If you live in the United States, you're probably less healthy and won't live as long as people in other high-income countries, despite the fact that we spend more per capita on health care than any other nation. If that's not enough to get your attention, a report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine says that's true even if you have health insurance and enjoy economic security.
If you're young and healthy, it's easy enough to assume this isn't your problem, but part of that disparity is due to an increasing mortality rate for Americans under age 50.
It is often said that the U.S. has the best health care in the world and in some respects, that's true, but we're obviously doing something wrong. Unfortunately, many of us don't take personal responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. Got an ailment? There's probably a pill for that. We've come to expect too much from modern medicine and those expectations are coming back to haunt us. We cannot continue to neglect and abuse our bodies in the hope of a quick cure when things go wrong.
It's never too late to begin making healthier and more natural choices, but it's easier and more effective when you begin early. The trouble is, "natural health care" can mean a lot of things and many of us simply don't know where to start.
NATURAL HEALTH CARE: COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE (CAM) 101
Natural health care is a very broad term, but "It is a patient-centered philosophy designed to empower individuals. Natural health care generally does not involve surgical or pharmaceutical means to prevent or treat disease," says Dr. Calvin Kwan, naturopathic doctor (ND) and clinical resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
What Are Some of the Common Disciplines in Natural Health?
Naturopathic Medicine focuses on treating the whole person, preventing disease, and self-healing through natural therapies. Naturopathic doctors attend a four-year naturopathic medical school and are trained as primary care physicians. (Laws vary from state to state, and not all states license or register NDs.) In addition to medical sciences, NDs are also trained in nutrition, homeopathic and botanical medicine, and psychology. Some are also trained in acupuncture, midwifery, or Oriental medicine. NDs refer patients to conventional medical doctors, surgeons, and other specialists when necessary.
Ayurvedic Medicine, which originated in India, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, have each been evolving over thousands of years. These disciplines integrate a mind, body, and spirit philosophy.
Who Uses CAM?
About 38 percent of adults in the U.S. use some type of CAM, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The most frequently used are non-vitamin, non-mineral, natural products. Among CAM therapies growing in popularity are deep breathing exercises, meditation, massage, and yoga. Musculoskeletal problems like back, neck, or joint pain are the most cited reasons for using CAM.
SOUNDS GOOD, BUT WHERE DO I START?
Thinking of adopting a more natural approach to your own health care, but don't know where to begin? We asked Dr. Kwan to provide some basic information to get you on your way.
Modern Medicine or Natural Health Care: A False Choice
Can naturopathic care be used as primary care…and must you choose between naturopathic care and conventional medical care?
"People ask that all the time," says Kwan. "But it's not a black or white choice – it's gray – and I personally feel there is no right or wrong paradigm. It's a question of common sense. If you suffer a traumatic injury you should go to the ER; if you require surgery, you'll need a surgeon. A naturopathic doctor can do a fantastic job of behavior modification, supportive care, preventative care, and education. There's a time and a place for each approach.
"What is important is that medicine should not be symptom based, but patient centered. We need to focus on what's best for the patient."
What Types of Services Do Naturopathic Doctors Provide?
NDs provide primary care services, including the same screenings and labs provided by MDs, and they can prescribe some medications.
"The goal," Kwan says, "is to stimulate the body's ability to heal and remove obstacles to a cure. We do that through exercise and diet counseling, natural manipulation, botanicals, homeopathy, cognitive behavioral therapies, biofeedback, and holistic care. NDs are teachers. We talk to our patients and engage in active listening. We generally are able to spend more time with our patients than MDs. We teach our patients and use nature as it is intended to heal the body. If that doesn't work, we refer our patients out to MDs."
How Do I Choose an ND or Other Natural Health Practitioner?
"Think about what resonates with you and what you want in a primary care physician or specialist," suggests Kwan. "Do your research. Find reliable sources and websites for insight, ask friends, visit schools that teach it. Have in mind what you want and how you wish to be treated. Then make an appointment and see if you can establish a good rapport.
"The best thing you can do is to be more aware. Empower yourself. Perform your research and be an active participant in your own health. Don't do things just because someone tells you to."
Certified Reiki Master Claire Staffa suggests checking with reputable organizations, such as NCCAM. Reiki is a noninvasive Japanese technique of relaxation and stress reduction.
Despite what other people tell you, keep it all about you. "When it comes to wellness, one size does not fit all – sweeping generalized health recommendations out there may or may not work for everyone. Ayurveda is a system that offers health recommendations based on individual's unique mind-body constitution," says wellness speaker, author, and Ayurveda practitioner Rakesh Sethi.
Will My MD Work With My ND Or Other Natural Health Specialists?
Some will, some won't. That's a question you should ask your MD upfront.
"Many MDs are open to working conjunctively with NDs and patients. I often write treatment summaries for MDs and many are developing respect for the fact that we practice evidenced-based medicine. We refer patients to MDs and they are increasingly referring patients to us."
What About Health Insurance?
Check with your insurance carrier in advance. Some private insurers cover some services while others do not. Some practices, like Seattle's Bastyr Center for Natural Health, cater their services to the local community to offer affordable care, so it's worth your time to reach out to providers and get the specifics.
When thinking of your health care budget, think long term. Natural disease prevention and healthy lifestyle choices now will help to lower health care costs over a lifetime. You can't put a price tag on that.
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs!" She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites all around the web.
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