New year, new you, right? For some that means cleaning up their diet (we’re looking at you GOLO Diet and Whole 30). For others it’s re-upping a gym membership and dusting off their workout gear. Then there’s the group that takes a Marie Kondo approach to their medicine cabinet—what stays, what goes, and is there a “better” way to approach a wellness routine and treat your ailments?
Turns out that last group is more fast-growing than it is fringe. Statistics show that about one-third of Americans turn to alternative medicine (medical therapies not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession, such as herbalism, homeopathy, and acupuncture)—and that number is predicted to increase. Even conventional MDs are embracing alternative and complementary therapies. There are doctors prescribing nature walks to improve patient’s moods; medical students across the country are enrolling in culinary classes to explore the power of food as medicine; and other (albeit smaller) pockets of MDs are even exploring treatments like acupuncture and hypnotherapy with patients who want to wean off certain prescription medications.
“Most physicians understand the benefits and are open to alternative therapies,” says Starr Steinhilber, MD, MPH, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But because alternative medicine is not traditionally taught in medical school, this can make physicians less comfortable discussing or prescribing those treatments over the ones with medical data backing them.” Steinhilber says that if you experience resistance from your physician, it could simply be because of a lack of knowledge.
“There are hospitals here in Birmingham that are on the forefront of offering acupuncture, yoga, and other alternative treatments to help patients. Hopefully over time insurance companies will follow suit to help patients and physicians tailor therapy to what would be most beneficial,” Steinhilber adds.
Despite this positive shift in the medical industry, the most common form of natural treatment continues to be botanicals—plant compounds in the form of oils, powders, or pills and capsules—that you find at your grocery store, a supplement shop, or over-the-counter at your pharmacy. It’s there that things get a little sticky: The alternative medicine space is crowded, which makes finding a helpful guide to aid in sifting fact from fiction, and help from hype, challenging.
We’re going to remedy that (pun intended!) for you, though. We culled a list of some of the most popular alternative medicine options and whittled it down to a handful that we deemed worth adding to your routine. Each “therapy” has ample anecdotal evidence backing it, but also legitimate science supporting its use.
One more thing before you dive in: Alternative therapies and conventional therapies are alike in that consistency is key. Just like you can’t pop an anti-depressant only on the days you feel off, sipping a collagen smoothie today won’t yield a healthier glow tomorrow. To reap the benefits, it needs to become part of your routine.
Maybe you’ve heard of them, but what are they actually? Adaptogens are a class of herbs (found in many herbal supplements) that have the potential to boost your resistance to and tolerance of stress—both emotional and physical. When you’re under additional—or even extreme—stress is when you should consider an adaptogen. If you’re new to adaptogens, hone in on these three: ashwagandha, rhodiola, and astragalus. Ashwagandha is a mushroom-based adaptogen that’s ideal for promoting sleep, but also helps with autoimmunity. Rhodiola is meant for stress and also can help with mental focus. And astragalus is great for immune support—experts often recommend it to folks who just can’t shake an illness or those who are fighting cancer and need to keep other illness at bay. For the most effective product, seek out adaptogens that come from companies that qualify that their herb ingredient lists match what’s in the product.
Look for these brands: Sun Potion, Gaia Herbs, Moon Juice
Whether it’s your hippie-leaning friend or your grandfather who is taking drops of CBD oil, it seems to be everywhere—so it must work, right? Here’s the rub: There’s not enough research behind it yet to deem it the panacea reputation that it’s earned. But its popularity and consumers’ hopefulness both indicate that the research will start to build. Until then, know that it’s fairly safe to use and comes with very few to no side effects. Research suggests that CBD oil can help temper pain and has a positive mood-altering effect. Want to try CBD oil? Look for a high-quality product (experts say you get what you pay for) and more is not better, so start at a low dose and titrate as needed.
Look for these brands: Relyf (locally made CBD oil), Farmstead Laboratories (locally made CBD lotions and salves), Plant People
Using essential oils is very much back in vogue—from aromatherapy to ingesting oils or using them topically. And there’s research to support their use for both emotional wellbeing and to alleviate physical symptoms. Of all the essential oils, Thieves (the combination of cinnamon, eucalyptus, clove, lemon, and rosemary oils) is one to consider adding to your arsenal this time of year. Touted for its bacteria-fighting and respiratory benefits, anecdotal evidence says that, yes, Thieves oil works. Dab a small amount just below your nostrils to hopefully ward off sick germs you encounter, or include a few drops in a humidifier or diffuser to help clear up nagging coughs and other head congestion.
