When you think about treatments for conditions like diabetes, depression or heart disease, medications or surgical interventions likely come to mind. While these conventional therapies can be highly effective, so can “alternative” treatments such as acupuncture, biofeedback or stress management. Integrative medicine combines the best of both worlds with the goal of helping patients reach optimal health and healing.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Chris Suhar, MD, an integrative cardiologist and medical director of Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, about integrative medicine approaches, treatments and benefits.
In the United States, most medical doctors (MDs) practice conventional medicine, which is also known as Western medicine and focuses primarily on treating disease. Eastern medicine, which is founded in traditional Chinese medicine, focuses on treating the whole person through less conventional healing modalities, such as acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle changes. Integrative medicine uses approaches from both Western and Eastern medicine to treat a wide range of chronic diseases from heart disease and diabetes to women’s health, sleep issues and pain. In addition, integrative medicine treats the emotional and psychological aspects of healing as well as the physical.
“It is a mind, body and spirit approach, understanding that your thoughts and your emotions play a huge role in illness,” says Dr. Suhar. “But they also play a huge role in healing and wellness.”
By bringing Eastern and Western philosophies together, integrative medicine specialists have a larger “toolbox” of therapies that offer a more holistic approach to healing.
“Too often, medical care works in silos. A cardiologist cares for the heart. A gastroenterologist takes care of the digestive system. But these systems all work together in the body,” explains Dr. Suhar. “The integrative approach brings that all together, along with different therapy options that are not mainstream but can be very effective in healing.”
Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine specialists use a variety of therapies to treat patients, including:
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture uses very thin, virtually painless needles to stimulate healing energy pathways along the body.
- Biofeedback: Sensitive, non-invasive medical sensors placed on the skin measure changes in blood pressure, muscle tension and more, and provide information to help you learn to control them.
- Botanical medicine: Treatments derived from plants are used to help treat or prevent illness.
- Nutritional supplements: Nutritional supplements add vitamins, minerals or other nutrients to the diet to address specific health problems.
- Healing Touch: This energy-based, non-invasive treatment manipulates and balances the electromagnetic fields surrounding the body to restore and balance energy.
At the heart of integrative medicine is lifestyle intervention.
“Disease comes down to what you're putting in your mouth, what you're doing or not doing for exercise and how you manage stress,” says Dr. Suhar. “And whether you learn techniques that keep stress from harming your health.”
As part of the mind/body/spirit approach, integrative medicine also includes diet, exercise and stress management in a patient’s treatment plan. Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine offers cooking classes for healthy vegetarian and vegan meals with a focus on disease prevention and improving chronic health issues. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program teaches patients to learn to cope with stress, pain and illness through breath awareness, meditation, restorative yoga and other mind-body methods.
Inflammation, for example, has been linked to many diseases, including arthritis and dementia. Because diet plays an integral role in inflammation, the integrative approach to treating inflammation might include eliminating or reducing the types of food that tend to cause an inflammatory response in the body. Stress also can contribute to inflammation, so learning techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help reduce the impact of stress. Additionally, therapies, such as acupuncture can help lessen the body’s inflammatory response.
Many patients turn to integrative medicine because they want to reduce or stop their medications. Pain management is another area where integrative medicine may offer an alternative to a prescription for painkillers.
“First, we would try to find and address the source of the pain,” says Dr. Suhar. “We would also bring in different therapeutic modalities, such as acupuncture, biofeedback, massage therapy, cold laser and others, that can really help relieve pain without the use of narcotics. We try to treat patients as naturally as possible.”