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How To Integrate Western and Eastern Medicine

For four common health concerns.

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Photography by: Yasu + Junko

Put down your matcha latte and ponder this striking stat: Since 2002, the number of major academic and health centers in North America promoting integrative medicine—a blend of conventional Western and traditional Chinese practices, Ayurveda, herbal remedies, nutrition, yoga, and meditation—has grown at least sixfold, to more than 65. “Western medicine is mainly interested in identifying the cause of a disease and countering it with drugs, while Eastern medicine focuses on enhancing our natural defenses so diseases can be prevented,” explains Andrew Weil, M.D., founder of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in Tucson. In other words, a migraine sufferer might get a prescription from a Western doc, and an acupuncture referral from an Eastern one. But when those treatments are thoughtfully combined, the results can be off the charts.

 

Holistic Help

Experts explain Western, Eastern, and integrated treatments for four common health concerns.

 

Fighting Cold & Flu

Western Approach

Avoid exposure by washing your hands frequently, disinfecting surfaces, and getting a flu shot. If you get sick, there’s not much to do but rest, drink fluids, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen if needed for aches or a fever; in severe or risky cases, your doc may prescribe an antiviral drug, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu).

Eastern Approach

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) sees the viruses as invasions of wind. Actual blasts are said to up the odds of catching one, so preventive advice is to keep warm, as well as maintain good, regular diet, exercise, and sleep habits. To accelerate healing, practitioners use acupuncture, as certain points are said to help remove the wind, says Katie Hu, M.D., an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. TCM also calls for warming foods (ginger tea, broth) and herb blends, like gan mao ling. Ayurveda promotes warming foods, too: Bhaswati Bhattacharya, M.D., a holistic physician specializing in Ayurveda and a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City, suggests ginger and tulsi tea, and guduchi herb powder.

Integrated Approach

Definitely wash your hands and get a flu shot. Then make sure your immune system is fully charged, says Melinda Ring, M.D., executive director of the Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, in Chicago, by treating any vitamin deficiencies (such as vitamin D), eating lots of produce (“not just comfort carbs”), and taking elderberry syrup (a tablespoon a day, upping the dose if you’re sick). Vitamin C, echinacea, and garlic may help hurry symptoms along, adds Hu.
 

[LEARN: How to Clean Your House to Avoid the Flu]
 

Easing Allergies

Western Approach

Whether it’s pollen or a friend’s cat that sets off yours, the first line of treatment is usually an OTC antihistamine, like Benadryl or Claritin. A decongestant or OTC corticosteroid nasal spray, like Flonase, can clear a stuffy nose. For hives or a rash the antihistamine doesn’t fix, there are Rx corticosteroids, like prednisone.

Eastern Approach

TCM links allergies to a deficiency of qi, our inner life force. “The thinking is that your body doesn’t have the energy to regulate the immune system properly,” says Hu. Acupuncture and herbal therapy (with ingredients like chrysanthemum flower and orange peel) may be prescribed to recalibrate qi. Ayurveda faults an imbalance in one’s dosha, or elemental makeup, that diet tweaks (sticking to freshly prepared food; avoiding hard-to-digest combos, like citrus and dairy) can help even out, says Bhattacharya.

Integrated Approach

It’s fine to use an OTC antihistamine or inhaled corticosteroid initially, says Hu. But the goal is to treat the underlying issues so you need those drugs less. Stress can exacerbate allergies, she explains. Relieve it with yoga, acupuncture (a 2013 study found it reduced symptoms and antihistamine use in eight weeks), or even running—any calming activity that makes you say “Ahh.” Bhattacharya suggests avoiding inflammatory foods, like coffee and red meat. Also, preliminary studies suggest that taking probiotics may help relieve and possibly even prevent seasonal allergy symptoms

 

[TRY: 10 Natural Remedies for Seasonal Allergies]
 

Treating Insomnia

Western Approach

Researchers advise avoiding screens and even books in bed, so you associate it with three things only: spooning, slumber, and sex. Your doc may prescribe a sleep aid, like Ambien or Sonata, but you shouldn’t take most of these long-term due to the risk of dependence. A drug-free option is cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be as effective as meds.

Eastern Approach

Acupuncture to the rescue again. The targeted pricks can promote deep rest by relaxing the body and encouraging blood flow. “There are points, including one behind the ear, that help specifically with sleep,” says Hu. Diet and exercise factor in, too. TCM warns against eating stimulating foods, like ginger or turmeric; and heavy ones, like fries or red meat, within four to six hours of bedtime. Bhattacharya advises yoga to relax mind and body.

Integrated Approach

Follow the researchers’ advice, and look for hidden food culprits, says Ring—an after-dinner dark chocolate may have as much caffeine as a soda. If you still struggle, try yoga or meditation, or a sleep-inducing supplement, like melatonin or valerian.

 

Managing Menopause

Western Approach

The warm-up to your period’s swan song, aka perimenopause, typically starts in your 40s and can last up to 10 years or longer. The key is to ease the side effects—like hot flashes, brain fog, mood swings, and vaginal dryness—of your fluctuating levels of hormones (mainly estrogen and progesterone), by supplementing them. Hot flashes are usually best treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT), either via pill or transdermal patch. (Women over 60, or who have contraindications such as a history or high risk of breast cancer, stroke, or heart or liver disease, shouldn’t take HRT—instead, they can benefit from certain SSRIs, like Paxil or Effexor, which can reduce hot-flash frequency and severity.) A low-dose birth-control pill may help control irregular, heavy bleeding; for vaginal dryness, there’s estrogen cream.

Eastern Approach

The Chinese philosophy of opposite yet complementary energies—yin (blood and organs) and yang (flow and function)—comes into play here. Since yin is associated with cool moisture and yang with heat, women with menopausal side effects are said to be losing their yin relative to their yang, says Hu. Cooling foods like watermelon, soy, and honey can help restore balance; meditation and exercise may dial down inner fire.

Integrated Approach

“I offer HRT to women who want to take it and don’t have risk factors,” says Ring. “But I also encourage them to try acupuncture for hot flashes.” Though the research is conflicting, a 2015 analysis of 12 studies showed that the needles can reduce the frequency and severity. And since women at this age are susceptible to bone loss, diet is crucial. Support your body by eating a plant-based diet, with plenty of calcium and vitamins D and K2.

 

[LEARN: Meditation Techniques for Beginners]