation that the University supports any semblance of alternative medicine approaches. But Dr. Karen Lawson, M.D., director for the health coaching program in the University Center for Spirituality & Healing and advisor to I-HEAL, says âÄúthis is nothing new or radical,âÄù as the group has been around in some form and organizing workshops since the 1980s. Lawson says they get increasing support from the University community and the dean. The support is growing along with the American trend toward healthy and natural living. According to the National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine, CAM therapy among adults saw a 3.3 percent increase (to 38 percent total) between 2002 and 2007. If you practice vegetarianism or yoga, see a chiropractor or massage therapist, meditate or take Echinacea, this means you. But those who prescribe to CAM are often not viewed as legitimate healers by Western physicians, largely because it can be hard to prove the success of CAM therapies in a way that satisfies Western standards. According to Lawson, this is a double standard. âÄúDepending on what study you look at, one-half to one-third of conventional medical practices âÄî the drugs that are prescribed, the procedure âÄî are not proven by double-blind placebo control research that doctors require natural medicine be proven by.âÄù Perhaps the biggest problem with this debate is that CAM is intuitive; in her office that day, I told Dr. Renee IâÄôd suspected many of my ailments all along. âÄúYou have to trust your intuition,âÄù she said, and I knew that for her, this was a real mantra, not New Age riffraff. According to Lally, a fundamental difference between many CAM and Western approaches is the recognition of an immeasurable life force (read: not God, necessarily) that plays a crucial role in the healing process. He and Lawson suspect the hostility comes from fear of this âÄúunknown.âÄù Dr. Rick Olson practiced chiropractic and integrative medicine alongside Dr. Renee and now practices at the Inochi Center in West Bend, Wis. He says that to study homeopathy is to know that the rest of the world embraces it with open arms. He doesnâÄôt use the term âÄúalternative medicineâÄù because he feels it allows mainstream practitioners to unfairly marginalize other approaches. Olson says there is proof that homeopathy and other approaches work, in addition to testimonials by the thousands of people who have used them over the years, but itâÄôs usually ignored by those who wish to subvert non-Western medicine. Both Olson and Lawson assert that itâÄôs about giving the best care possible, not converting people. âÄúA true doctor does whatever he has to do to heal the patient,âÄù Olson says. âÄúAnd what made this country great is the availability of choices. The more choices we eliminate, the less freedom we have to do that.âÄù Jenna H. Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected]