Five years ago, my girlfriends and I traded tips on dermatologists and gynos—but today, we’re just as likely to swap stories about a life-changing acupuncturist or an Ayurvedic doctor who’s brilliant at clearing up acne.
And we’re definitely not alone. There’s no question that alternative therapies are gaining heat. Perhaps it’s because we’re all burned out and seeking new ways to manage stress; maybe we’re realizing that popping antibiotics for every cold is wreaking havoc on our health; or, quite possibly, we’re just inspired by the new generation of wellness it-girls who are raving about their favorite healers on Instagram.
Whatever the reason, holistic wellness destinations like Brooklyn’s Maha Rose Center for the Healing Arts are thriving, while healthy hotspots like The Den Meditation in Los Angeles are adding new-age disciplines like chakra balancing and shamanic healing to their menus.
As exciting as all of these fresh options are, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. Why would you choose Ayurveda over Traditional Chinese Medicine? What exactly does a holistic health coach do? And are herbs really effective?
To find out, I chatted with experts from some of the main realms of alternative medicine, who gave me valuable insight into how they work and why you’d want to see them. Although their individual techniques are all very different, each discipline’s overarching mission is essentially the same: to bring your body into balance so you don’t get sick in the first place. (That’s what medicine should be all about, right?)
Keep reading for Well+Good’s comprehensive guide to alt-practices—and how to find the right healer for you.
What it is: Okay, so we all know that acupuncture involves sticking loads of tiny needles into one’s skin. But why? “We’re trying to keep the blood and chi—or life force energy—flowing smoothly,” says Ro Giuliano, an acupuncturist and herbalist at Maha Rose. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, when there are areas of energetic stagnation in the body, you’re thrown into imbalance and health issues arise. By placing needles into specific energy pathways called meridians, says Giuliano, those channels are thought to open up, energy begins to move more freely, and healing starts to occur.
How it works: Before you hop on the table, the acupuncturist will usually take a health history, look at your tongue, and take your pulse. “This gives us a picture of what’s going on inside your body,” says Giuliano. “It might tell us different things about the liver system, the spleen and stomach system, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs.” From there, she says, the practitioner determines where your chi is struggling and pricks points on the associated meridians to help get it running smoothly again. (Here’s a way more detailed account of what to expect when you visit an acupuncturist).
Who it helps: Many of Giuliano’s clients come to her for anxiety, insomnia, and other stress-related complaints, since acupuncture has been found to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. And Giuliano says, in her experience, it’s also effective in boosting the immune system, reducing allergies, relieving pain, and assisting with women’s health issues and fertility support.
When you’ll see results: “Acupuncture isn’t a one-shot deal,” stresses Giuliano. “You’re gonna feel relaxed and mellow after your first session, but a single session won’t be enough.” Depending on how long you’ve been dealing with your condition, it can take anywhere from a month to six months to see a real shift—and you’ve got to make diet and lifestyle changes for best results. (So if you’re going in for anxiety, you should also plan on starting a meditation practice and cutting back on coffee).
What it is: One of the oldest healing modalities in the world, the Indian discipline of Ayurveda has been around for over 5,000 years, yet it’s still not all that widespread in the US. It’s all about preventing and managing illness by balancing the patient’s doshas, or mental, physical, and emotional constitution. (No idea what I’m talking about? Take this quiz and you’ll get it). “What’s beautiful about Ayurveda is that it’s very personalized,” says Meghana Thanki, ND, founder of Second Nature Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ and author of The Ayurvedic Lens. “It allows us to examine everything we do on a daily basis and understand if it’s adding to the burden on the body or decreasing it.”
How it works: First of all, make sure you clear your calendar—your first Ayurvedic medicine appointment could last up to 90 minutes, says Thanki. During that time, expect to open up about everything from your diet to your bathing habits to your oral care routine, and prepare for a thorough, hands-on assessment.
Once your doctor has pinpointed the problem, she’ll give you a list of “causative factors” to avoid in your lifestyle and diet. In many cases, you’ll also get a prescription for individualized herbs, and if you’ve got a particularly tough condition to crack, your doctor may recommend panchakarma, one of the most extreme cleanses on earth. “It’s a seven- to 10-day detoxification program—almost like a retreat—that takes care of the bulk of doshas when they’re in high quantity,” says Thanki. The treatments won’t always be pleasant—think medicated vomiting—but Thanki swears it can beget amazing results, especially for those with chronic health issues.
Who it helps: Although just about anyone can benefit from Ayurveda, people with skin and gut issues see particularly great results, says Thanki. She says it can also help with run-of-the-mill illnesses, like colds, coughs, and sinus trouble. “I have a lot of wonderful, simple remedies for these things,” she says. “But do people know to come to me for that? Not as much.”
When you’ll see results: Like acupuncture, you’ll probably start seeing superficial changes pretty quickly—within four to seven days of starting herbs, says Thanki—but for healing that lasts, you’ll need to be patient. (For those with very deep-rooted health issues, you may need to receive treatment for a year or more). The good news? “There’s a total point of cure with Ayurveda,” says Thanki.
