Natural healing practices: a primer

By Erin Covey-Smith

INTERESTED IN TRYING an alternative therapy to enhance your well-being or to help treat a particular ailment? It can be confusing to navigate all the different options, so here is an overview of some of the most common natural healing practices. Some of these require or offer a professional degree similar to the education and licensing an MD must acquire, whereas other practices require a certificate-level training and are often used to complement an alternative practitioner’s offerings. Though each of these practices uses different methodologies and originates from different parts of the world, they all look at a patient’s health through the same lens, emphasizing a holistic approach that uncovers and treats underlying causes rather than a set of symptoms.

If a certain practice resonates with you, we recommend reaching out to a practitioner in your area to learn more and ask any questions you may have (many offer free initial consultations). The link at the end of each description is another good place to start. Read on, and be well.

Acupuncture is a branch of Chinese medicine first practiced over 2500 years ago and today widely used across Asia and much of the rest of the world. In China especially, acupuncture is integrated into the mainstream healthcare system, and it is now even used in certain hospitals in the US, primarily to help post-operative patients with their pain. It involves the stimulation of specific points—often, but not always, using thin needles inserted in the surface of the skin—to regulate the systems of the body and alleviate pain. The increasing scientific evidence as to its effectiveness has contributed to acupuncture’s rise in Western countries, and some health insurance plans now cover acupuncture as a treatment for particular conditions. It may be used to relieve a wide variety of conditions, from stress and anxiety-related issues to muscle and joint pain to digestive disorders.

Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic health systems, originating in India over 5000 years ago. It is based on the five elements of nature—air, space, fire, water and earth—and the belief that all people reflect nature and therefore contain the characteristics of these five elements in varying proportions. Certain elements dominate in each person, and this determines their dosha of origin—characteristic tendencies or energies most natural to an individual. The Vata dosha reflects tendencies characterized by air and ether, like a light physical build and a changeful, easily inspired nature; the Pitta dosha is characterized by fire and water, including traits like a warm body temperature and strong leadership skills; and the Kapha dosha is characterized by water and earth, with traits like calmness and a tendency to be solid and muscular. An Ayurvedic practitioner thoroughly evaluates a patient, accounting for both physical and emotional states as well as diet and lifestyle. The practitioner can then determine imbalances in the elements at work in the patient’s constitution; attempt to find the root cause of the imbalances; and help to bring the patient back into alignment through diet, lifestyle, herbs and yoga.

Chiropractic care is rooted in neurology and is guided by the principle of the body’s “innate intelligence” and ability to heal itself. Through adjustments to the alignment of a patient’s vertebrae (and sometimes other joints), chiropractors detect and correct interference with the nervous system and the natural processes that promote healing. Although it is best known for treating back and neck pain, chiropractic care also often focuses on helping allergies and other respiratory issues, joint pain and Fibromyalgia, and even ADHD. Chiropractic care is another modality that may be covered by insurance in particular instances.

Herbalism is the use of plants to promote healing within the body. Herbalists create individualized remedies made out of one or several herbs, most often in the form of teas or tinctures. Every herb has specific healing properties that cater to the unique makeup and symptoms of each client. Many practitioners specialize in herbalism but there are many other practitioners that useherbal medicine in conjunction with acupuncture, midwifery, naturopathy, western medicine and other healing modalities. Herbalists may have backgrounds in many different herbal medicine traditions, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Western Herbalism and Native American Medicine. Herbal medicine may be used to assist with a number of symptoms and can be used preventively, to ease symptoms and to support overall well-being.

Homeopathy, developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century, operates on two theories: that “like cures like” and that the lower the dose of medication, the greater its effectiveness. “Like cures like” is the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people. Symptoms are thought of as evidence that a healthy balance has been thrown off and that the body’s systems are doing the best they can to restore it. Homeopathic remedies are individually created for each patient’s particular constitution to help support the restoration of balance. They are naturally derived from plants, minerals, or animals. These remedies are often formulated as dissolvable sugar pellets; they may also come in other forms like ointments, gels, drops, creams and tablets. Because treatments are unique to each person and symptoms are only the surface of “dis-ease” in the body, it is common for different people with the same condition to receive different treatments.

Naturopathy is a broad-ranging practice that incorporates many of the philosophies and treatments listed in these other descriptions. The foundations of naturopathic medicine are treating the whole person, supporting the body’s natural healing systems and education around diet and lifestyle, among others. The goal is to help a person self-heal and come into a more complete state of health. Some naturopathic doctors have general practices, while others specialize in one or two areas of naturopathic medicine. Though they practice in different ways, common treatment tools include clinical nutrition, supplemental nutrients, botanical medicine, homeopathy and health counseling. Naturopaths often use technology such as medical imaging, blood work and other lab tests to diagnose health problems. They are also able to prescribe some conventional medications, such as antibiotics and hormones, when they are necessary or indicated, although they prefer to use other methods that support the body’s resources and have fewer side effects.

Reflexology is a form of stress management and wellness maintenance. The Maine Council of Reflexologists points out that the American Medical Association cites stress as the cause of 85% of all illness, so it can still be an important aspect of healthcare. According to reflexology, the hands, feet and ears each contain a “map” of the whole body. By applying specific pressures to these areas, reflexologists help relieve nerve tension and release endorphins in the body. Reflexology may be used to improve circulation, reduce stress and induce relaxation.

Reiki Energy Therapy is a modern-day technique with roots in ancient healing practices and rediscovered by Mikao Usui of Japan in the late 1800s. It is based on a system of energy centers throughout the body and focuses on realigning these centers to create a sense of balance and well-being. Reiki practitioners use their hands and a gentle touch to channel universal energy to and through the patient. Reiki energy therapy may be used to help relieve stress, pain and tension, support recovery from illness or injury, and improve mental clarity and emotional well-being. It is sometimes used to improve the effectiveness of other care, including traditional medical and psychological treatments, and though it is not meant to replace any health care, Reiki energy therapy is often deployed at hospitals to support a treatment protocol.


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