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Column: Complementary medicine can help us get healthier - and spend less

Many of us are making ourselves sick by the way we choose to live – but complementary medicine can help fix that, argues Avril Ivory.

Avril Ivory

A LARGE NUMBER of Irish people now attend complementary medicine practitioners.

The reasons for this are diverse: for many healthcare is very expensive, particularly for chronic disease. For others it is the awareness that we are emerging from a time where people have been very reliant on pharmaceutical medication and surgical intervention – and yet we have a preponderance of chronic disease in our society and a hospital system which is overburdened. People are now asking whether they can adopt a more preventative approach – how can we become healthier and spend less?

The World Health Organization tells us that ‘lifestyle diseases’ (heart disease, obesity, etc), have now overtaken infectious diseases as the biggest cause of mortality and morbidity in the Western world. 35 million people die every year due to lifestyle disease. 9 million of these die prematurely, under the age of 60.

Many of us are making ourselves sick by the way we choose to live. We are too stressed, we eat too many processed foods and don’t engage in enough physical exercise. These are amongst the main lifestyle factors that are making us sick and yet our culture and medical model may not be addressing them enough.

For example, stress is implicated as a driver in 70 to 80 per cent of disease – yet we don’t teach our children and young people how to deal with stress. The College of Naturopathic Medicine recently ran a seminar on skills such as how to identify stress and how to design an individualised package using good nutrition, rest, herbs and coping skills to rebalance cortisol levels (stress hormones) and therefore avoid triggering disease processes. It was completely booked out. These skills are ones that could be taught in schools and colleges so that we understand the link between stress and disease and we know when and how to use coping skills.

Dealing with stress, bad nutrition and lack of exercise…

When it comes to exercise, we don’t do enough. Man was ergonomically designed to physically engage with his environment and yet many of us go days without exercising in any way. How can our blood sugars be stable or our circulatory system function well if we become sedentary? Everything functions better in our bodies when we have a balance of rest and exercise.

According to the WHO a key factor in disease is faulty nutrition. When we move away from natural produce which is recently grown, nutrient-dense and high in life force, and use processed foods instead, we may be feeding ourselves foods that make us ill. Many processed foods are high in sugar, salt and saturated fats. Many of us consume a diet which contains up to 40 per cent fat daily – but such a diet has been linked to various disease states.

When we are making lifestyle changes in nutrition, exercise and lifestyle we often need expert support, guidance, time and attention. Many complementary therapists, such as acupuncturists, herbalists, nutritional therapists, naturopaths etc provide this expertise and are trained to spend time helping someone make positive change and use preventative strategies.

Sceptics say complementary medicine isn’t supported by enough evidence. They’re wrong.

One of the criticisms often leveled at complementary medicine is that it is not supported by enough evidence and that there are not enough really well-designed research papers, particularly randomised controlled trials (which are regarded as a gold standard in research) which validate the use of therapies such as acupuncture and herbal medicine. This view, which is sometimes espoused by sceptics, is erroneous. Nicola Darrell, Medical Herbalist says ‘There is plenty of excellent research available. A recent meta-analysis of herbal medicine research shows that methodologies generally used in herbal medicine are as rigorous as those used in pharmaceutical trials’.

It is a similar picture for acupuncture. Though there are some problems with the methodology of acupuncture research studies, these can be overcome and much of the research focuses on objective indices of change such as measuring cortisol (a stress product) before or after an acupuncture treatment, or measuring white blood cell production before and after. Using objective indices bypasses any subjective reporting from patients.

Though there is no current government regulation of standards in complementary medicine, the industry recognises the absolute importance of high standards and the responsibility of each practitioner to be safe and effective and evidence-based – therefore a system of voluntary self- regulation through the professional associations is currently in place. This was a recommendation made by the National Working Group on the regulation of complementary medicines. The eventual aim is for one unified body to be in place to represent each therapy. For the public it is important that these registers are setting high standards and that anyone considering using a practitioner can feel free to ask to which professional register or association the practitioner belongs.

Many complementary therapists in Ireland are now trained to international best practice standards and this is great to see. Lifestyle change may play an increasing role in healthcare and complementary practitioners can make a very positive contribution to this.

Avril Ivory is the head of the College of Naturopathic Medicine in Ireland.

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Avril Ivory

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