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Alternative health care looks beyond body.

NEW YORK -- Alternative health care is in. Almost anywhere you look here, offers for herbal medicines, stressmanagement courses, nutrition clubs, fitness clubs and church healing services testify to the growing trend as more Americans become disillusioned with the medical profession and the health care system.

According to New York psychologist Lawrence LeShan, about one-third of the population uses alternative or holistic therapies without telling the primary physician.

Wedged between art galleries and sooty coffee shops on the seventh floor of a busy downtown office building is a place called Friends in Deed. Pillows are strewn about the big room. There is a grand piano in the corner, and the room smells of freshcut floers. Laughter echoes down the hall as a dozen people mill about, preparing for an evening session.

Some of the participants are HIV-positive, others have cancer or emotional problems, still others are friends and caregivers. Once a week they meet to heal one another through meditation, visualization, touch and sharing.

This "healing circle" is only one of a dozen drop-in groups Friends in Deed offers weekly. There are guided meditations; grief, cancer and HIV/AIDS support groups; weekend dinners; and workshops on everything from yoga and nutrition to exploring the connection between medicine and psychospiritual healing.

Soul searching

All classes and services are free and open to anyone dealing with a life-threatening illness, their friends and families. "The AIDS crisis has gone a long way to open the road for alternative methods," said Malcolm Navias, the evening's facilitator. "People get tired of waiting for a cure and start looking for ways to live fully without one."

At a recent Institutes of Religion and Health conference at New York's Riverside Church, 300 participants, most of them psychotherapists, pastors or social workers, expressed a universal mistrust for institutional medicine. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen called it "abusive, wounding, diminishing and reducing" to patients and caregivers.

Remen, medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program outside San Francisco, said the practice of medicine in the United States is so intent on seeing the body that it misses the soul -- the sacred -- and fails to recognize that "we are not our bodies."

"Illness," she said, "is soul loss. By the same token, it awakens the seeker within."

Healing always has been part of religious history and practice. Biblical stories of miracle cures begin in the Old Testament books of Hosea and Tobit. Jesus' ministry and the apostles' abound with people restored to health through simple prayer and fasting.

During the Middle Ages, monastics in Europe founded many of the first hospitals, and women mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Clare of Assisi used medicinal plants, spices and foods in their ministries with the poor. Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, some Catholic charismatics and other religious groups carry on the tradition today, laying on hands, anointing the sick and praying for health.

Candles and cloves

In many Latino neighborhoods, the practice of Santeria is on the rise. This combination of African rituals, Catholic devotion and herbal treatments also illustrates the trend toward merging the spiritual, emotional and physical aspects of health.

The storefront window of Gladys' Botanica on Manhattan's Upper West Side is cluttered with almost life-sized statues of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady and St. Michael the Archangel. Customers crowd the counter. A dish of corn sits near the door, cloves of garlic line one corner, and floor-to-ceiling shelves are stocked with herbs, tree bark, fruits, oils, perfumes, candles, holy water and prayer cards.

Gladys busily fills "prescriptions" written on scraps of pink paper, explaining which herbal concoctions should be brewed into teas and which should boiled down for baths and, always, which prayers accompany the regimen.

In a back room, a man throws some conch shells on a table and discerns from them the condition of a client. His prescribed treatment is meant to heal different situations and key relationships in the client's life, and only secondarily heal physical ailments.

In Santeria, as in psychotherapy, health depends largely on the daily response to external situations and key relationships, including the stress of urban living, financial difficulties and family troubles.

Indiana University School of Nursing's Healthy Cities program confronts these individual issues in the framework of community.

Holism and cities

Going to inner-city neighborhoods throughout Indiana, a team of health care professionals meets with citizens of various backgrounds and walks of life. Together they uncover a vision of a healthy city, discussing education, environment, the workplace and domestic stress and violence, in addition to health care.

Then the local community creates and implements programs to realize the vision, everything from neighborhood watches to improved day care. But the biggest contribution by far is the relationships created in areas beset by social and political isolation and alienation -- two traits the Institute of Religion and Health has identified as major causes of illness.

One major obstacle to the scientific community's widespread acceptance of holistic methods is a lack of concrete data proving its effectiveness. The Office of Alternative Medicine, opened by the National Institute of Health in January on a severely limited budget, is expected to examine the industry, promote information exchange and research alternative therapies.

"Allopathic (traditional Western) medicine has saved many lives," said Carol Hegedus, director of the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich., "but it must come into balance with other dimensions of healing."

Most widely known for sponsoring Bill Moyers' PBS series "Healing and the Mind," the institute conducts research on the interrelatedness of mind, body and spirit and its effects on health.

Transforming medicine

The institute's recent book, Mind/Body Medicine (Consumer Report Books, 1993), empirically examines a variety of health disorders and their relations to or exacerbation by stress and the emotional demands of daily life. The book's contributors are all practicing doctors, psychologists or medical researchers, dispelling at least part of the myth that alternative medicine equals quackery.

Most practitioners of alternative therapies do not think they replace traditional treatment; rather, they complement it. Much would be gained, they say, if physicians were sensitive to the patient's need for touch, for full information and active participation in the healing process. Many would like to practice alongside physicians in a hospital setting, while others, such as Rachel Remen, think that it is important to remain outside the institutions to change the way they are run.

Early this century, a study called the Flexner Report significantly transformed medical practice in the Western world. Departmentalized hospitals, specialized physicians and "magic bullet" cures for deadly diseases such as polio, yellow fever and typhoid were a direct result of the study and the professional standards it set.

Now, the Pew Commission, a team of eight physicians, is rewriting the Flexner Report. The next century needs new standards and the health profession needs new tools to serve a burgeoning, ever-aging public. This could include the introduction of a mentor system to teach medical students, a return to generalist practitioners coupled with a de-emphasis on specialists, and a recognition that health is more than physical and the soul is a valuable resource in the healing process.


VALENCIA, Calif. -- Our society practices unforgiveness well. When a prison, for example, is on the drawing board for a community, the majority of residents react with "don't build it in our town." "Those criminals" are not like "us," becomes a prevailing attitude.

In reality, we are all human beings capable of inappropriate behavior. But the myriad lawsuits, domestic disputes, divorce statistics and cases of severe emotional stress testify to our unwillingness to forgive others for their behavior.

Many therapists and even physicians are beginning to ask whether practicing forgiveness can prevent illness or help speed up recovery. A growing body of research indicates that the immune system responds, for better or worse, to a person's attitudes.

Typical of some of the new studies was one presented at a 1992 conference on brain research at the University of California, San Diego. The study examined the effects of thoughts on the body. The hypothalamus portion of the brain (responsible for regulating bodily functions) was found to respond to thoughts. An anxious thought changes the pH factor of the saliva which changes the amount of adrenaline that is released to activate muscles and nerves.

The implication of these and other studies is that learning to let go of anxious thoughts -- which often manifest as a refusal to forgive past hurts -- can help "regulate" not only our relationships but also our bodies.

According to psychologist Barbara States, "Forgiveness has not been a term commonly used in the psychological sense." It has mostly connoted a religious or moral act. But because more people are making links between their physical and emotional selves, forgiveness may become a more accepted term, she explained.

Family physician G.A. Pettitt explains that it is a more effective use of the will to forgive than to use it to repress negative feelings that lead to hurtful thoughts or actions, illness and the like. Pettitt has suggested that the needs of medical patients, combined with drug costs, indicate that more priority be given to research in this area.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on forgiveness
Author:Piccolino, Alberta
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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