Alternative medicine grabs complementary role


Clinical director Ruby Bienert, left, and acupuncture clinic intern Autumn Ta, right, administer an acupuncture treatment session to patient Debra Holland, center, Thursday at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture at 305 SE Second Ave. in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 6:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 27, 2013 at 6:40 p.m.

Imagine going into your local pharmacy and asking for something to "calm your spirit" or "transform your phlegm." The pharmacist might raise an eyebrow, but there's a place in Gainesville where treating such conditions is the norm.

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Clinical director Ruby Bienert, left, and acupuncture clinic intern Autumn Ta, right, administer an acupuncture treatment session to patient Debra Holland, center, Thursday at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture at 305 SE Second Ave. in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/Gainesville Sun

At the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture downtown, Autumn Ta, an intern who came to the school from Seattle, prepares powders from things such as "Chinese rose buds" and "betel nuts" that line the wall of the school's herbal dispensary and claim to treat conditions such as "damp heat."

A urinary tract infection is one condition that could arise from damp heat, and instead of treating it with antibiotics, herbal remedies might put your body back in balance. "In Western medicine, you might get better quicker, but you may have more side effects," Ta said.

Conventional medicine is at a crossroads, as people live longer with chronic conditions that don't necessarily respond to drugs. People are also looking for other solutions to heal their ailments, and what's known as "integrative medicine" — including a broad range of healing techniques such as acupuncture, massage therapy and meditation — is on the rise.

Gainesville, largely known for its medical community, also espouses many of these healing traditions.

Wellness-oriented city

"It's definitely a wellness-oriented community," said Jerrod Fletcher, an acupuncturist in Gainesville's Millhopper neighborhood. He added that the city has over 100 acupuncturists and many chiropractors and massage therapists.

The Academy for Five Element and the Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine are both nationally recognized acupuncture schools.

As for his clientele, "You've got yuppies, hippies and everything in between," Fletcher said, adding, "We are a complement to what physicians do."

Like many people drawn to unconventional therapies, Fletcher suffered from his own physical ailments — chronic fatigue syndrome and Epstein-Barr virus. "I didn't get a lot of answers from conventional medicine," he said. He went to a homeopathic physician, who gave him supplements, and he got better.

For the next few years, Fletcher, who graduated from college with a business degree, experimented with various diets and juicing fasts and got a job at Earth Origins grocery store on Northwest 13th Street. "I worked through what worked and what didn't," he said.

Today he's literally "the guiding hand" for patients with conditions ranging from migraines and asthma to back and shoulder pain — much of it stress-related.

Fletcher practices Korean Hand Therapy, a form of acupuncture that stimulates the neuroreceptors in the hand that connect to the brain.

These neuroreceptors correspond to different organs, so when they are touched, the brain can send different signals to organs and tissues, he continued. The technique can treat conditions such as insomnia and anxiety, pain, allergies and depression.

"Everyone is on the go," Fletcher said. "This is often a place where people are pinned down literally for 30 minutes."

Fletcher uses mini-magnets instead of needles, which help increase blood flow. He also gives his patients a set of magnets to take home so that they can perform acupuncture on themselves.

"It's like going to the gym every week," he said. "If you're in pain, it's a way to treat yourself."

For Jessica Sutt, a 24-year-old graduate student in fisheries and aquatics at the University of Florida, the therapy has helped reduce her headaches after a decade of unsuccessful treatments.

"I was mostly sick of being pumped with drugs," Sutt said. "Now whenever I have a headache, I do the magnets instead of popping another Excedrin."

She added that doing the acupuncture has not only reduced her headaches — it's increased her awareness of her overall health.

"One of the biggest things is being able to pay attention to my body a little more," she said. "I feel like I've become more attuned."

This echoes Fletcher's goal. "Some things I can't change, but I can create an awareness of them."

Some of his allergy patients have been able to go off their medications, and a woman trying to get pregnant for over a year using fertility drugs did acupuncture, stopped taking her drugs, and got pregnant three months later.

Other patients do acupuncture with the idea of maintaining their health instead of treating particular conditions.

Increasing awareness

That corresponds to the philosophy behind Eastern medicine, Ta said. "In ancient China, you would not have to pay the doctor when you got sick, because the doctor's job is to keep you healthy."

She added that she has several patients who come in for regular checkups.

"This is primary-care medicine," she said.

