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How Integrative Medicine Can Help You Be Healthier

This best-of-both-worlds approach to medicine blends conventional science and complementary practices.

By Sally Wadyka
Medicinal plant and pillsCraig Cutler


What Complementary Treatments Can I Expect My IM Doctor to Suggest?

Nutritional counseling and physical activity are two often employed—and powerful—tools. Indeed, the largest diabetes-prevention trial, completed in 2001, found that lifestyle intervention, including diet, exercise, and behavior modification, reduced by nearly 60 percent the chances of developing type 2 diabetes in those at high risk. In comparison, drug therapy (with Metformin) produced only a 31 percent reduction.

Acupuncture is also widely used for a variety of conditions, including nausea (from chemotherapy or pregnancy), infertility, fibromyalgia pain, arthritis, PMS, and menopausal symptoms. It has the backing of many randomized, controlled trials, and "the National Institutes of Health concluded that there is promising evidence for using acupuncture in specific conditions," says Gaudet. Herbal medicines, a counterpart to acupuncture in Chinese medicine, have less scientific backing but much practical evidence. (Note: Because herbs are so effective, don’t self-prescribe them. "You need to be guided by a doctor who is well trained in integrative medicine," warns Gaudet. Otherwise you risk bad drug interactions, and serious medical complications can arise.)

Mind-body therapies, such as meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga, and hypnosis, also show promise. "There have been studies on meditation that show, regardless of condition, many people get a reduction in anxiety and depression from it," says Barrows. Support for the efficacy of hypnosis is growing, too. "There is evidence that using it before surgery can decrease the need for more anesthesia," says Gaudet.


How Can I Get an IM-Like Experience With My Current Doctor?

Many mainstream doctors are already adopting some IM practices, particularly the ones that have hard science backing them. "It’s not that we’re not open to IM," says Jacques Saunders, a family physician outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "It’s just that traditional doctors were trained in a more cautious atmosphere. Western therapies are more widely studied."

To integrate some IM into your own life, "be your own advocate," says Roberta Lee, vice chair of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City. First educate yourself by reading up. Lee recommends Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, by Andrew Weil, a top integrative doctor in the United States, and doing research on credible websites (such as, the site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine). Then talk to your doctor. If you have back pain, ask her if she thinks acupuncture might help. Chances are, if you have a doctor you love, she is someone who listens to you, is open-minded, and doesn’t automatically rule out complementary treatments. "Give her the opportunity to research with you and be involved," says Lee.

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