Look for these brands: Young Living, Vitruvi, doTERRA
Meditation is often recommended for its mood-boosting benefits—tempering anxiety, improving depression, relieving stress—as well as encouraging focus and attention and improving sleep. A few years ago, a review study looked at various meditation styles to find potential benefits. The study found that mindfulness meditation helped people with their anxiety, depression, and pain. Mantra meditation (where you use a mantra to settle your mind), however, didn’t work. The study looked at other potential benefits, too, but concluded that there isn’t enough research to say with great certainty that meditation helps with stress, sleep, weight loss, or attention. If you’ve already tried meditation and want to take it next-level, try hypnotherapy. Although hypnotherapy isn’t without risk, it’s becoming a valuable tool to help treat some mood disorders.
Take a class here: Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center (birmingham.shambhala.org)
Yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and miso all have something in common—they’re fermented, which means they’re chockfull of good-for-you bacteria called probiotics. And research shows that probiotics are good for your GI (or, put more scientifically, your microbiome), which may also play a role in tamping down inflammation in your body and warding off or ameliorating symptoms associated with some chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and even depression. But here’s a tidbit that’s often left out: You also need to include prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics feed probiotics. Fortunately, prebiotics are in everyday foods like slightly under-ripe bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, walnuts, artichokes, and asparagus.
Try this: Kimchi from Magic City Ferments (order via Instagram @magiccityferments)
Touted mostly for its power to promote younger-looking skin, some people also take collagen for their bone, hair, and nail health, as well as to help bolster their muscles. While there are studies here and there to support all of those benefits, the bulk of the research points to collagen truly having skin health benefits (think fewer wrinkles and less dryness). Look for collagen supplements and powders at Whole Foods (you can mix powders into a latte), or stop by Greenhouse in Homewood for a delicious smoothie that also includes collagen.
Look for this brand: Vital Proteins
TRENDS TO SKIP
They’re not unhealthy per se, they’re just more hype than help.
- Turmeric Lattes – Turmeric gets its healthy powers from a compound called curcumin. Yes, there is curcumin in a turmeric latte (also called a golden latte), but it’s such a small amount that the potential for medicinal benefit is quite low.
- Parsley Tea – Parsley is vitamin-packed—delivering A, C, and K—and is a popular herbal tea because it acts as a diuretic. But it’s powerful, so if you drink it often, be mindful not to dehydrate yourself. Parsley and its tea also contain compounds that research suggests if you were to ingest every day for an extended period of time (aka years on end), could potentially be harmful.
- Activated Charcoal – In the ER, activated charcoal is used to treat overdoses and poisonings—and it works. But at home for things like teeth whitening, skin care, and diarrhea, there really isn’t enough research yet to say yes, use it. There is one at-home use that seems particularly promising; activated charcoal may help quell excessive gas as effectively as an over-the-counter medicine.
- Juice Cleanses – Drinking just juice for a few days will help you slim down—there are even a few studies that support this. All that juice will also boost your vitamin and mineral intake. But will you keep that lost weight off? The likelihood isn’t high, and there isn’t much in the way of research to suggest you will either.
Try these popular products that incorporate CBD, adaptogens, and essential oils.
- Vitruvi is known for its essential oil products. The popular roll-ons ($32) combine oils to create blends for sleep, focus, balance, and more. The After Oil roll-on helps soothe sore muscles. Vitruvi sells single-origin oils ($12–18) to add to diffusers. Also popular is the Sleep Mist ($20), a blend of Ylang Ylang, Lavender, Roman Chamomile, Vetiver, and Frankincense. vitruvi.com
- Plant People offers organic, high-performance CBD and adaptogen products. The Revive Face Serum ($82) includes 300mg cannabinoids and 13+ botanicals to help reduce signs of aging, smooth the appearance of fine lines, and create a luminous glow. Plant People’s Sleep Drops ($79) are made from fast-acting, full spectrum hemp extract and formulated to induce relaxation and tranquility, as well as to reduce anxiety and inflammation. plantpeople.co
- Recess makes CBD and adaptogen-infused sparkling water in three flavors ($29.99/6-pack). The low-calorie beverage is made with all-natural ingredients and contains no artificial sweeteners. The drinks include hemp extract, American ginseng, L-theanine, and schisandra. takearecess.com
Note: Consult your physician or pharmacist before adding alternative medicines to your routine, especially if you’re taking prescription medication.
This story appears in Birmingham magazine’s January 2020 issue. Subscribe today!