Category Archives: Integrative Medicine

A Brief Introduction to Integrative Medicine

“What drew me to the practice of medicine was the desire to touch hearts, to hold hands, to offer comfort amid suffering, to enable recovery when possible, and to alleviate loneliness and despair when cure wasn’t possible.”
– Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD

I heard Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD speak in July 2015 at the World Domination Summit here in Portland. She told an inspiring story about finding her calling as a healer. Twelve years of medical education landed her in a conventional OB/GYN medical practice for eight years. When she realized that she couldn’t practice the kind of medicine that she’d envisioned as a child, she said good-bye to 40 patients per day and 72-hour call shifts and entered the world of integrative medicine.

vitruvian manI’d never heard of that term, so I did a bit of research to learn more about it. Integrative medicine establishes a close working relationship between the patient and practitioner for purposes of treating the whole person – mind, body, spirit, and lifestyle. It pairs conventional medicine with complementary treatments to the extent that the latter is backed by science. It includes programs to help patients establish healthy behaviors, such as smart eating habits, regular exercise, restful sleep, and stress-relieving activities. It aims to address conditions with the least invasive treatment while setting strategies in motion to prevent illness and support optimal health.

At first blush, this field appears to address all of the issues raised in my prior post regarding conventional medicine. It suggests a proactive approach to wellness with openness to alternative medicine as well as plain old self-care. But I wondered about the scientific basis for this form of treatment. For that, I turned to Dr. Rankin’s New York Times bestselling book, Mind Over Medicine.

Dr. Rankin reminds readers that the prevailing standard for medical research has been double-blind studies in which one set of test subjects receives the designated treatment and another set receives a placebo. If those who receive the treatment outperform those who don’t, the treatment is deemed effective. Yet when a patient receives a placebo and believes it will work, that person’s brain scan will reveal increased activity in the pain-controlling regions and reduced activity in areas that receive pain signals. So who’s to say that the treatment wasn’t effective? The truth of the matter is: The body has an amazing capacity for self-care!

So what’s going on here scientifically?

First, a relatively new field called epigenetics has revealed that our genetic code is not as determinative as was once thought. Most of our genomes are far more responsive to the cell’s environment than they are to their underlying genetic code. If set in a stress-free context with healthy nutrients, predispositions for disease may never manifest in adverse health conditions. By contrast, if subjected to steady supply of unhealthy substances and/or chronic stress, bad things start to happen.

Second, our belief systems shape the cell’s environment. Positive belief and nurturing can stimulate the brain to release oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, and other positive chemicals into the bloodstream. These substances create the good cellular environment that wards off disease and/or encourages healing. By contrast, a stress response inhibits self-repair. As such, Dr. Rankin notes that “there’s something powerful that gets set in motion when we believe we will get better and our physicians share our optimism.” In fact, when “sick cells” are removed from a bad environment and placed in a good one, they recover.

Third, complementary and alternate medicine has been shown to trigger relaxation and reduce stress in the body. The relaxation response induces positive hormonal changes and returns the body to its natural state of homeostasis, which can induce self-repair.

Finally, studies show that positive psychological energy (joy, happiness, optimism, hopefulness) combined with life satisfaction, companionship, and a sense of humor result in lower mortality rates and extended longevity. Happiness and health are inextricably linked.

So if you’re inclined to see a practitioner of integrative medicine, be prepared for an extensive intake interview that covers all aspects of your life. Such practitioners consider optimal health to encompass: healthy relationships, meaningful use of time, a fully expressed creative life, a healthy spiritual life, a healthy financial life, a healthy mental and emotional life, a healthy sex life, a healthy environment, and a healthy lifestyle that supports the body.

What’s Dr. Rankin’s prescription for good health?

  1. Believe you can heal yourself.
  2. Find healthcare providers who believe in you.
  3. Listen to your body and pay attention to your intuition.
  4. Diagnose the root cause of your illness. If repetitive stress is the trigger, ask what lies behind it.
  5. Write a prescription (a.k.a. lifestyle plan) for yourself.
  6. Surrender attachment to outcomes.

Seven Myths of Conventional Medicine

physiciansI am in awe of medical science and the dedicated individuals who work toward its advancement. My father narrowly escaped a fatal coronary incident with six-way bypass surgery just shy of his eightieth birthday. A highly skilled surgeon removed a peach-sized meningioma from a dear friend’s brain, saving his life and all of his mental faculties. I wouldn’t be alive but for the vaccinations and antibiotics that have protected me from serious illness and death. I am truly grateful.

