As a forward-thinking woman who embraces safe and natural health strategies for you and your family, you'll be delighted by this verdict: Scientists have compiled compelling new evidence affirming the ability of many complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) to prevent and treat a host of common ailments — giving an important stamp of approval to healing practices that have long resided at the fringe of conventional medicine.
The endorsement comes from no less august an authority than the National Institutes of Health. In 1999, Congress established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NIH; its sole aim was to rigorously assess the restorative powers of natural products, such as herbs and supplements, as well as mind and body therapies, like hypnosis and acupuncture. Thousands of studies and more than a decade later, "the science shows which approaches work," says Josephine Briggs, MD, director of NCCAM.
The proven therapies have much to recommend them. They are gentle on your body and can often replace prescription drugs. They're a safe adjunct (hence their "complementary" moniker) to medication and other conventional treatment. And they're easy on your wallet, usually less expensive than traditional care and, increasingly, covered by insurance. Here are some common conditions that new research says respond best to these uncommon — but extraordinarily effective — treatments.
Massage for depression
It's a no-brainer: Chronic mental and emotional stress, both of which can lead to depression, are eased by massage, so it's hardly a surprise that a number of studies conclude that massage therapy helps lift the blues. Researchers suspect that massage spurs the release of mood-boosting endorphins, perhaps in response to both physical manipulation and intimate hands-on touch. Some studies show that massage therapy is as effective as prescription antidepressants, such as Prozac and Paxil, in relieving anxiety, a major contributor to depression.
Hidden benefit: Massage therapy relieves stiffness and pain and speeds healing of sports injuries.
Tai chi for insomnia
Are you a chronic tosser and turner? Can't sleep beyond the first chirps and tweets of the morning chorus? Try tai chi. The slow, meditative exercise regimen, originally developed as a martial art in China more than 2,500 years ago and practiced widely across Asia today, improves sleep quality in adults with moderate insomnia, CAM researchers say. The benefits, linked to tai chi's well-established ability to reduce stress, kicked in after participants practiced the routine for 16 weeks. You will need regular instruction at first, so look for classes at your Y or gym.
Hidden benefit: Tai chi helps improve balance and reduce risk of falling.
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Bromelain for swelling
The indigenous peoples of South America have used bromelain for centuries to dress and treat wounds. Now, recent research confirms that a medicinal compound (today taken in a pill) extracted from the stem and juice of the pineapple plant speeds healing of acute injuries such as cuts and bruises. It works by stopping the production of prostaglandins, hormonelike compounds that are by-products of inflammation, improving blood circulation at the injury site. In Germany, bromelain is routinely given to patients before and after surgery to minimize swelling around incisions. "Be sure to take the enteric-coated version, which has a protective shell that helps get the pill beyond your digestive tract," says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, director of the fellowship for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. It usually takes 1 to 2 days for bromelain to work. Caveat: Because it thins the blood, talk with your doctor first about using bromelain if you also take a blood thinner.
Hidden benefit: Bromelain is a digestive enzyme (it's also used as a meat tenderizer) and so helps ease indigestion if taken with food.
Image: Prevention, September 2010
Acupuncture for chronic pain
A rash of new research affirms this ancient therapy as a powerful head-to-toe pain reliever for a wide range of conditions. After as few as six sessions, people who suffered from regular tension headaches saw their symptoms disappear. Another new study found that sufferers of chronic lower-back pain who received acupuncture fared better than those receiving conventional care. Acupuncture also relieves pain and improves mobility in people with osteoarthritis of the knee — encouraging news, because the condition is considered irreversible. Just how does acupuncture work? According to precepts of Chinese medicine, placing needles at specific points along the body's meridians, or energy channels, balances energy flow. Western scientists have a more prosaic explanation: The needles stimulate the body to release its own natural opioids, quelling pain. As their discomfort eases, sufferers of arthritis and lower-back pain can then perform exercises that enable them to regain strength, flexibility, and mobility.
Hidden benefit: You gain deeper body knowledge. Your acupuncturist will take a holistic approach to your condition, so although you may go in to treat pain in one part of your body, you may come out with a much broader understanding of how other parts contribute to that discomfort as well.
Glucosamine/chondroitin for joint pain
It works, it doesn't work ... Over the years, the data on glucosamine and chondroitin, natural compounds found in healthy cartilage and available in supplement form, and their ability to reduce joint pain has been conflicted at best. The NCCAM study analyses finally bring clarity to the issue: Glucosamine is most effective in sulfate form; combined with chondroitin, it reduces joint pain in people with moderate-to-severe arthritis but is less helpful for those who have mild discomfort. Dosage is important too, the researchers have learned: A combination pill totaling 1,500 mg of glucosamine sulfate and 1,200 mg of chondroitin, taken daily, provides the most relief.
Hidden benefit: Glucosamine sulfate can stop the progression of osteoarthritis.
Cocoa for hypertension
Delectable news: Consumed daily for at least 2 weeks, cocoa (the darker the better) can reduce blood pressure among people with severe hypertension. Researchers say cocoa plant flavanols, called epicatechins, improve blood vessel function by helping artery walls relax. Most research shows the effects to be modest but still important, meaning you should use cocoa as an adjunct to any blood pressure meds, such as diuretics or ACE inhibitors, that you may be taking now. If you try it, follow the protocols used in most studies: Get the equivalent of 450 mg of flavanols, about the amount found in a cup of hot cocoa, twice a day.
Hidden benefit: Like chocolate, cocoa is rich in antioxidants, nutrients that fight cancer, strengthen the immune system, and slow aging. And — need we say it? — cocoa is delicious!
Green tea for rheumatoid arthritis
Although the findings so far are limited to laboratory animals, intriguing new research points to green tea's ability to marshal the body's defenses against rheumatoid arthritis. When consumed daily over 3 weeks, green tea decreased the likelihood that rats injected with a human form of rheumatoid arthritis would get the disease. Researchers credit the brew's polyphenols, a kind of antioxidant that can help bolster immunity. They say the popular libation could be an effective nutritional strategy in managing the condition in people. Caveat: Green tea contains a small amount of vitamin K, a clotting agent that can interfere with the effectiveness of anticoagulants, such as warfarin and heparin. If you take one of these drugs, tell your doctor, as he may need to adjust your dosage.
Hidden benefit: Some studies indicate green tea may help spur weight loss.
Rhodiola for anxiety
One reason we know that rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) works is because it's been used worldwide for centuries, especially in Russia, Scandinavia, and Iceland (it grows in extreme northern climates), to quell anxiety and strengthen mental stamina. Another is that the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine recently gave it a big thumbs-up. If you try this plant extract, also known as golden root and available at health-food stores, follow label directions. Caveat: It can cause dizziness and dry mouth, though these side effects are rare.
Hidden benefit: Rhodiola also counters symptoms of fatigue.
Hypnosis for hot flashes
Women who were hypnotized during five weekly sessions reduced both the frequency and severity of their hot flashes, according to fascinating new research. Experts say hypnosis can literally change the way the brain receives signals from the body and from the outside world. "Hypnosis teaches us that we have more control over how we process both internal and external information, like temperature, than we usually give ourselves credit for," says David Spiegel, MD, associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and medical director of the Stanford Center for Integrated Medicine. "For instance, hypnosis can suggest to the brain that it should tamp down its sensitivity to heat; when it does just that, women with hot flashes have an altered perception of their body temperature."
Hidden benefit: Hypnosis can decrease anxiety and depression and improve your quality of sleep.