What: Energy healing may sound woo-woo, but anyone who’s gone through it will swear it’s really powerful. (The scientific community is beginning to acknowledge its potency, too.) “There are many forms of energy work, all of which essentially have the same fundamental principle: They tap into what they call life force energy—known as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine or prana in Ayurveda, for instance—and channel that to the patient, which ultimately allows self-healing, says Ambi Sitham, an LA-based life coach, meditation guide, healer, and astrologer.
Sitham’s a certified master in reiki, which is one of the more common energy healing modalities in the US—it was developed by Japanese Buddhist monk Mikao Usui in the early 20th century. Acupuncture is also considered a form of energy healing.
How it works: Every healer’s method is a little bit different—Sitham’s sessions, for example, involve astrological readings, life coaching, sound baths, and aromatherapy. But the actual energy healing part—in this case, reiki—doesn’t vary much between practitioners. “I perform hands-on healing, helping to remove [energetic] blockages or clear stagnant energy,” says Sitham. “I also use tuning forks on certain energy points, helping balance and clear the chakras to make sure the [life force] is flowing correctly.” It won’t seem like the healer is doing much besides laying her hands on you—some don’t even touch you at all—but many people experience physical sensations while it’s happening. (Some describe it as a feeling of deep relaxation; others may feel heat or tingling, see lights, or hear music).
Who it helps: “Most people come to me because they feel out of sorts or they need an energy boost,” says Sitham. “But energy healing is complimentary to many types of issues, like insomnia, autoimmune disorders, stress, adrenal fatigue, fertility, and more.” One caveat: Sitham claims that energy healing will only help you if you’re truly open to receiving it. “Your consciousness and intention are of the utmost importance in whether the healing ‘works’ or not,” she says.
When you’ll see results: Everyone’s different, says Sitham—some of her patients experience relief after their first session, but that’s not always the norm. “Usually, I recommend people come once a week for a month, and then twice monthly for three months,” she says. “Within the four-month period, they’ve usually experienced a big shift and are able to just come to me for maintenance.”
Holistic health coach
What: Part advisor, part cheerleader, a health coach’s job is to help clients sift through the noise to figure out what foods and lifestyle choices work for their individual bodies. “A lot of people don’t know what to believe when it comes to their health,” says Nicole Granato, a women’s health and wellness coach based in LA. A rapidly growing discipline, certified health coaches must complete a comprehensive training program, like the one offered by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Many have private practices, while others are employed by doctors.
How it works: After conducting a health history evaluation, the coach will create a nutrition and lifestyle program tailored to that client’s goal, whether it’s losing weight, clearing acne, or gaining energy. Granato, for instance, provides grocery shopping lists, recommends supplements, and gives clients skin-care and exercise advice. One thing most health coaching clients don’t get: a super-strict diet to follow. “There’s no way to live a life that’s sustainable without having balance within your diet,” says Granato. “Being realistic about that’s really important.”
Who it helps: Health coaching is complimentary to “mostly every [wellness issue],” says Granato. But the most common thing that people come to her for is because they’re feeling overwhelmed, plain and simple. “Having stress around doing the right thing for your health can make people feel like they’re not succeeding,” she explains. “My clients just want guidance.”
When you’ll see results: While health coaching programs vary in length, they’re not designed to last forever. “My goal is to give people the tools they need to make a healthy lifestyle sustainable,” says Granato. “I’ll always be there, but I don’t want you to have to keep coming back to me.”
What it is: Essentially, an herbalist is like a pharmacist, but she uses plants as medicine instead of pills. “All of our pharmaceuticals came from plants at some point,” says Giuliano. “Herbalists are just using them in that whole-plant form to balance the system and cause change in the body.” Using either Asian or regional herbs (or a combination of both), an herbalist blends up custom teas, tinctures, salves, and balms to address her clients’ health concerns.
How it works: It’s pretty simple—after consulting with your herbalist, she’ll mix up a variety of topical and/or ingestible remedies for you to take home. The decision of what to prescribe is two-fold, says Giuliano. “I’m picking what’s the best approach, but also what’s most likely that the person will do consistently.”
Who it helps: Many people turn to herbalism as an alternative to taking medication long-term, says Giuliano—mild anxiety, depression, insomnia, and women’s health issues are all common complaints among her clients. “We live in a really overmedicated society, so a lot of folks have concerns about getting on meds for something,” she says. “You might want to try herbal medicine for something like seasonal allergies, before taking Zyrtec every day. It’s safe to try it. If it doesn’t work, you try something else.”
When you’ll see results: The effects of herbal medicine are more subtle than Western drugs, says Giuliano, so you shouldn’t just switch from, say, Xanax to lemon balm cold-turkey. That being said, she says, herbal medicine can be really helpful to aid you in tapering off from pharmaceuticals (but you should always do that in partnership with your doctor).
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