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The Trouble with Tech

Instead of looking to the future of medical technology for answers, many doctors and patients are looking to the past to solve our most complex health problems.

RALPH PALUMBO
Dr. Gary Ruelas incorporates alternative medical treatments into his practice at Integrative Medical Institute in Orange.

Humans do incredible things.

We’ve sent robots to explore Mars and invented eyeglasses that house a computer in their nearly invisible frames. We’ve made great strides toward eradicating scourges like polio and diphtheria using human-created vaccines. We’ve even developed a laser that can spot and kill malaria-causing mosquitoes without harming humans or other insects.

So why couldn’t I get rid of my tension headaches that had been plaguing me on and off for nearly two years? Where was the medical technology for that, the pill that would fix everything?

It doesn’t exist. I’ve been to countless dentists and doctors, examined from head to toe, spent a small fortune on night guards, considered jaw surgery, signed up for therapy, been injected with Botox, and enlisted in a regular exercise regimen. But besides getting in great shape and uncovering childhood traumas, my headaches persisted. Crushingly painful, they can last for weeks and leave me irritable, anti-social and exhausted. A temporary solution could be found in copious quantities of Advil, but besides the fact that the headache would resurface the next morning, this was not the long-term solution I was looking for. I wanted something permanent, something that would address the cause, not the symptoms.

In passing, my sister-in-law recommended acupuncture. I had considered it before, but it never seemed like a viable option – more like a last-ditch effort after every other method had failed. I didn’t understand how or why it worked and figured that any benefit derived was probably due to a placebo effect, which definitely wouldn’t override my already-skeptical nature. I was convinced that I wasn’t convinced about acupuncture’s benefits when I found out something curious: It was covered by my health insurance. Why would a large health insurance company, surely one of the most calculated businesses out there, cover something as medically nontraditional as acupuncture? I called them to find out.

Because it is a “medically viable practice” and “works for people who don’t respond to traditional interventions,” they told me, acupuncture is an effective way to treat a variety of conditions. In fact, the representative went on, due to its efficacy, acupuncture has become commonplace in insurance coverage.

It’s an understatement to say that this was news to me and my skepticism, which had clearly been informed (or rather, misinformed) by widespread health propaganda circulating the myth that all of our ills can be solved with the latest pharmacological miracle cure.
Acupuncture, on the contrary, has nothing to do with modern advancements in medicine; in fact, its roots are ancient, dating back to prehistoric times.

But despite these interesting factoids and the convenient realization that my insurance company would pick up the tab for up to 20 acupuncture visits per year, what I really wanted to know was if this ancient practice of needle insertion at specific points along the body’s meridians would work to help cure my headaches.

Unlike all the doctor’s offices I had been to, the acupuncturist’s felt peaceful. A fountain trickled water in the background. The receptionist spoke softly on the phone in a calm voice. And when it was time for my treatment, the practitioner herself came to get me. I lamented about my ongoing headaches, and instead of writing me a prescription for a painkiller before rushing off to the next patient, she began asking me questions – a lot of them, some very personal that seemed to have little to do with headaches. She didn’t take my temperature or my blood pressure, nor did I get weighed. But she did examine my tongue, twice, grimacing with what looked like concern.

“You have poor circulation,” she announced. “Your qi is blocked. Your tongue is very purple.” This was likely causing my headaches, she said, and by working to unblock these channels, allowing the qi, or energy, to flow through the body, they should start to subside.

More than a dozen needles and 30 minutes later, my headache had vanished (along with my skepticism), and I felt invigorated for the first time in weeks. When I woke up the next morning, instead of feeling like my head had been in the grip of a vice all night, I actually felt like a normal person again. As far as I was concerned, this was a miracle. But it probably wasn’t. Acupuncture is one of a growing number of practices that have been given new life lately, rediscovered as people (like myself) experience the limits of modern medicine and its compartmentalized approach to health that seeks to either find one root cause for the problem or cover it up entirely with pharmaceuticals. In an age where the latest medical advancements last as long as it takes to come up with the next one, a time-tested approach to our health may just be the most modern development of them all, even if its origins date back to the time when people were still writing on cave walls.

