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Publication Date: Friday, June 13, 2003

Ancient health remedies become new Ancient health remedies become new (June 13, 2003)

By Diana Reynolds Roome

When seniors visit their doctors, often they're not ill - just not as well as they want to be.

Western (or allopathic) medicine is designed to correct things that have gone wrong with the body and usually offers solutions in the form of drugs or surgery. However, Cathy Chavez, director of senior services at the Mountain View-Los Altos Community Services Agency, has noticed increasing concern among seniors about the number of medications prescribed, their side effects and their dubious effectiveness.

Earlier this year, she organized a health fair on complementary and alternative medicine, which highlighted the availability of health remedies which offer new approaches -- often derived from old wisdom -- to keeping fit in later years.

These include complete alternative medical systems, such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and the ancient Indian system of Ayurveda. Then there are nutritional supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, special foods and diet, mind-body interventions, including biofeedback, visualization, art, dance and music therapies, and prayer. Other ideas include manipulative and body-based interventions, like chiropractic, osteopathy, and massage; and energy therapies, where energy fields are enlisted in healing, such as in qi gong, tai chi and yoga.

While all are suitable for people at most stages of life, they offer particular benefits in later life. "In traditional Chinese medicine, it's well recognized that after age 40 the chi, or life force, starts to go down," said Barbara Levitt, a Palo Alto-based herbalist.

"So there is a chi tonic to help boost energy and the immune system - it's been around at least 2,000 years, and is very safe. This way, we start with the lowest doses and the gentlest remedies. We coax the body to produce more of what it needs, then bring on the big guns later, if necessary," Levitt added.

Dr. Frank He, of the Integrative and Sports Medicine Center in Sunnyvale, agrees that long-term prescription drugs for chronic problems like pain, arthritis and asthma, are generally not good for patients. He uses herbs and acupuncture for depression, chronic fatigue, allergies, eye and ear problems, and pain in his practice, which consists of one-third seniors.

After enduring the pain of cortisone injections, Anne, 79, (who prefers not to be identified by her last name) decided that acupuncture needles didn't sound so bad. She had experienced little improvement in her arthritic knee despite visits to several physicians.

After a few treatments from He, who is professor of Acupuncture at the Five Branches College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Santa Cruz and also practices at Kaiser, Anne was walking with less discomfort and stiffness. Though the arthritis is unlikely to be cured completely, it is a relief not to have to worry about the side effects of cortisone, which like many pharmaceuticals, brings its own problems.

For joints and bones, He also recommends making bone soup, from which calcium, magnesium, boron, silica and trace elements not normally found in any vitamin pills, are readily absorbed.

"We're evolved to metabolize food, and are not as well adapted to absorb capsules and pills," said Levitt, who works in partnership with a conventionally-trained doctor and believes that Western medicine has a lot to offer but is not well delivered.

"The distinction between food, herbs and pharmaceuticals is false - it's a continuum - and we can do incredible things with food therapies. Often, as people age, their digestion gets weaker because they're not making enough hydrochloric acid, or because regular drugs are interfering. So if someone is taking multiple medications, Western drugs as well as herbs, it's important to make sure they are all integrated," added Levitt.

By looking at the tongue and taking pulses in a manner unique to Eastern medical practice, Levitt and He both diagnose problems and make adjustments to diet that can resolve many digestive problems, often by simple means such as cutting out cold food, iced drinks and salads.

Other alternative health methods are equally non-invasive and gentle. Sharon Allen teaches stress reduction skills and mindful movement, such as qi gong, yoga, and tai chi, which is specifically designed for those over 50. From her offices in Los Altos and Sunnyvale, she also offers therapeutic massage, which increases circulation and energy, relaxes the body and allows it to operate more efficiently.

Massage is effective for orthopedic conditions, but is also an important part of learning to live with a minimum of tension, said Allen. "Escalated stress states are very damaging to the body, and massage helps it to function at the optimum without tension and constriction. I like to think of it as no longer a luxury but a necessity."

The Stanford Medical Center recognizes the benefits of massage and has a team of therapists at its Center for Integrative Medicine, where a range of holistic health remedies are now offered. Many stress-related illnesses are responsive to these techniques, which can help alleviate such disorders as hypertension, back pain, headaches, insomnia, tachycardia, and irritable bowel syndrome. Meditation and breathing exercises are considered effective in stimulating the immune system.

Yet despite their increasing acceptance, many people feel reluctant to try anything that sounds so different. Far from being strange, said Allen, "the therapies help you learn how to really listen to your own needs, to pay attention to what your body is telling you, and to put a value on your own intuitive understanding of yourself."

Even for more serious illness, such as cancer, complementary medicine has an important place. According to Dr. William Buchholz, a medical oncologist in Mountain View, 82 percent of people with breast cancer will try it in some form. Most use herbs, acupuncture or stress reduction techniques in conjunction with mainstream cancer treatments, or to combat the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

"So many needs are only marginally filled by conventional medicine," said Buchholz, who understands the impulse that drives people to seek out remedies beyond those offered by the hurried physician, who "throws pills" at the patient and has little time to pay attention to their real needs. "The individual is left with an unslaked craving for something more."

Buchholz also cautions, "A lot of money changes hands that doesn't change health." For this reason, people need to have realistic expectations and accurate information. He cites the lack of rigorous scientific studies proving the efficacy of many over-the-counter pills, herbs and vitamin supplements. "The power of the mind to create results may be the active principle in many of these remedies," he points out.

There is no harm in this, but people should be aware of exactly what they're getting and why. This is especially important as Medicare does not usually pay for alternative therapies, though many practitioners offer reduced rates for seniors. They should also be aware of other pitfalls such as ineffectiveness (in cases where lack of effective medicine could be serious), side effects, and negative interactions with prescription medicines. Buchholz also acknowledges the ability of some methods, acupuncture, for example, to control nausea, and the value of holistic practitioners who spend time listening to their patients, thus giving them "the most important medicine of all, a caring human being."

Buchholz recently posted an article, "Making healthy decisions about complementary medicine," on his Web site, which clearly explains many of the finer points of alternative treatments, their advantages and disadvantages.

The inclusion of alternative medicine in medical centers is a hopeful sign, as physicians recognize the value of these usually ancient paths to health and well-being. Studies of their effectiveness are being funded by National Institutes for Health, which offers useful information on their Web site.

Even the terms used for them describe a process of inclusion, moving from "alternative" to "complementary" and now "integrative."

For more information on complementary medicine go to: (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) or The practitioners mentioned can be reached at: Dr. Frank He, 408-720-1766 or; Barbara Levitt, 650-804-0109 or; Sharon Allen, 408-730-2293 or


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