At the Academy for Five Element, they aim to empower patients to heal themselves.

"We're our greatest healers," said Patty Getford, student dean of the academy.

"When people do something for themselves, it's empowering," added Dr. Siegfried Schmidt, a family practice physician and professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine who uses some integrative medicine in his practice. "That can get lost when you're just shoving them into an MRI."

At the academy, and largely in Eastern medicine, practitioners' relationships with their patients is at the core of the healing philosophy.

"We treat the body, mind, emotions and spirit," Ta said, adding that part of that treatment involves identifying in which of those areas patients have symptoms.

Dr. Angeli Akey, an internist at North Florida Regional Medical Center who practices integrative medicine, agreed.

"Part of the visit is to understand who you are in the context of the world," she said, adding that, "Healthy habits and relationships determine our overall health" and that relationships include those with our self, family and others.

"An effective healer in 2013 really understands the whole person," said Akey, who will be opening a new clinic next month called "North Florida Integrative Medicine."

East vs. West

To some extent, the differences between integrative and conventional medicine can be boiled down to the differences between Eastern and Western medical traditions.

As Ta, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, explained, "What people don't realize is that Chinese medicine has evolved over 5,000 years. It's a system on its own," she said.

Migraines and insomnia in Chinese medicine might be known as liver Qi (energy) rising, she continued. "It can be frustrating to explain to patients the nuances of a symptom," she said.

Chinese medicine also views the body as a terrain to be protected, so the emphasis is on building up immunity to prevent disease rather than attacking disease once it occurs.

"Western medicine is very heroic. It was created during times of war," Fletcher said, adding that the strength of Eastern medicine "is in managing chronic disease, health and wellness."

Akey said in Chinese medicine, the body can be thought of as a fort. "If you forget about strengthening your fort, you're at risk for invaders and infections," she said.

"The gut" is also key to Chinese medicine, she added.

Western diets have traditionally had too much wheat, corn, soy, and as a result, people are increasingly being diagnosed with allergies to gluten as well as auto-immune diseases.

For that reason, Akey recommends eating a whole foods diet as a basic starting point for good health. This includes local greens and produce, grass-fed beef and hormone-free chicken. Other tips include drinking two liters of filtered water a day, eating steamed vegetables, avoiding processed foods and heating food in glass instead of plastic.

Akey also recommends meditating twice a day for 20 minutes to maintain a healthy mind. "It should be like brushing your teeth," she said.

Complementary systems

Although the dearth of evidence-based studies proving the efficacy of integrative medicine techniques has prevented the methods from being fully endorsed by the medical establishment, increasingly physicians are beginning to see integrative medicine as a complement to what they do.

"My neurosurgeon in Seattle was like, ‘Are you practicing yet?' " because he wanted to send me patients, Ta said. "There are issues we can't quite address and testing we can't do," she said. "But we have insight."

Akey said cutting-edge medicine is great for detecting genetic mutations and early detection of diseases that integrative methods can help contain.

Schmidt said there's a role for both systems in modern medicine but cautioned people against dismissing conventional therapies.

For example, cancer patients who practice "oxygen therapy" instead of radiation therapy — which, depending on the tumor type, can treat 90 percent of tumors — would be putting their health at risk, Akey explained.

He uses a risk/benefit approach to unconventional therapies that addresses three questions: "Does it work? Is it safe? Does it have any interactions with other medications?"

In early August, UF Health Shands Hospital will roll out its own integrative health program, to be led by Dr. Irene Estores, a physical medicine and rehab specialist.

Estores said the program will include yoga, meditation, massage therapy and martial arts.

"We recognize that there are limitations to conventional medicine," Estores said, noting that oncologists recognize the role that integrative medicine can play for patients undergoing chemotherapy and in need of help managing some of the side effects.

"This is the kind of medicine that doctors want to provide and patients want to receive," Estores said.

Challenges remain, however. "The key is to get our insurance companies to recognize it," she said.

Prestigious medical journals have published studies showing the efficacy of acupuncture for osteoarthritis; as well as the superiority of treating metabolic syndrome (a precursor to diabetes) with lifestyle and diet instead of the drug Metformin, Estores said. Yet insurance still won't cover the unconventional treatments, she said.

"It's an uphill battle," she said. "But it's a battle worth pursuing."

Contact Kristine Crane at 38-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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