A growing number of professionals in the medical community are looking to holistic practices – yoga and meditation, acupuncture, beekeeping, and fermentation – to help solve and treat some of our most complex conditions, and perhaps more importantly, to prevent them from occurring in the first place. “These types of [practices] involve the fundamental structure of the body, not just treating the symptoms of disease,” says Dr. Gary Ruelas, founder of Integrative Medical Institute in Orange, which considers molecular, genomic, cultural, behavioral, and even spiritual factors when treating patients. “They are restorative, rebuilding the core foundation of each person and replenishing what they might need to enhance their immunity and stamina, and moving them to a level of optimum health.”

In other words, these ancient practices regard the body as a whole organism – a concept that science and modern medicine is only now just beginning to understand.

They are the new (and very, very old) paradigm for well-being.

Acupuncture
THE HISTORY Sticking needles in one’s body may not be the most intuitive approach to pain management, but as it turns out, it’s one of the most effective.

Far from being discovered by forward-thinking researchers, it’s believed that acupuncture originated as far back as the Stone Age (4500-2000 BCE), when soldiers, wounded by arrows during battle, noticed that the punctures worked to cure chronic afflictions that had otherwise gone untreated. Written evidence of the practice dates back to 200 BCE, by which time it was being used as a tool to diagnose and treat systemic medical conditions.

THE RESEARCH Thousands of years later, acupuncture is still in use – and not just casually; thousands worldwide turn to the practice every day for relief from a variety of health ills. While there have been a number of instances that have debunked the practice’s efficacy due to poor or misleading research methods (i.e. using acupuncture as anesthesia for surgery while also employing traditional anesthetics), more recent studies have shown that it is an effective tool for chronic pain, fertility and nausea. “All medication at its most basic level is engaged in an exchange of energy,” says Dr. Ruelas, “so the use of acupuncture to release forms of energy in the body that could help the body heal is a valid concept.”

Acupuncture works by unblocking qi, the body’s energy flow. It is thought that disruptions in this flow result in pain and disease, and by stimulating acupuncture points along the body’s meridians, the flow can be restored to a healthy balance. While these terms are largely metaphorical, they represent very real effects on the body.

Studies have shown that the use of traditional acupuncture to relieve back and neck pain, chronic headaches and osteoarthritis was superior to sham and no-acupuncture treatments. And for women struggling to get pregnant, acupuncture has been shown to significantly increase fertility by stimulating blood flow and hormones that aid in conception, along with producing feel-good chemicals such as endorphins. “Because acupuncture is integrative medicine, all forms of testing and treatment are based on peer-reviewed studies,” says Ruelas. “It is a scientifically sound form of care and takes the best from both worlds of traditional and non-traditional medicinal approaches.”

Be Well :: Read more about Dr. Ruelas’ approach to well-being in works that discuss his methods for the treatment and prevention of disease. 714.771.2880 :: integrative-med.org

yoga-central-nervous-clar

Photo By KEITH CREWS

GRIT Yoga's Alysa Osvog touts yoga as a de-stressor for the central nervous system, which leads to greater mental clarity.

Yoga
THE HISTORY While much of today’s yoga is focused on the physical benefits of the practice, its origins were associated with a philosophy of ritual discipline that was more meditation than movement. With roots dating back to the third century BCE, yoga, in its purest form, was designed as a disciplinary method to achieve the goal of liberation from the mind’s disturbances. Expanding yoga’s usefulness, however, was the physical component, which was a later addition, and is the main form practiced today.

THE RESEARCH Given the sheer volume of yoga studios and practitioners of all disciplines and levels, it would be easy to assume that yoga has always been a part of the Western recipe for health, advocated, as it is today, as a cure-all for everything from anxiety to heart health. In reality, it wasn’t until the 1980s that yoga was introduced in the U.S. as a health-oriented practice that was unconnected to a religious denomination. The number of people who practice yoga in the U.S. has risen precipitously since then, growing from four million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011 – and it’s not just because yoga has become a trendy thing to do. The health benefits are real.

