Why Mind-Body Medicine Isn't So "Alternative" Anymore

Don’t use the term “alternative medicine” around Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., FACP.

A physician who has appeared regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC’s Today show, Larry King Live and Discovery Health Channel, Dr. Peeke prefers “complementary” or “integrative” when referring to nontraditional therapies such as yoga, massage, meditation or acupuncture.

“It’s so sad we have to call them alternatives,” she says. “It’s funny that we should think of mind-body therapies as outside Western medicine. They’re an integral piece of what the healing process is all about.”

Peeke was the first senior research fellow at the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine in 1993, but she has seen a big change since the study of homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and therapeutic massage was considered “fringe medicine.” Now, she says, “If you don’t have an acupuncturist, you’re not part of the ’in crowd.’”

Indeed, more than 2 million Americans visited an acupuncturist in a single year, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control. That same survey showed that 36 percent of U.S. adults used some form of “complementary and alternative medicine,” including herbs (19 percent), deep breathing (12 percent), meditation (8 percent) and yoga (5 percent).

“As they now look at these therapies, people are finding that their ability to live optimally and maximize their wellness means integrating bits and pieces of these kinds of therapies into their life,” says Peeke. “There’s absolutely no question about it.”

Research Has Cultivated American Acceptance

Part of the reason for the surge in popularity of mind-body therapies is the growing number of news reports touting their success.

“Look on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek. Nearly every single month it’s something new [related to complementary medicine],” Peeke says. “We have a huge breadth of knowledge now, so you’d have to be an ostrich with its head in the sand not to get this message: Mind-body medicine is alive and well. It’s now being honored and respected in the U.S.”

Even bodywork therapies such as therapeutic massage have gone through “a real renaissance,” Peeke says, because studies have shown that they reduce stress hormones. “And when you reduce stress hormones,” she adds, “many things go well — you age better, you feel better, you sleep better.”

More than 90 studies on the positive effects of massage therapy have been conducted since 1992 at the Touch Research Institutes, which was first established at the University of Miami. Their research has linked massage to a reduction in pain and depression, improved immune function, and increased mental alertness. One study involving breast cancer patients showed that massage therapy reduced anxiety and depression and increased the number of immunity-boosting “natural killer” cells. Another showed that massaging diabetic children brought their glucose levels down to the normal range.

Acupuncture has received similar validation. In late 2004, the NIH released the findings of the largest and longest clinical acupuncture trial ever conducted, showing that the ancient practice relieved pain and improved function of the knee in osteoarthritic patients.

“All health scientists are using this now,” Peeke says of integrative medicine. “They’re integrating it into programs, practices and clinical research. It has just become much more widespread.”

Not all nontraditional therapies, however, have been embraced by the Western medical community or media. Peeke says homeopathy still remains on the fringe because research hasn’t proven its utility as it has with other complementary therapies. And energy therapies, such as qigong and reiki, are just now gaining in popularity.

Doctors Move from the Body to the Brain

Nutritional supplements and herbal remedies were the first complementary therapies to take off, and still remain the most popular. But now it seems the public, as well as the medical community, is turning its attention from the mouth to the mind.

“People are beginning to almost innately realize that they’ve concentrated on the physical aspects of the body and have left the mind completely off the radar screen,” Peeke says. “They’ll come in and say, ’I don’t understand why this weird rash keeps popping up. And, I’m under the worst stress of my life.’ OK, let’s all connect the dots.”

With more than 70 percent of patient complaints to primary care physicians turning out to be stress-related, Peeke has been connecting the dots for years, creating a template she calls the Mind-Mouth-Muscle approach.

“Mind controls everything,” she says. “The muscle and the mouth are technical. Everyone keeps blowing off the mind and going directly to the technical. They keep forgetting that the mind is where it’s at.”

But just as acupuncture and herbal remedies have enjoyed growing acceptance, Peeke says the mind-related therapies will follow suit, making the mind-body connection an essential part of the evolving field of integrative medicine.

“The mind is really the next horizon,” she says.

“A lot of the work we’re doing right now in science is about the mind. And what we’re going to find is that the mind is 50 times more powerful than we anticipated.”

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