Alternative Roads: A Guide to Complementary Health Treatments

There are many paths to healing. Here’s how mind and body can travel together.

Illustration by Veronica Grech

If the path to health in a traditional-medicine model looks like a straight line on a paper map, wellness by way of alternative therapies resembles a GPS search with a variety of routes.

A large window banner for Lewis Healing Institute on Prospect Avenue in West Orange reads: “Acupuncture, holistic/functional medicine, yoga, infrared sauna, meditation, alkaline water, supplements.” That’s just a sampling of alternative therapies. Others include massage, reflexology, aromatherapy—and the list goes on.

Alternative therapies are often used in conjunction with traditional medicine. Combined, they come under the umbrella of holistic medicine, the concept of treating the body, mind and spirit as interconnected. Step inside the Lewis Healing Institute and the concept comes to life. The lighting is warm, the seats are comfortable, and there is a large, open space for yoga classes, educational workshops and other activities.

Lisa Lewis, who has a doctorate in naturopathic medicine and is a licensed acupuncturist, is trained on the benefits of complementary treatments. “I often use a functional approach, a blend of Western and natural medicines,” says Lewis. At her 4-year-old practice, which recently relocated from Montclair, Lewis treats patients with conditions such as hypertension, arthritis, digestive disorders and chronic or acute pain.

Alternative therapies are not one size fits all. Some are commonplace, like vitamins; others are unorthodox, like cupping. Some are enticing, like the use of essential oils; others may seem invasive, like acupuncture. Some treatments may be covered by health insurance; most are not. Below, we describe some common—and less common—alternative therapies.

Illustration by Veronica Grech

ACUPUNCTURE

Originating in Chinese medicine, acupuncture is the practice of placing fine needles along the pathways (or meridians) through which energy­—known as chi—is believed to move in the body. Each meridian corresponds to a specific internal organ. If illness, congestion, dehydration, injury or other factors compromise an organ’s efficiency, acupuncture may help, though exactly how it works remains a source of speculation. Some research points to the needles jump-starting electrical currents in the body, stimulating the immune system and releasing fasciae (the connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs), thus improving energy flow.

To determine a course of treatment, acupuncturists like Jeff Ariola of Mecca Integrated Health in Fairfield monitor a patient’s pulse and tongue (color, coating and markings). Patients complete a thorough, multipage health history that asks the typical medical queries. But the survey also asks questions like, “How much water do you drink? Do you have cold hands or feet? Do you bruise easily?”

“We ask a lot of questions that, to patients familiar with a Western approach, might seem unrelated to their health complaint,” says Ariola. “We understand everything is interrelated, and we want a full picture—not just details on a current ailment.”

For patients like Laura Baer (New Jersey Monthly’s creative director), the mystery of why acupuncture works matters less than the results. Baer, who was plagued by a constant quake in her hands known as benign essential tremor, sought treatment from West Orange acupuncturist Xiuxia Yang for general malaise and lack of energy. One day after treatment, her tremor—which she’d only vaguely mentioned to Yang while outlining her overall health—was gone. “It was a miracle,” Baer recalls. “I thought I would just have to live with it. It was embarrassing. I saw friends noticing it. We’d go out to eat, and they’d watch my hand shake as I lifted a wineglass, and they’d worry because they know my father had Parkinson’s disease.”

Acupuncture is said to provide relief for conditions such as back pain, arthritis, migraines, fatigue and insomnia. Ariola, a 10-year veteran of acupuncture, says he has also helped cancer patients. “Acupuncture can change the quality of life for a cancer patient,” says Ariola. “Changes in side effects [of cancer treatment] like nausea, loss of saliva and disorientation can be reduced with acupuncture for life-changing results. Sometimes the outcomes I see just blow me away.”

Acupuncture is perhaps the most widely accepted alternative therapy. New Jersey has 682 licensed acupuncturists. Licensing requires at least two years of postgraduate training, plus a licensing exam, says Kelly Williams, director of admissions at the Eastern School of Acupuncture in Bloomfield.

Illustration by Veronica Grech

MASSAGE

While some seek massage as a form of relaxation, few argue against its broader benefits like improved circulation, reduction of blood pressure, and stress relief. “Usually, if we don’t feel good, we’re in fear,” says Nicole Wilkins, who runs the Acupressure Massage Center of Morristown. Wilkins, a licensed massage therapist, was trained in Thailand and the U.S. and has practiced for 18 years. She offers a robust menu of massages to address common complaints. For example, her sports massage focuses on movements that are “rigorous rather than deep, to get the muscles and circulation going,” she says. “It’s great before or after a workout.” Wilkins tailors her medical massages to treat specific injuries like an overused ankle or knee, or conditions such as TMJ and sciatica.

