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Common Sense Medical Approaches Are on the Rise

Complementary Alternative Medicine

Story at-a-glance -

  • Overall, 34 percent of US adults used a complementary health approach in 2012
  • Non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements was the most common alternative approach used, with fish oil ranking top on this list
  • Other commonly used approaches include deep-breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi and qi gong, and chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation

By Dr. Mercola

The US does not have a health care system; we have a disease-management system. It’s a system that is largely dependent on expensive drugs and invasive surgeries as opposed to preventive measures and simpler, less expensive treatment alternatives.

In short, it’s a system rooted in an ideal of maximized profits instead of helping people maintain or heal their health. The result of such a system is that Americans spend twice as much on health care per capita than any other country in the world.

In fact, according to a series of studies by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co, the US spends more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain, and Australia.

Despite that, we rank dead last in terms of quality of care among industrialized countries, and Americans are far sicker and live shorter lives than people in other nations.

In US health care, the more invasive options -- drugs and surgery -- are employed FIRST, and then, when the patient has exhausted all conventional avenues, he or she will sometimes turn to alternative therapies or nutritional interventions out of what is often described as sheer desperation.

But, frequently, this is what ends up saving that person’s life. Now, the cat is out of the bag so to speak, and increasing numbers of Americans fed up with conventional medicine are seeking “alternative” avenues of care. Describing them as alternative isn’t really accurate, though. More aptly, these alternative methods are the ones that made the most common sense all along.

One-Third of Americans Seek Common Sense ‘Alternative’ Care

The most recent National Health Statistics Report combined data from nearly 89,000 adults to estimate the use of complementary health approaches in the US. Overall, 34 percent of US adults used a complementary health approach in 2012,1 and 5 percent used them as their sole source of medical care.

Non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements was the most common alternative approach used, with fish oil ranking top on this list. Other commonly used approaches include:

  • Deep-breathing exercises
  • Yoga, tai chi and qi gong
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation

Past research has found that even more Americans -- up to 63 percent -- may use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM),2 while the rate is even higher among health care workers than it is among the general population (some might say ironically so).

In fact, 76 percent of health care workers use CAM, according to research in the journal Health Services Research.3 Even more revealing, health care providers, including doctors and nurses, were more than twice as likely to have used practitioner-based CAM, and nearly three times as likely to use self-treatment with CAM, during the prior year than support workers.

Nearly 6.5 million Americans, or one in 30, were even referred for mind-body therapy such as yoga, meditation, or guided imagery by their doctor or other health care practitioner, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.4

Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, an internist and integrative medicine fellow at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who co-authored the study, actually did so because of her patients’ requests. As reported by CommonHealth:5

"Nerurkar, 35, says she was ‘inspired by her patients,’ to pursue the research because so many of them kept telling her how much better they felt — that their insomnia or anxiety had ceased — after taking a meditation or yoga class."

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Nearly 8 Percent of Adults Take Beneficial Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats

Notably, fish oil, a source of animal-based omega-3 fats, is the most common natural product used by Americans. It’s taken by nearly 8 percent of US adults. Omega-3 rich fish oil is one of the most well-researched nutrients on the market.

Its wide-ranging health benefits have been repeatedly proven, and animal-based omega-3 fats are one of the few supplements I recommend for virtually everyone to improve overall health.

According to CNN, some Americans reported taking fish oil to “avoid having to take cholesterol medication or because their father who had heart problems did.” Indeed, omega-3 fats are known to ameliorate metabolic risk factors for cardiovascular disease… but you may be better off taking krill oil instead of fish oil.

Fish oil is in a triglyceride molecule that has to be broken down in your gut to its base fatty acids of DHA and EPA. About 80-85 percent is never absorbed and is eliminated in your intestine (this is why fish oil can cause you to experience burp back and why about half of all people cannot tolerate fish oil).

Then once the fatty acids are absorbed into your blood stream, your liver has to attach it to phoshphatidyl choline for it to be used by your body. The amazing beauty of krill is that it is already in the correct form in the capsule, so your body uses virtually 100 percent of it.

Krill Oil Vs. Fish Oil: What’s the Difference?

Krill oil naturally contains the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin, which prevents the perishable DHA and EPA from going rancid, which is another problem with fish oil. The vast majority of fish oil being sold is actually rancid before you even open the bottle, because it doesn't have this protective antioxidant.

Research suggests that the metabolic effects of the two oils are "essentially similar," but that krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite the fact that it contains less EPA and DHA.6

It's worth noting that compared to a statin drug, both fish oil and krill oil are vastly more efficient. But krill is the most effective in the shortest amount of time, according to a study that compared the efficiency of krill oil and fish oil in reducing triglyceride levels.7

Over a six-week period, rats divided into three groups had their diets supplemented with 2.5 percent krill oil, 2.5 percent fish oil, or no supplement at all. In less than three weeks, both oils had markedly reduced the enzyme activity that causes the liver to metabolize fat, but the krill oil had a far more pronounced effect, reducing liver triglycerides significantly more.

