East and West

The Healing Powers of Complementary Medicine

Photograph by auremar/fotolia

Frustrated with health care on a national level, many Americans see the need to take greater personal responsibility for their own health. For some, that means shifting from conventional Western medicine to Eastern ways of healing. Integrating the two forms of medicine—thinking of them as complementary rather than competitive—is a novel approach that is gaining popularity.

The 2007 National Statistics Health Report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 83 million adults spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. CAM costs amount to 11.2% of total out-of-pocket expenditures on health care. These figures support the idea that for many people, traditional Western medicine, which focuses primarily on treating symptoms and alleviating pain, is not necessarily the best path to optimum health. As an alternative, the appeal of CAM is its focus on illness prevention and maintaining health.

“That’s the future of health care. We named our clinic Preventative Medicine for a reason,” says Morgan Huynh, office manager of Silicon Valley Preventative Medicine and Natural Medicinary, a newly opened naturopathic clinic in Campbell. “Why get on an operating table if you can avoid that entire process?”

Dr. Kevan Huynh and Dr. Tracy Chan, the doctors who started this small clinic, also see it that way. “I grew up with the mindset that I was going to go into conventional medicine,” says Chan. “After researching naturopathic medicine, I really resonated with the principles of that medicine, compared to the conventional medical model.”

After talking with other doctors to gather their opinions on conventional versus non-traditional practices, Chan was surprised to learn that if given a second chance at their education and training, very few of them would chose the conventional path.

“It’s the whole politics behind conventional medicine—not being able to practice what they intended to practice before they entered medical school … [they] wanted to help people and treat people … but they are under strict confines to do limited treatment times and insurance,” Chan says. “Looking into naturopathic medicine--that was a whole new door for me. And it opened my eyes and really resonated with my own philosophy.”

Doctors Chan and Huynh hold the degree of “ND” (naturopathic doctor), which in many ways is equivalent to “MD”. Like an MD, an ND undergoes a multi-year medical school program, learning how to diagnose disease, what standard treatments are applied, and the proper uses and side effects of conventional drugs. NDs must be recertified on their pharmacology education every two years. NDs can prescribe medicines, but typically, they choose not to.

Chan emphasizes the importance of health-optimizing food; she also focuses on “energetic” food.

“Prevention is the key,” says Huynh. “Prevention is within our six basic principles of naturopathic medicine.” Those are:
1. Do no harm
2. Treat the patient as a whole (mind, body and spirit)
3. Treat the cause, not the symptoms
4. Heal thyself: use the power of nature and harness the body’s natural inclination to heal itself
5. Prevention
6. Doctor as teacher: your doctor acts as your educator in preventative health

Both Huynh and Chan also hold MS degrees in Oriental Medicine. This means they can mix their own herbal remedies. Their clinic has a natural medicinary with more than 250 professional-grade herbs available for treating patients.

“[Our practice is] unique because we customize all of our formulas and our herbs. We put them together for the patient, tailor them very specifically to the patient, according to their symptoms and pathologies,” says Huynh.

Qi Gong therapy is another Eastern treatment offered at Huynh’s and Chan’s practice. “Qi” means energy; “Gong” means work, so Qi Gong is the methodology for the work of energy. Qi Gong is often considered a form of stress reduction, but according to Chan, it can also prevent ailments and alleviate physical and mental health issues from insomnia to hypertension. The practice is based on the duality of yin and yang. It harmonizes the yin and the yang, so that the patient may go from one to another easily.

“[Qi Gong] builds your inner energy, or Qi,” says Chan. “Say someone with hypertension comes in… we teach them the style of Qi Gong that will help them ground themselves, and bring down the energy, so that it doesn’t all scatter,” says Huynh.

The first step in Qi Gong therapy is to treat some of the symptoms. For example, sitting in front of the computer too long can lead to fatigue and numbness in the arms, wrists, or hands. Qi Gong practice can help to alleviate or eliminate this fatigue, by increasing the blood flow and energy flow within the body.

Huynh says, “First [the patient] experiences symptom release, but eventually, [we] will teach them a much deeper form that allows them to cultivate their inner energy, their essence.”

A typical treatment visit to Chan’s and Huynh’s clinic is unlike any that you might experience at a Kaiser facility or Blue Cross provider’s office. The clinic’s muted colors and quiet space are designed to make patients feel at ease. Unlike at a Western doctor’s office, a patient’s first visit lasts nearly an hour. Often the doctors will run a series of tests based on the patient’s symptoms or concerns. A typical test involves spitting into a vial during different times of the day to show changes in cortisol levels—a direct correlation to how stressed the body is during different parts of the day. That information is then discussed in a follow-up visit to determine the mind and body connection causing the ailment.

“Why get on an operating table if you can avoid that entire process?”

Huynh gives an example of a patient suffering from an ulcer. An ND initially runs multiple tests and talks at length with the patient about symptoms and causes. In sharp contrast, a Western MD might spend 10 minutes with the patient, refer him or her for an endoscopy, then prescribe a strong antacid and a “wait and see” approach.

An ND looks for what is causing the problem—why the body became vulnerable enough to create an ulcer in the first place. “The goal is to figure out what is going on, what’s causing this ulcer, and tailor the treatment plan. The long term [goal] is to heal the ulcer,” says Huynh.

According to the principles of naturopathic medicine, food reactions and allergies are commonly the cause of physical maladies or lowered immunity that lead to larger illnesses. Chan emphasizes the importance of health-optimizing food; she also focuses on “energetic” food. Her food recommendations take into account the energy levels that are found in foods.

“[Eat] whole grains, non-processed foods—preferably organic when possible… just going with anything green is a plus,” says Chan.

Both doctors advocate an anti-inflammatory diet, which steers clear of foods that can cause inflammation—a forerunner to disease and health issues. Each treatment is tailored specifically to individual patients, but typically the doctors recommend avoiding these foods:
Wheat Substitutes: quinoa flour, rice flour, tapioca flour, amaranth flour
Dairy Substitutes: goat milk, rice milk, hemp milk, almond or any nut milk
Soy Substitutes: any types of beans or legumes
Sugar Substitutes: raw honey (not intended for children younger than one year)
Eggs: Although there are few substitutes for eggs, the doctors say that organic, cage-free eggs are better than regular eggs.

Despite their years of medical training, Huynh and Chan are unable to accept health insurance at their clinic because most conventional medical plans do not even recognize naturopathy as a valid form of treatment. And although Chan and Huynh offer naturopathy, Qi Gong therapy, and acupuncture as alternatives to conventional Western medicine, they prefer to view their treatments as complementary options. Chan emphasizes that if something arises for a patient during an exam that she cannot help with, she doesn’t hesitate to offer integrative therapy—a combination of Eastern and Western medicine.

“We make an effort to refer out whenever we deem necessary,” says Chan. “We will gladly work hand-in-hand with [conventional doctors].” For example, as an ND, Chan will work with cancer patients to alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms that result from chemotherapy and radiation. The idea is to lessen the side effects, but not interfere with the Western treatment.

“We want the patient to benefit from both worlds—East and West,” says Huynh. “We can bridge the gap.”

Silicon Valley Preventative Medicine and Natural Medicinary, , svprevmed.com.

Desiree Hedberg, a writer and editor living in Willow Glen, continually seeks to lives a healthy and sustainable lifestyle while co-parenting two toddlers, working as a consultant, and going back to school.