When you feel unwell, you probably make an appointment with your GP, who likely prescribes a pill to help you get better. But these days, there’s a roster of other docs who are taking alternative, more holistic approaches. And instead of medication, they’re recommending treatments with herbs, meditation, and acupuncture.
“Conventional medicine has taught doctors how to put out the fire,” says Alka Gupta, MD, a codirector of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “But they often don’t get to the bottom of why that fire started in the first place. Holistic approaches try to find the root cause of symptoms, by looking at the whole person.”
Choosing a holistic-minded provider isn’t always simple, however. The terminology used can be, well, muddy. Some can serve as your primary physician, while others practice a more complementary brand of medicine (and should be seen in addition to your MD). The options get confusing, which is why we put together this list of practitioners. Read on to learn what they do and how to ensure you get the best care.
Doctor of Osteopathy
DOs get the same schooling as MDs, plus an extra 200 hours of training in osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM)—hands-on techniques that release tension in the muscles, joints, and nerves to promote healing. Osteopaths can treat all the same ailments as traditional docs (coughs, UTIs, you name it), but they are especially helpful for migraines, back and neck pain, period aches, arthritis, and digestive woes. And there’s good evidence to support OMM: In one study, people who saw a DO for migraines had less frequent attacks than people who only took meds. In another study, low-back-pain sufferers who were treated with OMM were able to take fewer painkillers.
These doctors—who usually have an MD or DO—practice a blend of mainstream and holistic medicine. They might prescribe an SSRI for anxiety or an antispasmodic for IBS, but they also recommend science-backed complementary therapies, such as meditation and massage. And you can expect in-depth conversations with your integrative medicine doc. She will take her time getting to know you, so she can suggest meaningful changes to your routine: “Most conventional medicine visits are about 15 minutes, but we usually spend around an hour with each patient,” says Wendy Luo, MD, an integrative medicine fellow-in-training at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
This term describes providers who take into account how your lifestyle affects your well-being. But the title says nothing specific about a person’s qualifications. “There’s no formal training or certification that you need to say you’re holistic,” says Ronald Glick, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. A holistic practitioner could have gone to medical school, for example, or completed a six-month coaching program. So if you’re looking for a holistic primary doc, choose one with an MD or DO.
According to the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurveda, your body’s processes are governed by three life energies, or doshas: vata (space and air), pitta (fire and water), and kapha (water and earth). One of your doshas is naturally stronger than the others—but if your doshas slip too far out of balance, health issues can follow. (For example, if vata is your main dosha, you’re likely full of vitality and creativity; when your vata gets too powerful, though, you may suffer from anxiety and insomnia, among other ailments.) An Ayurvedic doctor will help you restore equilibrium, using many remedies that are supported by research. For example, preliminary studies have found that active compounds in turmeric, an Ayurvedic mainstay, are just as effective as ibuprofen for knee pain from osteoarthritis. Other research has shown that breath work called pranayama can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep.
Most Ayurvedic practitioners in the U.S. don’t work as primary care physicians. But, alongside your GP, they can help you manage persistent health problems, like eczema, chronic pain, or digestive distress. Narrow your search to MDs or PhDs who completed training at a school recognized by the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.
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The guiding principle of naturopathy is to encourage the body’s self-healing abilities. Like an MD, a naturopathic doctor (ND) can order blood work, MRIs, and other tests, but she will recommend less-invasive treatments before drugs and surgery. (Note that some naturopathic methods, like nutrient IV infusions and homeopathic remedies, are controversial.) Twenty-two states offer NDs a license to practice if they’ve graduated from an accredited four-year naturopathic medical school. But not all of those states allow NDs to write prescriptions. So if you require an Rx (say, for an inhaler or a steroid), you may also need to see an MD or DO.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner
In a nutshell, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is about balancing two opposing but interdependent forces—yin and yang—and helping your vital energy, or qi, flow freely. Practitioners use many herbal and mind-body remedies, but the most well-known practice is acupuncture; the super-fine needles are thought to remove blockages along the pathways that qi travels. While a TCM practitioner shouldn’t be your main doctor (they’re not trained to do breast exams, for example) acupuncture can be a potent therapy. Research shows that it helps reduce hot flashes and the frequency of migraines, and alleviates lower-back pain and osteoarthritis. A practitioner with the L.Ac degree is licensed to do acupuncture, and has a master’s degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine.
The Medical Detectives
All holistic-minded providers search for the original cause of a patient’s symptoms, but certified functional-medicine doctors dig deeper than most: These physicians are MDs or DOs who specialize in solving complex health mysteries. If you are struggling with an undiagnosed problem or a collection of overlapping conditions, consider one of these doctors. (Many of the illnesses they treat are “invisible”—like GI disorders, autoimmune diseases, and migraines.)
Your doc will likely work with you to create a timeline of your life in order to ID any factors that may have contributed to your condition. “Everything my patients do impacts their health,” says Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. “It’s up to me to ask investigative questions.”
You’ll probably have lab work done too, to assess hormone and vitamin levels, and to test for things like food allergies, heavy metal overload, and genetic mutations in your DNA.
Based on all the info your physician gathers, she’ll formulate a plan that will almost certainly involve dietary tweaks—as nutrition plays a central role in the functional approach.
“Functional medicine is the future of conventional medicine,” says Dr. Hyman. “But it’s available now.”
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