The higher potency of krill oil allows it to decrease triglyceride levels in a shorter period of time compared to fish oil. Overall, after six weeks of supplementation, cholesterol levels in the krill oil group declined by 33 percent, compared to 21 percent in the fish oil group.

Liver triglycerides were reduced by twice as much -- 20 and 10 percent respectively. This is particularly important, as fasting triglyceride levels are a powerful indication of your body's ability to have healthy lipid profiles, which can be indicative of your heart health. And this is just one of omega-3 fat’s health benefits.

A Simple Approach to Radically Improve Your Health

It’s strange that consuming omega-3 fats is considered an alternative approach, when this is a simple measure that virtually everyone can benefit from. And while it’s easy to increase your intake by taking a high-quality krill oil supplement, you can also do so by eating certain types of high-quality, non-contaminated seafood, like wild-caught Alaskan salmon or sardines.

Sardines, in particular, are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, with one serving containing more than 50 percent of your recommended daily value.8 They also contain a wealth of other nutrients, from vitamin B12 and selenium to protein, calcium, and choline, making them one of the best dietary sources of animal-based omega-3s.

In this way, using fish oil or krill oil, or consuming more sardines to increase your omega-3s, is no more an “alternative” approach than eating broccoli for more vitamin C, but I digress…The important thing to remember is that this is a simple strategy you can use to improve your health. In addition to heart health, animal-based omega-3s are essential for your brain, and omega-3 deficiency is believed to be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year! Yes, this deficiency was revealed as the sixth biggest killer of Americans, so taking this recommendation to heart could prove to be lifesaving.

Use of Probiotics Increased Four-Fold From 2007 to 2012

Many more people are using probiotic and prebiotic supplements, often to improve digestive health although they do so much more. This is another strategy that should not be deemed as “complementary” or “alternative,” as maintaining a healthy environment in your gut is crucial for virtually everyone.

So far, the US National Institute of Health's Human Microbiome Project alone has produced 190 scientific papers, along with a repository of resources that scientists can access to explore the relationships between human gut bacteria and disease.9 Your gastrointestinal tract houses some 100 trillion bacteria—about two to three pounds worth. In all, the bacteria outnumber your body's cells by about 10 to 1. Your intestinal bacteria are part of your immune system, and researchers are discovering that microbes of all kinds play instrumental roles in countless areas of your health. For example, beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, have been shown to:

Beneficial bacteria also control the growth of disease-causing bacteria by competing for nutrition and attachment sites in your colon. This is of immense importance, as pathogenic bacteria and other less beneficial microbes can wreak havoc with your health if they gain the upper hand. For all of these reasons, and more, I always recommend a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods along with cultured or fermented foods. A high-quality probiotic supplement can also be a helpful ally to restore healthy balance to your microbiome – but this shouldn’t be considered a complementary form of health care… it’s a cornerstone of optimal health.

More Older Americans Are Trying Out Yoga

More than 7 percent of Americans aged 45 to 64 do yoga, which is up from just over 5 percent in 2002.10 This is yet another example of a healthy lifestyle choice that many people could benefit from, as is engaging in other forms of exercise, like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training. The Yoga Journal actually revealed the top five reasons why so many people try yoga, and they ranked as follows:11

  • Flexibility (78%)
  • General conditioning (62%)
  • Stress relief (60%)
  • Overall health (59%)
  • Physical fitness (55%)

Originating in ancient Indian philosophy, yoga is sometimes referred to as a form of meditative movement because in addition to offering physical benefits like improved flexibility, core strength, and balance, it also helps with relaxation, breathing, and mental well-being. So part of what makes yoga so beneficial is that it offers simultaneous benefits to both your mind and your body. Research suggests yoga can have a similar effect on your mind as antidepressants and psychotherapy, by influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. Yoga was also found to reduce levels of inflammation, oxidative stress, blood lipids, and growth factors, as well as have a positive effect on:12

  • Mild depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Schizophrenia (among patients using medication)
  • ADHD (among patients using medication)

Further, yoga has been shown to have a beneficial impact on leptin,13 a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure, as well as atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat).14 Other research shows that yoga is beneficial for chronic low back pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, and improved function (the ability to walk and move).

Chiropractic Manipulation and Meditation Are Also Common

The report found that close to 20 million US adults had chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, while close to 18 million practiced meditation.15 If you’re suffering from pain, it’s wise to use the least invasive methods first, especially before resorting to a drug. For instance, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and funded by the NIH, medication is not the best option for treating neck pain.

