To regain our natural state of health, we must get in touch with our mind, body and soul. These words resonate as herbalists and common folk alike discuss the impact of alternative therapies on the African-American community.
Adele Jones learned firsthand about this holistic approach to health in 1991, after she found herself coughing up gobs of mucus. “I used to drink a gallon of milk a day,” says the 43-year-old registered nurse for a health insurance company. She also found out she had fibroid tumors the size of lemons and suffered from high blood pressure. “I had to go through a cleansing process, using herbs and stopping the dairy.” It also made her much more aware of what she was putting into her body. She evaluated her eating habits and, three years later, became a vegan, eliminating dairy products and meat from her diet. “It was probably the healthiest I had ever been,” she recalls.
Rashan Abdul Hakim, a self-described bush doctor who runs Sundial Herbs in the Bronx, extols the virtues of a vegan diet. “If we are eating right, we will be thinking right. We have been eating unnatural food, so we’ve been thinking in an unnatural, destructive way,” he explains. So destructive is our thinking, he stresses, that it has led to the breakdown of our physical bodies by diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among African-Americans, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Increasingly alarming reports of the state of health of the African-American community are triggering a return to natural, holistic ways of preventing and curing disease. Such a return can begin by changing your diet, doing an internal cleansing of the colon, prayer and meditation, offers Queen Afua, author of Heal Thyself for Health and Longevity (A&B Publishing House) and Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind, and Spirit (Random House-Ballantine Books). “Prayer, meditation and visualization are what strengthen the mind to live a holy, healthy lifestyle,” she says.
The quest for a natural path to good health has led to a surge in the use of alternative medicine therapies across ethnic lines. A national survey titled Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States, 1990-1997 (David M. Eisenberg, M.D., et al) shows an increase in total visits to alternative medicine practitioners to 629 million in 1997 from 427 million in 1990, exceeding total visits to all U.S. primary-care physicians in that period. Estimated expenditures for such therapies were $21.2 billion in 1997, with at least $12.2 billion paid out of pocket. These findings, published in the Nov. 11, 1998, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest alternative therapies are becoming less alternative and more mainstream. Indeed, total out-of-pocket expenditures related to alternative therapies, including professional visits and supplements, are conservatively estimated at $34 billion for 2003. By 2010 at least two-thirds of the U.S. population will have used some form of alternative approach to health care.
Moreover, reports the American Hospitals Association, nearly 17 percent of America’s community hospitals offered alternative medicine services in 2002, up from a mere 6 percent in 1998, and almost 60 percent of the country’s medical schools now offer courses in alternative medicine.
Despite the growing trend in the use of alternative therapy, many individuals interviewed for this article see such therapies as complementing, rather than replacing, conventional medicine. It’s a question of results, says Daniel Handel, M.D., a clinician at the Pain and Palliative Medicine Service at the National Institutes of Health. “If what you do shows efficacy—even at a place like the NIH, which everyone would think would be conservative—doctors will embrace it,” he once remarked.
Some insurance carriers are getting on board, offering coverage for more alternative treatments. However, it is prudent to check with your insurer before agreeing to an alternative treatment to see if it will cover all or part of the cost.
Beyond eating healthily, there is an abundance of therapies, including ayurveda, which is practiced primarily in India, that emphasize the use of diet and herbal remedies to prevent disease. Other remedies include homeopathy, which uses small, highly diluted quantities of medicinal substances to cure symptoms; qi gong, a traditional Chinese practice that combines movement, meditation, and regulation of chi to enhance the blood’s flow; and reiki, derived from a Japanese word meaning “universal life energy,” in which spiritual energy is channeled from a reiki practitioner to the patient to heal the spirit and physical body.
Jones is dusting off nutrition books and getting her mind set to become healthy again. During her pregnancy with her second child in the mid-1990s, “the doctor told me I wasn’t taking in enough protein so I began eating chicken and fish again,” she says. Now, she’s back on high blood pressure medicine and is overweight, but the fibroids have not returned. The lesson learned is that “we are what we eat. Disease is directly related to the diet,” says Jones, who is determined to resume her vegetarian diet, drink a gallon of water a day and walk for half an hour three days a week.
“Once you come back to the harmony of nature, you come back to the natural state of yourself—physically, spiritually, and mentally,” echoes Hakim, the health counselor.