Thursday, February 16, 2012

Black History Month and Naturopathic Medicine

There’s a prevalent myth that complementary and alternative medicine is strictly the domain of upper middle class white people. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. In my experience, different groups of people use complementary and alternative medicine for different reasons. Many immigrants from Asia and Latin America, for example, seek out alternative medicine that has a historical basis in their culture, a phenomenon I sometimes call the ‘Grandmother Effect’, because I often hear patients say that they sought out such-and-such treatment because their grandmother told them to.

But what about African Americans? Do Black folks seek out alternative medicine? As a white guy, I clearly can’t claim expertise or claim to speak for Black people, but I can speak from my experience (as I did in an article last year), and I think it’s an important topic to discuss, largely because it’s not a major topic of conversation in school or on the internet – I tried to do some research before writing today’s entry, but a lot of the info out there points back towards the same small number of sources.

I was spurred on to explore this topic after a conversation with a high school friend whose mother is a doula. An African American born in the States but who spent much of his childhood in Senegal, he spoke quite easily and confidently about herbal medicine, vegetarianism, and homebirthing. I find that I usually have to explain this sort of stuff to the middle class white people who are supposed to love it, and even then I have to butt up against resistance and skepticism about whether or not complementary healing methods actually work.

All of this brings me to my first point, which is that interest in natural healing is alive and well in the African American community. A few weeks ago, I happened to take a cab on my way to a job interview. I mentioned to the cab driver, a grandmotherly Black woman, that I was a doctor and she related to me the following tale of her battle with lupus. A few months prior, she’d been released from the hospital, where she’d spent 6 months in active treatment for lupus – for those familiar with the disease, you’ll know that hospitalization for it is rare, especially for such a long period of time. She told me that in that time, she’d made a bargain with her doctor that she could go home on weekends, during which time she’d tend her garden, eat home-grown vegetables, and pray. Now in remission, she was struggling to deal with the high blood pressure and weight gain that had resulted from months of bed rest and corticosteroid use. This too, she was trying to deal with naturally, through diet and exercise. As I said, I think it’s a myth that only white people want to deal with disease using natural methods.

The preceding story also highlights another point that I think is important: Black people also want to take control over their health. One of the reasons that people of all colors seek complementary and alternative health care is a desire to take powerful, proactive steps against disease, and African Americans are no exception. Eating well, exercising, managing stress, and taking other positive steps towards a healthy lifestyle are empowering, because they affirm that through our own actions, we can prevent and manage disease. In my practice, I’ve seen dozens of Black women especially who want to do more than just take a medication. The medication is often part of the solution to be sure, but medication alone cannot provide the sense of empowerment that comes from taking proactive steps towards health.

If you are still in doubt, let me make one final point – the most health-oriented presidential administration in my lifetime is currently in office. President Obama is finally tobacco-free (hooray!) and presided over a vitally important healthcare reform bill. Even more impressive, however, is Michelle Obama’s work. Not only has she set up a vegetable garden at the White House, not only has she started the Let’s Move! campaign against childhood obesity, but the White House kitchen staff are losing weight and feeling healthier than ever, largely due to Michelle’s efforts to get healthy food on the table in the White House. The core of naturopathic medicine, beyond the herbs, beyond the supplements, is a belief that the body is can become healthy if you feed and exercise it well. After decades of Reagan classifying ketchup as a vegetable, Bush Sr favoring pork rinds instead of broccoli, and Clinton’s McDonald’s runs, it’s a refreshing change to have someone in the White House who eats well.

The message is clear – no matter the color of your skin, if you’re a practicing ND and you’re not reaching out to the African American community, you should be. In preparing to write this article, I found an NPR interview with Eric Bailey, author of African American Alternative Medicine: Using Alternative Medicine to Prevent and Control Chronic Diseases, in which he describes the widespread use of alternative treatments for chronic conditions, and how patients integrate it with their use of traditional medicines. In the interview, he emphasizes the importance of working with qualified practitioners, a sentiment NDs are all to familiar with. African Americans are using complementary medicine, just the same as people in other communities, and there’s need for well-trained, qualified individuals. We NDs can and should work to improve access to high quality healthcare by addressing this need.