With health care costs rising to stratospheric levels, more and more people are turning to so-called "alternative therapies" to deal with a variety of ailments, from heart disease to Alzheimer's.
Rose Kumar, M.D., medical director of the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine, says that alternative medicine is anything that doesn't fall under the traditional medical model of care. Examples include: acupuncture, massage, naturopathy, yoga, as well as dietary and lifestyle changes.
"People are hungry for alternative options because traditional medicine is so expensive and focuses more on symptom management," Kumar says. "The idea of reversing disease and bringing regeneration and vitality to life isn't really considered in the traditional medical model."
Approximately 40 percent of U.S. adults have used some form of alternative therapy, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Practitioners of alternative therapies seek to treat not only the physical symptoms of an illness, but the emotional, spiritual, nutritional and social contributors to disease.
Alternative medicine for heart disease
When using alternative therapies to treat heart disease, Kumar says two main elements come into play: diet and stress management.
Study after study points to the cardiac benefits bestowed by a primarily plant-based diet.
Most recently, a nationwide analysis found that following a vegetarian diet could lower a person's risk of having an adverse cardiac event by 32 percent.
According to Kumar, this research has helped people realize that expensive, invasive surgical interventions are not the only way to treat heart disease. These treatments, while beneficial for managing certain symptoms, didn't have the same disease-reversing capabilities are a heart healthy diet.
Inflammatory foods (refined sugar, alcohol, red meat, trans fats) are the leading cause of coronary artery disease, Kumar notes in her book, "Becoming Real: Harnessing the Power of Menopause for Health and Success."
"When you're combating heart disease, diet should be emphasized. Eating needs to be easy, simple and fun," she says.
Here are some of her diet tips:
- Divide your plate properly. Half should contain colorful, organic vegetables (spinach, kale, bell peppers); one quarter should contain organic proteins (beans, tofu, lentils, fish, chicken); and one quarter should contain organic, complex carbohydrates (wild rice, brown rice, pasta, quinoa).
- Snack on seeds, nuts and organic berries (especially blueberries and strawberries)
- Drink water and green tea. Coffee is okay in moderation.
- Quell sugar cravings with minimal amounts of dark chocolate
A note on herbal medicine
Certain herbs are thought to bestow heart health benefits including: Ginko (lowers blood pressure; increases circulation), Hawthorn berries (expands coronary arteries), and Ginger (cuts down on blood clotting and reduces cholesterol).
The scientific evidence behind these claims is minimal, so anyone considering herbal remedies should consult their doctor first.
"The connection between stress and heart disease is significant," says Kumar.
In high levels, the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, can cause coronary arteries to spasm and may create micro-tears that attract potentially-dangerous plaque deposits.
Techniques to manage stress should be considered a vital part of any alternative therapy plan for heart disease, according to Kumar. She offers some examples of alternative therapies that can help reduce stress and promote heart health:
- Yoga: Lauded for its ability to boost moods, reduce stress and increase flexibility, yoga is a go-to therapy for many alternative medicine practitioners. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology recently found that regular yoga practice could slash irregular heartbeat episodes in people with atrial fibrillation in half. "The practice of yoga is known to improve many risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, and stress and inflammation in the body," says study author, Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, M.D., of the University of Kansas Hospital.
- Meditation: Meditation is a form of mental training involving a combination of relaxation and awareness cultivation. Research has linked the practice of meditation to a host of health benefits—from stress reduction to helping clear up outbreaks of psoriasis. "Regular meditation has proven to be very helpful for heart disease when high levels of stress are a contributing factor," says Angela Yvonne, licensed acupuncturist with Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
- Qigong: The goal of qigong, a form of mind-body exercise rooted in ancient Chinese culture, is to nurture a person's life energy—often referred to as "chi." The practice of qigong combines different patterns of breath and movement that are thought to stretch and strengthen muscles, enhance balance and promote the healthy movement of fluids (blood, lymphatic fluid, etc.) throughout the body.
- Acupuncture: The practice of acupuncture--inserting and maneuvering thin needles in certain points of the body--can also be used as an alternative treatment for heart disease. The main goal of acupuncture (or acupressure) is to help realign the flow of energy in a person's body. "Regular acupuncture calms the nervous system, and can help alleviate stress, which contributes to high blood pressure. It can also treat things like troubled sleep, which is linked to heart problems," says Yvonne. The National Institutes of Health has authorized acupuncture for the treatment of certain conditions.
Benefits of a holistic approach to heart health
Most people who dabble in alternative therapies do so as a complement to more traditional approaches, says the CDC.
For example, individuals with high blood pressure may take statins in addition to making dietary changes, such as reducing their sodium intake and limiting their consumption of fats, and taking up yoga to get a handle on their stress levels.
Kumar hopes that more people will adopt this integrative approach to medicine. "Our society has become so dualistic. We see it as black and white; traditional versus alternative," she says. "Both traditional and alternative therapies have their place in medicine, but we need to shift to a more integrative model."