After following 272 neck-pain patients for 12 weeks, those who used a chiropractor or exercise were more than twice as likely to be pain free compared to those who took medication.16 Meditation may also be useful for pain relief, because it reduces brain activity in your primary somatosensory cortex, an area that helps create the feeling of where and how intense a painful stimulus is. Meditation has also been shown to help lower blood pressure, reduce psychological distress, depression, and anxiety as well as increase coping ability.17

Another pain reduction alternative to explore is NST. NST helps the body actually repair and recover the damaged tissue. If you are interested in this procedure, please refer to our list of NST practitioners. You can also purchase the NST DVD set or the NST Advanced DVD set from my online store.

Feeling Stressed? You Can Try This Deep-Breathing Exercise Right Now…

Part of what makes these approaches so useful is that they allow you to take control of your health. If you’re feeling stressed, for instance, you can try deep-breathing exercises virtually anywhere. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the relaxation response. There are many different breathing practices that you can try, but here I’m going to share two that are both powerful and very easy to perform. The first one I learned when I attended a presentation by Dr. Andrew Weil at the 2009 Expo West in California. The key to this exercise is to remember the numbers 4, 7 and 8. It’s not important to focus on how much time you spend in each phase of the breathing activity, but rather that you get the ratio correct. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Sit up straight
  2. Place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
  3. Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four
  4. Hold your breath to the count of seven
  5. Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight, making an audible “woosh” sound
  6. That completes one full breath. Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of four breaths

You can do this 4-7-8 exercise as frequently as you want throughout the day, but it’s recommended you don’t do more than four full breaths during the first month or so of practice. Later, you may work your way up to eight full breath cycles at a time. The benefits of this simple practice are enormous and work as a natural tranquilizer for your nervous system.

The second is known as the Buteyko Breathing Method, which is a powerful approach for reversing health problems associated with improper breathing, the most common of which are overbreathing and mouthbreathing. When you stop mouth breathing and learn to bring your breathing volume toward normal, you have better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain. Factors of modern life, including stress and lack of exercise, all increase your everyday breathing. Typical characteristics of overbreathing include mouth breathing, upper chest breathing, sighing, noticeable breathing during rest, and taking large breaths prior to talking.

Controlling anxiety and quelling panic attacks is one of the areas where the Buteyko Method can be quite useful. If you’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, or if you feel very stressed and your mind can’t stop racing, try the following breathing technique. This sequence helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, leading to calmer breathing and reduced anxiety. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you go into a more relaxed state:

  1. Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
  2. Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
  3. Breathe normally for 10 seconds
  4. Repeat the sequence

More Than Half of Conventional Medical Procedures Provide No Benefit or Cause Harm

From time to time, medical experts reverse course on certain practices and procedures when science dictates a change in the standard of care. One classic example of a "reversal" is when hormone therapy for menopausal women came to a screeching halt when so many women developed blood clots, stroke, and breast and uterine cancers. In an attempt to determine the overall effectiveness of our medical care, the Mayo Clinic tracked the frequency of these medical reversals over the past decade and published a report in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2013.18 They found 146 reversals of previously established practices, treatments and procedures over the past 10 years.

Many new medical treatments gain popularity over older standards of care due to clever marketing more than solid science. The most telling data in the report showed just how many common medical treatments are not helping patients at all—or are actually harming them. Of the studies that tested an existing standard of care, 40 percent reversed the practice, compared to only 38 percent reaffirming it. The remaining 22 percent were inconclusive. This means that between 40 and 78 percent of the medical testing, treatments, and procedures you receive are of NO benefit to you—or are actually harmful—as determined by clinical studies.

Lead researcher Dr. Vinay Prasad wrote:19 "Reversal harms patients who undergo the contradicted therapy during the years it was in favor and those patients who undergo the therapy in the lag time before a change in medical practice.”

You've probably heard reports claiming that Britons and Canadians are highly dissatisfied with their health care system, but a Commonwealth Fund survey proved that Americans have them beat by a substantial margin. Americans were the least likely of all seven countries to report relative satisfaction with their health care system.20 Only 16 percent of Americans report being happy, compared with 26 percent in the UK and 42 percent in the Netherlands. Thirty-four percent of Americans want a complete overhaul in the health care system, whereas only 12 percent of Canadians and 15 percent of Britons say the same.

No wonder so many Americans are seeking to take control of their health by using less invasive, more common-sense approaches to care. The more you take responsibility for your own health -- in the form of nurturing your body to prevent disease -- the less you need to rely on the "disease care" that passes for health care in the United States. If you carefully follow some basic health principles -- simple things like exercising, eating whole foods, sleeping enough, getting sun exposure, reducing stress in your life, and nurturing personal relationships -- you will drastically reduce your need for conventional medical care, which in and of itself will reduce your chances of suffering ill side effects.

But in the event you do need medical care, seek a health care practitioner who will help you move toward complete wellness by helping you discover and understand the hidden causes of your health challenges... and create a customized and comprehensive -- i.e. holistic -- treatment plan for you. You and your family CAN take control of your health, and you can typically do so using lifestyle choices and other natural, holistic strategies.