This is post three of four in a Who’s Who series of articles and focuses on non-western medicine-based options of care.
Before the emergence of western medicine the world got on by a number of practices passed down for years – thousands of years for some – and these can be referred to as traditional medicines. The utility of these medical practices may not be predicated on the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies epitomized in conventional medicine today, but a foundation built on so many years of observation and trial and error most certainly counts for something and should not be discredited simply because they do not fit into the current research paradigm. Medicine as we know it today is in its infancy compared to these traditional practices and it is my opinion, as well as my clinical experience, that there is value in these “unconventional” methods that were, for the majority of our human existence, all we had.
Traditional Chinese/Eastern Medicine – TCM has thousands of years of existence and was introduced to the US in the 1970s. It is largely an energetic medicine that incorporates alternative diagnostic tools such as tongue appearance and pulse patterns and utilizes acupuncture, herbs, movement, and diet as treatment tools to restore energetic balance in an individual. Not all acupuncturists use herbs and not all TCM practitioners practice acupuncture. Practicing acupuncture requires separate licensure in most states and you may see the LAc title independently or coupled with other designations: LAc DAOM (doctorate level), MD LAc, ND LAc, etc. In some states such as California, LAcs are licensed as primary care providers allowing them to order blood work and make treatment recommendations beyond acupuncture and TCM. Admittedly, I struggle to understand how this is possible without training in western medicine or the legal ability to make a diagnosis from the labs (unless they are also a MD, DO, or ND), but it is how a growing number of LAcs are practicing, especially in CA. Acupuncture has gained recognition as a valuable tool for pain, anxiety, and infertility but its benefits extend far beyond these issues and it is a worthwhile consideration for many health issues.
Education: Level of education in TCM vary. Most programs are 3-4 years long. Doctorate programs may be completed online or in-person, offering an additional one to two years of education in more integrative and/or specialty care.
Aryuvedic Medicine – Aryuveda originated in India and uses diet, lifestyle, and herbs to align a person’s innate dosha, or energetic constitution. In a very simplified version of the Aryuvedic philosophy, it is thought that an imbalance in this energy gives rise to physical ailments. The doshas are predicated on three energetic characteristics – vata, pitta, and kapha – and treatment is targeted to bring energy in alignment with a personal dosha to support health. Especially when it comes to digestive issues, I have found the Aryuvedic approach a helpful piece for many patients.
Education: Certificate levels vary. According to the National Aryuvedic Medical Association, there are ayurvedic counselors, practitioners, and doctors with a minimum of 600, 1500, and 3000 hours of training, respectfully. The latter two do receive some training in western medicine, more-so for the doctor-level education. There are no current licensure laws for aryuvedic practitioners defining a scope of practice.
Homeopathy – homeopathy originated in the 19th century along with other eclectic medical practices. It is an energetic practice based on the principle of like-cures-like and uses infinitesimal amounts of a substance as treatment. It is the energy of the substance that imparts the treatment, not the substance itself. As an example, if you were stung by a bee, a homeopath may choose to dose you with bee venom that’s been diluted in water up to a factor of 10-2000, then a single drop of that placed onto a sugar pellet to be taken orally. Hence its infamy as a placebo/sugar pill/or otherwise useless treatment. However, in homeopathy, the more diluted a substance the more powerful it is since it works with energetics and not the physical substance. It is as odd, illogical, and esoteric as it sounds but it has also worked magic for many. The bee venom example is an acute application of homeopathy and does not represent the more complex system of classic/constitutional homeopathy practiced by most homeopaths. Naturopathic doctors are not homeopaths and homeopaths are not NDs, but the naturopathic education does include coursework in homeopathy as a non-pharmacologic treatment tool; some practitioners use it often and others not at all. Personally, I do not feel the 2% stake it had in our education made any of us experts in it and true practitioners of the craft have invested additional time and education on the subject to make it a meaningful part of their practice. As naturopathic doctors, we were taught homeopathy as a complimentary treatment and never a replacement for conventional care unless deemed safe, but I cannot say the same for practitioners of homeopathy without a medical license. I have seen homeopathy be a wonderful tool in health and especially so for children, older adults, emotional trauma, or peculiar, stubborn cases.
Education: in the naturopathic medical education there are 24 in-class hours dedicated to homeopathy. Professional homeopathy programs exist such as the New England School of Homeopathy that provide more in-depth education and are open to the public. No education prerequisites required.
You see that energetics are the common thread among these traditional practices. There are many other forms of energetic/spiritual medicines available but I chose to focus on the more familiar practices/terms here as I know the talk of energetics and spirituality is uncomfortable for many – I used to be one. The more you open your mind the more you see, however, and in my clinical experience I can say that addressing an energetic component has been THE thing that finally helps someone overcome a chronic health or emotional issue. And as long as no harm is done by ignoring a life-saving standard of care (in many instances patients who seek traditional medicines have already tried – and failed – conventional treatments) I think these are approaches worthy of recognition and I don’t need to answer the questions of how or why there may be benefit. This energetic/spiritual component is an aspect of wellbeing conventional medicine will never recognize or value and I personally think it does a disservice to us all. Traditional and conventional practices approach health from two different platforms and there is room for them to coexist.