When Livingston resident Peggy DeArmond started treatment with Wilkins six years ago, she was dealing with multiple complaints: sciatica, neck and lower back pain. “The relief was pretty much immediate,” says the former concert pianist for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. “I use a number of modalities—essential oils, chiropractic—but I needed something more,” adds DeArmond. “Nicole is very intuitive, and she is able to release blockages and congestion and detox the body.”

Wilkins uses massages like acupressure—a technique that entails palpating specific areas along the body’s energy channels—to release congestion and in turn, says Wilkins, balance emotions.

Energy blockages in the body are “usually connected to something emotional; once you get through that, the massage can help people make a shift emotionally. I see myself as a facilitator,” she says. “I help people tune [into their body] to decide whether the treatment is effective and what might be a natural next step for them. I’m there to help people become empowered in their health.”

Illustration by Veronica Grech

 

CUPPING

Often used in conjunction with acupuncture, cupping received mainstream attention after swimmer Michael Phelps was spotted with welts on his back during the 2016 summer Olympics. The therapy consists of suctioning small porcelain or glass cups to fleshy areas of the body. “This mobilizes the tissue, increasing the energy flow,” says acupuncturist Ariola. “By separating the layers of tissue, the cups allow the lymph to bathe the tissue in fluid.” Cupping can be used to treat pain, gastrointestinal disorders, lung diseases and even paralysis. Ariola speculates that in Phelps’s case, cupping increased mobility and reduced stiffness.

REFLEXOLOGY

Like acupuncture, reflexology relies on accessing energy pathways. Instead of using needles, reflexology is accomplished by kneading points on the feet and hands connected, by way of meridians, to specific organs. By palpating a certain area, the corresponding organ receives increased energy, helping to detoxify it.

Massage therapist Wilkins is also a certified reflexologist. She began her career when she came across a reflexology book in a spa waiting room. “I was fascinated that you could heal the body through the feet,” she says. “Reflexology is like a massage for the internal organs. I can feel when people have imbalances,” Wilkins says. “I can work any number of conditions­. Say someone is having insomnia, there are points on the feet for that. Even something structural like plantar fasciitis, I can do different points to relax them and ease pain.”

QIGONG

Qigong patients actively participate in their therapy, which consists of meditative postures, movements and breathing techniques. The goal is to unblock energy flow, relieve stress and cleanse the body of congestion and stagnation. “Qigong is a practice that helps the body do what it is naturally designed to do,” says Miriam Shankman, who has taught qigong at the Montclair Adult School since 2008. Shankman says “stress, the food we eat and drink, lack of exercise” all interrupt the body’s natural functions. Individuals come to her practice for help with both mental and physical roadblocks.

Shankman says qigong is known to lower blood pressure, improve heart health and reduce chronic pain. She’s seen it help individuals suffering from the loss of a loved one, and “with cancer patients, we see good results in the spirit. Qigong helps lift the black cloud.”

Illustration by Veronica Grech

INFRARED SAUNA

A modern iteration of an age-old therapy, the infrared sauna uses light to create heat. “It’s basically the sun in a box—without radiation,” says Lisa Lewis of Lewis Healing Institute in West Orange. “The sun” adds Lewis, “is the most powerful healer in the world. It improves virtually any condition.” Infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures—118-170 degrees as opposed to 185-203 degrees, in a traditional sauna—but the heat penetrates deeper into the body, relaxing muscles, cleansing pores, accelerating wound healing and relieving stress. Lewis enhances the infrared experience by using essential oils and chromotherapy (light therapy) in a hue chosen to boost a specific condition, or in a changing spectrum of mood-altering lights.

REIKI

This Japanese healing art seeks to bring light and healing energy to places in the body that are injured or experiencing stagnation or stress. “The practioner is the conduit,” says Judy O’Connor, a reiki master (meaning she is trained to teach the practice) and owner of Transformative Healing Studio in Verona.

Reiki doesn’t require touch (though it may be used with the client’s permission). Instead, energy is exchanged from practitioner to client. O’Connor says she focuses on a calming, good-energy place—a sunset or a candle—where she connects with universal energy. She then moves her hands from head to toe, inches above the client’s body, as a channel to pass along light and energy.

Reiki practitioners can also help identify trouble spots, such as blockages that indicate inflammation, an early-stage condition or a former trauma. “I might feel increased heat or a vibration and I’ll ask, ‘Did you every have an issue here?’ I never want to alarm anyone,” she says. Reiki isn’t used to diagnose.

O’Connor has practiced reiki for four years and volunteers her skills to assist cancer patients at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Reiki really helps patients receiving chemotherapy with their emotions,” she says. “It’s calming and totally nonintrusive; there is no pain or discomfort.”

“My son has special needs­—he is autistic—and this practice has had a healing, calming effect on him,” she says. “Everything I do has worked for me and my family.” The results of reiki differ for each person. Some feel nothing; some feel heat in some areas of their body. But most, says O’Connor, will experience a “joyful burst of energy following the treatment.”

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