By Alice Shabecoff
In the 1970s, when visits to his office cost $4 and he would come to your home for $5, pediatrician Warren Levin began to practice alternative medicine, figuring it out a bit at a time. After a few years, his practice grew into New York City’s first full-blown holistic health center.
But the mainstream medical world objected. Alternative pediatricians were called quacks back then. For prescribing vitamin supplements and a healthier way of eating for patients with severe allergies, Dr. Warren was hauled before the state’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct. In the end, he was exonerated.
Today, holistic, mind-body pediatrics has come of age. It seems very appropriate for a generation of parents looking for foods without pesticides and cosmetics without solvents.
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“Conventional Western medicine is about fixing disease, mainly acute illnesses. It’s oriented around disease labeling and treatment,” says Dr. Lawrence Rosen, a young New Jersey–based pediatrician who is one of today’s leading holistic practitioners.
In contrast to the conventional approach, holistic medical care works to keep children well by instilling a long-life pattern of healthy living and by treating simple problems such as earaches without resorting to the overuse of drugs. It particularly lends itself to caring for children with chronic illnesses, including cancer, juvenile arthritis, obesity, asthma and developmental disorders like autism and ADHD, where conventional medicine hasn’t a great track record of cures. In fact, there’s been a major increase in the number of prescription medications used to treat symptoms of childhood chronic illnesses, despite the absence of data that they are effective in curing the underlying problems.
If the incidence of chronic childhood illnesses continues the upward climb it has taken over the past two decades, and as more families understand the link between prevention and treatment, integrative pediatrics may very well become the standard practice of the future.
Now that these techniques are no longer “alternative” to conventional Western medicine but have become pretty much an accepted part of it, they are called “integrative” (meaning they’re integrated into standard practice) or “holistic” or “complementary” or “environmental”—a term especially acknowledging the effect of toxic exposures.
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Major evidence of its acceptance is the publication of the first textbook on integrative pediatrics, edited by the avuncular and reassuring Dr. Andrew Weil, the US’s best-known nonconventional-medicine practitioner and spokesperson.1 The august National Institutes of Health has set up a center devoted to its study,2 while the American Academy of Pediatrics has formed a practitioners’ section.
For a baby suffering from colic, an integrative pediatrician might suggest first trying an emulsion of fennel seed oil rather than prescribing artificially dyed and sweetened simethicone (the chemical in drugs such as Mylanta and Mylicon). For a child with a persistent rash, the holistic alternative to antihistamines is a diet rich in omega fatty acids.
But even more than its emphasis on nonpharmaceutical cures, integrative healthcare for children is different at its core philosophy, so clearly stated at the first national conference of integrative practitioners and researchers, held a few months ago.3 A child’s health is inseparable from the health of the planet, they say. The child is a whole person inextricably tied to the world in which he lives. The basic goal, then, of integrative pediatrics, is to create the context—the ecology—in which the whole child’s health and wellness can thrive.
To put this principle into practice, the doctor builds a real relationship with the child and family. Holistic practitioners stress that healing is inexorably bound to the connection between practitioner and patient.4 The doctor spends lots of time meeting and talking and educating, building a team with the parents.
In the first months of a child’s life, the doctor focuses on frequent well-baby care. As part of that conversation, doctor and parents together design individualized schedules for vaccinations and treat problems that may arise, such as colic. These conversations with parents and patient continue as the child grows. What could be more different from the usual harried, cookie-cutter 15-minute consultation!
Integrative medicine is basically more sane and more economical. It is also so much better for the environment. The practitioners understand that stressors on our children are many, and so the interventions must be too. That’s why they get involved in fields as wide-ranging as city planning, global climate change, and local farmers’ markets. They try to influence childbirth practices to make childbearing less medicalized, and they advocate reducing our nation’s current vast use of antibiotics. “Seventy-one percent of antibiotics now are used in the ordinary production of livestock in factory farms. This is a rising threat to our health, as 60,000 Americans die each year from infections that are resistant to antibiotic treatment,” explains Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, director of education at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. “What if, instead, we gave equal weight to discovering and using therapeutic measures that nurture the immune system and enhance our innate resiliency?” she asks, pointing out that indigenous knowledge of herbal medicine can be particularly useful here.
Her prescription for a healthy child: “Unplug. Go for a walk in nature and find your voice again. Never leave the house without telling your children you love them.” When was the last time you heard a “conventional” pediatrician say something so wise?
You can now find pediatricians across the nation who will use integrative practices to care for your children (resource: www.aap.org/sections/chim/ParentResources.html for a listing by zip code; also www.aaemonline.org).
Other information sources:
American Academy of Environmental Medicine—a membership association of environmental physicians: www.aaemonline.org
Holistic Pediatrics Association—an association of families and practitioners; has a member directory: www.hpakids.org
Integrative Practitioner—a practitioner group: www.integrativepractitioner.com
4. Timothy Culbert and Karen Olness, Integrative Pediatrics (Oxford University Press, 2009), 594–620, www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/Pediatrics/?view=usa&ci=9780195384727.