Alternative medicine isn’t so alternative. Here, five once far-out remedies top docs are using.
Last year, I had a few months of odd symptoms—heart palpitations, insomnia, and a feeling of being over-amped, followed by intense fatigue. Finally, after some blood tests, my gynecologist whipped out her prescription pad and scribbled… the name of an ancient herb. Two things about this were strange. First, the herb, ashwagandha, seemed to help. Second, my mainstream doctor in suburban Florida recommended an herb?
But my physician is not the only one dabbling outside the boundaries of conventional medicine. While many doctors remain skeptical, a recent Harvard study found that physicians had pointed more than 6 million Americans to a mind-body remedy in the previous year. And the American Hospital Association says more than a third of the nation’s hospitals offer integrative medicine.
We wanted to know why. So we went to top-of-the-line MDs who have given a few choice remedies the ultimate seal of approval: They use them on their own patients. We asked these highly credentialed docs, what do they use and why?
1. Guided Imagery to Speed Recovery From Surgery
Gulshan K. Sethi, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at the Arizona Health Science Center and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine
Why I use it: “Whenever I saw [integrative medicine guru] Andrew Weil in the hall at my hospital, I never paid him any attention because I dismissed his ideas as unscientific. But when my wife developed a serious autoimmune skin problem—it was like she had second-degree burns all over her body—it was Dr. Weil’s prescription of plant and herbal remedies, biofeedback, and hypnosis that cured her. Once I started looking into mind-body medicine, I became intrigued by guided imagery, in which recorded suggestions or a script help you visualize something good, like your immune cells attacking a tumor.
Well-done studies show how powerful it can be for patients about to undergo procedures like the heart operations I perform. That’s because imagining yourself recovered has physical effects, including lowering your heart rate and speeding healing. Not all my patients agree to do it, but most take my suggestion seriously—I suspect because it comes from such an unexpected source. I used guided imagery myself recently when my knee was replaced, which I believe contributed to my being able to take a short walk just hours after the operation.”
How strong is the evidence? There have been only a few solid studies, but results were promising: Guided imagery cut the need for pain medication in surgical patients and allowed them to leave the hospital earlier.
Also might help: conditions worsened by stress, such as asthma or migraine.
2. Acupuncture to Treat Pain
Lonnie Zeltzer, MD, director of the pediatric pain program at the Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Why I use it: “People with chronic pain often experience a ‘snowball effect’—the longer the pain goes on, the harder it gets to treat. Acupuncture is one of several methods I use. We don’t know exactly how it works, but it has been found to increase levels of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, and it may also deactivate parts of the brain involved with pain perception. In a small study we did, kids who had been absolutely miserable with intractable pain felt better and slept more easily after six weekly treatments. I recommend acupuncture for most pain patients, unless they’re hypersensitive to needles.”
How strong is the evidence? Research has been mixed. The Institute of Medicine said that “sham” acupuncture (in which a person is needled at non-acupuncture spots) worked as well as real acupuncture in some studies—but that both appear to reduce pain.
Also might help: symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And it may increase the chances a woman will get pregnant after in vitro fertilization.
3. Yoga for Depression and Anxiety
Patricia Gerbarg, MD, psychoanalyst and assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College
Why I use it: “I got interested in complementary medicine when medical treatments failed to restore my health after severe Lyme disease. Lyme affected my memory, joints, and energy, and the medicinal herb I got from my husband—an associate professor in psychiatry at Columbia University and an expert in herbs from around the world—helped me recover. Then we heard a lecture about using yoga for depression and decided to do some research. We found that yoga breathing practices, in particular, seem effective for people who are moderately or even seriously depressed. Just inhaling and exhaling in equal measure at roughly five breaths per minute is good. We think changing the breath sends signals up the vagus nerve, telling the brain that the body is relaxed, so the brain can relax too. It quiets the fight-or-flight responses and also boosts nervous system activity put on hold when you’re very stressed: the rest-and-digest responses. There’s no drug that can do that.
“I still prescribe medication for patients who need it. But I’ve seen people with depression, anxiety, and even PTSD, who hadn’t responded to drugs or psychotherapy, improve after practicing this kind of breathing for 20 minutes twice a day.”
How strong is the evidence? Imaging tests show that yoga affects brain activity. Studies of yoga’s effect on mood are small, but one was especially tantalizing: When survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia learned a version of yoga breathing, they had a 90 percent drop in depression scores, compared with no significant improvement in other survivors in the refugee camps.
Also might help: insomnia, high blood pressure, asthma, back pain.
4. Hypnosis to Calm Irritable Bowel Syndrome
David Spiegel, MD, psychiatrist and professor at Stanford Medical School
Why I use it: “My father, who was also a psychiatrist, was a pioneer in hypnosis, so I was curious enough to take a course in medical school. Then, while I was still a student, I hypnotized an asthmatic teenager gasping for breath, who within minutes was able to breathe almost normally. That brought about a three-day debate within the hospital administration about whether I’d done something dangerous! But I realized how potent this practice is.
By now I’ve hypnotized some 9,000 patients, for everything from phobias (where half are cured or greatly improved after just one session) to irritable bowel syndrome [IBS]. Research shows that hypnosis not only reduces the pain of IBS but also lessens diarrhea and bloating. Hypnosis is so much safer than the drugs we use for so many conditions that I believe it should be widely prescribed, although it won’t work in the 20 to 30 percent of people who aren’t hypnotizable.”
How strong is the evidence? It’s clear that hypnosis, like yoga, activates certain parts of the brain while deactivating others. Studies of the therapy for specific conditions have been too small for firm conclusions.
Also might help: phobias, weight loss, hot flashes.
5. Supplements to Help Cancer Patients
Gary E. Deng, MD, internist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City
Why I use it: “I grew up in China, where it’s taken for granted that you’ll use herbs and teas as medicine. But my medical education was Western based, and I firmly believe supplements have to be studied with rigorous science. When patients ask me whether supplements might help, I tell them that in most cases, we don’t have definitive evidence, and some supplements can even be harmful.
Still, the research on a few is intriguing enough that a patient can consider them, under a doctor’s supervision. For instance, sometimes chemotherapy causes a lot of nerve damage. The pain, tingling, and numbness can get so severe that the chemo has to be stopped. But some research suggests a supplement called alpha lipoic acid [ALA] may help. For patients with digestive-tract cancer, an extract from a certain mushroom, Coriolus versicolor, seems to make the chemotherapy drugs more effective. And there’s some evidence that vitamin D or green tea extract may lower the risk of developing cancer.”
How strong is the evidence? Support for ALA and C. versicolor extracts is stronger than for many supplements. There are many hints—but no proof—that vitamin D and green tea may lower the risk of some cancers.
Also might help: ALA reduces the pain from nerve damage caused by diabetes; a green tea ointment is FDA-approved for genital warts; vitamin D may help ease chronic pain.
More: Health Care Everyday Wellness Cancer Digestive Health Stress Reduction