Yet I also acknowledge a flip-side to our extraordinary medical achievements. We often fail to honor our miraculous bodies by making lifestyle choices that enable them to do their best work. We rely too heavily on technology to affect repair on our self-inflicted damage. We may even have an excess of faith in what our healthcare system will do for us. In their book Ultraprevention: The Six-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy For Life, Dr. Mark Hyman, MD and Dr. Mark Luponis, MD rattle that faith by identifying seven common misconceptions about healthcare:

Myth #1: Your doctor knows best. Insurance carriers encourage physicians to identify symptoms, render diagnoses, and prescribe treatment very quickly. They don’t compensate physicians for time invested in exploring root causes. There are a range of preventative treatments that aren’t covered. And with specialization, many physicians simply focus on their areas of expertise rather than the whole person.

Myth #2: If you have a diagnosis, you know what’s wrong with you. Drs. Hyman and Liponis note that the same condition may have multiple causes; the same precipitating factor may create multiple conditions. It’s crucial to get to the root cause of the problem!

Myth #3: Drugs cure disease. Drugs often block natural biochemical and physiological processes. They have different effects on different people and may cause adverse reactions in combination with other drugs. Just because they’ve been tested and approved by the FDA doesn’t mean they’re safe.

Myth #4: Your genes determine your fate. As noted in last week’s post, our genotype provides the genetic blueprint for making proteins. The body’s needs combined with the cellular environment determine which of those blueprints gets used. We impact our cellular environment through our nutrition, habits, lifestyle, energy, and exposure to the five forces of illness. These forces include:

  • Malnutrition. Drs. Hyman and Luponis claim that 80% of Americans have “overconsumptive malnutrition” – i.e., they eat too many calories with too few nutrients. The digestive tract can’t absorb, process, and deliver the nutrients it gets effectively. Nutrient-starved cells don’t function well.
  • Impaired Metabolism. Metabolic dysfunction can result from insulin resistance (caused by excess sugar and processed foods in the diet), lack of nutrients, oxidative damage, poisoning (e.g., high mercury levels in certain kinds of fish), and gluten sensitivity.
  • Inflammation. Infection, allergies, oxidative stress, exposure to toxins, injury, trauma, and other factors activate the immune system and weaken the body’s natural defenses. These irritants need to be identified and addressed.
  • Impaired Detoxification. The body gets rid of materials that it does not use via sweat, urine, and feces, or through action of the bile duct. When these systems cease to function properly, undesirable elements accumulate in the bloodstream.
  • Oxidative Stress. Poor food choices can result in free radicals that cause damage to our cellular structures and tissues.

Myth #5: Getting older means aging. Drs. Hyman and Liponis concede that we have to work harder on self-care as we age, but note that the body has amazing restorative powers. We have the ability to grow new neurons and establish new neural connections as we age. We can use natural remedies (glucosamine, chondroitin) to mitigate wear-and-tear on our joints.

Myth #6: Fat is a four-letter word. Actually, we need a balance of mono- and polyunsaturated fats to maintain optimal cellular and general health. Fats aren’t bad; we simply need to consume good fats in moderation.

Myth #7: You can get all the vitamins you need from food. Actually, the more you eat, the more vitamins are required to process the food. Some vitamins may be in especially short supply. Diets rich in animal proteins have a calcium-depleting effect, requiring supplements to maintain healthy bones. Individuals who don’t get enough exposure to natural light need Vitamin D. Vegans must take Vitamin B12 supplements given the absence of meat in their diets. (Note: Check out for information on the content and purity of supplements. Look for the USP mark on purchased products.)

Having dispelled the myths, Drs. Hyman and Liponis provide assurance that we’ve got far more control over their health than we may have imagined. When given proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep while avoiding toxic influences (e.g, , smoking, substance abuse, stress), our bodies have the ability to keep us healthy and ward off disease. To that end, the authors lay out a six-week program that consists of two weeks for removing unhealthy foods/habits, two weeks for repairing the digestive system, and two weeks for recharging the body. Their program sets the pattern for the rest of your life.

For a deeper dive on all the foregoing points and a detailed description of the six-week program, check out the book and start your journey to a healthier you!