From Pills to Plants: A Lesson in Natural Medicine
By Christina Pasternak More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the FOOD-A-MINS Blog Series
“Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exists for no other end. Do not resist. With the least inclination to be well, we should not be sick.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Like most people, I grew up abiding by the rules of conventional medicine. I considered myself healthy until I was sick, and when I became sick, I sought out a white coat and a script pad for a cure. I made no connection between my choices, my disease, and how I could make myself well, mostly because I didn’t want to. At that point in my life, taking ownership of my lifestyle didn’t interest me. I left it up to the doctors. “Make me better,” I’d plea. So they did what most patients request: They treated my symptoms with pills, and when those pills stopped working, they gave me more. Why? Because I asked them to.
It was ten years ago that I learned of what I often referred to as my life’s sentence: chronic pain. Never knowing what kind of day I’d have. Panicking when I forgot to take my medicine. The anticipatory anxiety of a flare-up. Wishing I didn’t have to rely on drugs, yet refusing to think outside the prescription bottle and do something about it. The reality I chose was imprisonment in my own body resulting from my miserable marriage to pills. The truth that set me free, however, was all around me - my rekindled relationship with the healing powers of food from the Earth.
Becoming a Plant Person
When I started changing my diet, I began regaining control of my body. The more plant-based my diet was, the better I felt. It wasn’t a complex formula of food and supplements. I simply started eating more fruits and veggies and less processed foods.
Over time, green smoothies replaced pills, regular trips to the gym replaced visits to the doctor, and stress management replaced, well, stress. It wasn’t that I knew changing my lifestyle would help, but it just inherently felt like the right thing to do.
My body was already healing before I even realized it. The thing is, though, it wasn’t until I made the connection between my choices and the gradual elimination of symptoms that I finally started to get it. For the first time in years, I was addressing the underlying causes of my disease rather than suppressing symptoms with medication. This, I realized, was true healing.
My curiosity in natural medicine, particularly food therapy, wasn’t completely ignited until after I experienced multiple benefits from changing my diet. As if the heavy, dark cloud of chronic inflammation and pain being lifted wasn’t enough to become a believer, I also began to notice that I felt more balanced overall. My weight, skin, sleep, mood, digestion, energy levels, focus, and overall outlook on life improved. I felt more confident and empowered.
My path of self-discovery eventually led me to the philosophy of natural medicine. I began reading about these principles of living and the healing force of nature. Though complex and drawing upon the wisdom of many cultures, such as India’s Ayurveda, ancient Chinese medicine, and Greece’s Hippocratic school of medicine, naturopathic medicine is founded on the following principles:
The healing power of nature: The body has an incredible ability to heal itself. The role of a natural health practitioner is to facilitate this process through natural therapies, such as clinical nutrition, botanical medicine, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, as well as lifestyle coaching and modification.
Identify and treat the cause: Natural health practitioners are trained to identify the underlying cause of an ailment rather than suppressing its symptoms. Symptoms are viewed as expressions of the body’s attempt to heal itself, and the actual cause of the disease can be physical, mental, emotional, social, or spiritual.
Do no harm: A naturopath’s primary focus of treatment is to do no harm with medical treatment. This means safe and effective natural therapies whenever possible.
Holistic approach to treatment: Natural health practitioners view an individual as a whole person containing a complex interaction of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social factors. All aspects of a person are connected, and this principle is referred to as holism, or, a state of wholeness. When it comes to holistic health, any disharmony of these factors can lead to sickness.
In order to effectively fight disease, natural health practitioners work to enhance the body’s own defenses and restore internal balance. How does this differ from conventional medicine? Conventional medicine defines health as the absence of disease, whereas the holistic approach recognizes health as complete physical, mental, and social wellness. One of the best illustrations of the contrast is that ancient Chinese practitioners received no payment from their patients while they were ill. It wasn’t until they achieved internal balance and overall health that their doctors were compensated for treatment.
Practitioners are teachers: Above all else, a natural health practitioner’s most important job is acting as a teacher. They educate, empower, and motivate their patients to take more responsibility for their health through lifestyle, diet, and attitude.
Prevention is key: Though natural health practitioners typically begin working with patients to overcome existing disease, their primary focus is preventive medicine. Preventing illness through supporting health is accomplished primarily through education and adopting health-promoting lifestyle habits.
Establishing optimal health and wellness: The primary goals of natural medicine are achieving positive and satisfactory physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. Regardless of a patient’s level of health, a natural health practitioner works with the patient towards establishing and maintaining overall wellness. Sometimes this can even mean creating a more positive outlook on one’s life despite a chronic disease. Practitioners highly value the healing power of a positive mental attitude, which ultimately facilitates change and overall quality of life.
Conventional Medicine vs. Natural Medicine
"Despite the insights of some eminent doctors, medicine still focuses on disease, giving it a failure orientation. Its practitioners still act as though disease catches people, rather than understanding that people catch disease by becoming susceptible to the seeds of illness to which we are all constantly exposed. Although the best physicians have always known better, medicine as a whole has rarely studied the people who don't get sick. Most doctors seldom consider how a patient's attitude towards life shapes that life's quantity and quality." – Bernie S. Siegal, M.D.
When it comes to our overall health and well-being, both conventional and holistic approaches are important and necessary when considering our healthcare needs and options. Though some may disagree, neither philosophy offers everything for treating all of our conditions. Though I still see a medical doctor as needed, I also recognize the importance of food therapy, exercise, chiropractic care, stress management, emotional health, etc. My approach to treating my disease has changed because I found what works best for me. I do my best to love and respect my body with the least-invasive, most natural approach possible. If nothing else, the most important lesson that can be learned from natural approaches is that we must take responsibility for our own health. We can truly become the experts of our lives and our health once, of course, we move beyond the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach.
Murray, M.T., & Pizzorno, J. (2012). The encyclopedia of natural medicine. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.