Study after study has shown that yoga is beneficial for both physical and mental health, and hatha yoga, the discipline most widely practiced in the U.S., has been noted for its ability to aid those suffering from heart disease. “Western medicine is starting to catch on to this ancient form of well-being as a preventative as well as a treatment tool for a variety of imbalances,” says Alysa Osvog, director of operations at GRIT Yoga in Newport Beach.

“Current research supports yoga in the healing of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insomnia, anxiety, depression, addiction, and physical injuries or limitations.”

It’s a wide net with a lot of promises, but science backs up the claims. Regular yoga practice is responsible for increasing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production in the brain, a chemical that regulates excitability in the nervous system, and the deep breathing associated with the practice slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. In addition, working the body’s muscles through a series of yoga postures makes it more sensitive to insulin, which helps control blood sugar. It doesn’t necessarily take doctors and laboratory research to tell us this; the third-century BCE Indus Valley Civilization was already onto it, and many everyday people with no medical background are coming to realize the benefits simply by attending a few classes. “I studied the power of yoga to heal and have witnessed its impact in many lives restored to balance,” says Osvog. “The therapeutic benefits of a yoga practice address individuals, and vary depending on their specific intentions.”

And happily, in addition to these rewards, regular practice will bless you with a toned and agile yogi body.

Limber Up :: Get started with beginner’s yoga classes, or deepen your practice with GRIT Yoga’s more advanced offerings. 949.631.9642 :: grityoga.com

bill-guerilla-honeybees-m

Photo By RALPH PALUMBO

Bill Walter of Guerilla Beekeepers is on a mission to save the honeybees.

Beekeeping
THE HISTORY Far from their reputation as pesky, stinging creatures that take up residence in the most unhelpful of places, bees have a vaunted status in history. Humans have been keeping bees for over 4,500 years, since the Egyptians first attempted to domesticate them, recording their conquests in drawings. The bees’ honey was so valued that jars of it have been found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun.

Apiculture, or beekeeping, took a developmental turn in the 18th century, when Europeans came up with the movable comb hive that allowed the honey to be harvested without destroying the entire bee colony. Many of the techniques they developed – multistory hive configurations, sliding frames and the use of smoke to calm the bees – are still in use today.

THE RESEARCH Bees haven’t had an easy time lately. Since 2006, colony losses from a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) have decimated the honeybee industry, killing large groups of the insect that pollinates a more than $200 billion crop industry of bee-dependent produce such as grapes, almonds, avocadoes, and many more. This isn’t just a cause for mild curiosity; it’s an effect that could have immensely devastating repercussions for mankind’s food supply, and, many believe, is a bellwether for troubling environmental conditions that could directly impact the health of human beings in the near future.

Scientists still haven’t figured out what causes CCD. It’s believed that it is a combination of effects, from pesticides to long-distance trucking to get to their pollination locations to artificially feeding the bees less nutritious, antibiotic-laced sugar water instead of their own honey, all of which result in a weakened immune system that causes them to be more susceptible to disease and death.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” says Bill Walter, owner and founder of Guerilla Beekeepers, a local operation that rescues and relocates wild honeybee hives in an effort to propagate these “survivor bees” that have adapted to today’s stronger diseases. “It’s all these tiny stressors that add up to eventually overwhelm the resources of a colony, and the bees just die.”

Things weren’t always this way. According to Walter, a large part of CCD can be attributed to our modern system of monoculture farming, a practice in which a single crop is planted over a wide area for a long period of time. Before this industrialized system of farming was the norm, different crops were planted in close proximity to one another and were rotated throughout the seasons, giving wild bees plenty of variety for food in the form of nectar and pollen. Today, bees are expected to live on one type of food source – that which the monoculture provides – that has often, in addition, been sprayed with pesticides. “It would be like trying to live on french fries and Pepsi for a month,” says Walter. “Then the bees get moved again and again, crisscrossing the country on big semi trucks. If you stress the colony enough, it eventually dies.”

But it’s not a given that we’re destined to lose one-third of our food supply because the bees die off; Walter is in business because he believes that the honeybee crisis can be fixed. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the ancient practice of beekeeping, including, importantly, the bees’ need for a varied diet. By convincing growers to plant pollinating cover crops in the rows of their monocultures, bees could live on the property year-round and never have to be moved, eliminating one of their main stressors, according to Walter. And curtailing the practice of selective bee breeding, which produces weak bees that are dependant on human husbandry (“They’re the Chihuahuas of the bee world,” says Walter), could help encourage the proliferation of feral populations that are more robust.

These solutions may not solve the entire bee crisis, but they’re a start – one that harks back to beekeeping’s earliest times. “We can do this,” says Walter. “I know we can fix this.”

Feel the Buzz :: Guerilla Beekeepers is on a mission to educate the public about beekeeping. Find them at farmer’s markets, plan an educational presentation or support their efforts by contributing to their Indiegogo crowd-funding project, which will help fund the relocation and rehabilitation of 100 rescued hives. Visit Guerilla Beekeeper’s website for more information. Fundraising ends on November 19. 855.588.2337 :: guerillabeekeepers.com

heather-westenhofer

Heather Westenhofer

Fermentation
THE HISTORY Fermentation predates human history. It occurs naturally, under anaerobic conditions, in a process that converts sugars to alcohol. Controlled fermentation, that which results in products humans actually consume (wine, beer, bread, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheese, and even chocolate) has been around almost as mind-bogglingly long, since around 7000 BCE, when an alcoholic beverage made from rice, fruit and honey was made in Neolithic China. Wine followed shortly after, and the myriad of other products we now attribute to fermentation have been parading through human civilization ever since.

THE RESEARCH “In our culture, words like ‘bacteria’ have a bad rap,” says Heather Westenhofer, an OC-based cheesemaker, “but we coexist with bacteria, and there are lots of bacteria that are beneficial for people to consume.”

Fermentation relies on a variety of microbes, including bacteria and fungi, to chemically alter many of the foods we eat. Wine is grape juice fermented by yeast; sourdough is made by fermenting flour and water with lactobacilli and yeast; and kombucha, a recent beverage craze, is tea fermented by a combination of symbiotic bacteria and yeast. Yet, we’re terrified of bacteria, and we look to kill them at every chance we get with antibiotics and antibacterial hand gels, wipes and soaps. We’ve heard the consequences – the creation of “super bugs” that are resistant to antibiotics – a vicious cycle that results in the need for stronger antibiotics that then create stronger bacteria to resist them.

But what if we turned it all around? What if, like Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation and an HIV-positive man who decided to embrace our millennia-long relationship with microbes, we decided to stop fighting bacteria and learned to peacefully co-exist with them?

For as long as humans have existed, we’ve consumed foods preserved by fermentation, a process that breaks down nutrients, rendering the final product more nutritious and more easily digestible. As a result, the immune system is boosted, making us less susceptible to disease. “Fermented products cultivate beneficial bacteria, keeping your body in a healthy balance,” says Westenhofer. In cheesemaking, she explains, milk is fermented, breaking down the lactose sugars into lactic acid, which makes the final product more digestible and the nutrients more available for absorption by the body. And if the fermentation is done using raw milk, the benefits are even more profound. “Fermenting milk into cheese allowed our lactose-intolerant ancestors to benefit from the nutrients of the milk of other animals,” says Westenhofer. “And raw milk, in particular, contains beneficial bacteria which, properly handled, crowd out any harmful bacteria on their own.”

This is the story told by all things fermented, from pickles to beer to hot sauce and kimchi. We may not have realized it, but the microbes that do much of the digestive dirty work for us are the friends we never knew we had, waiting, if not for their moment of appreciation, for their chance to help us in our quest to become healthier.

Make Friends with a Microbe :: Heather Westenhofer hosts cheesemaking classes at Dragonfly Shops and Gardens, 260 N. Glassell St., Orange. Learn the basics of making everything from mozzarella to more advanced mold-ripened cheeses. Visit
the website to RSVP. :: occheesemaker.com



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