Like so many integrative health practitioners, Jon Robson has a personal story that led him to a career in natural healing.
Many of these experts have experienced success from complementary medicine (commonly referred to as alternative health) and want to spread the love.
Robson's story goes back to his late teens living in Great Britain, when his mother died from an epileptic fit. She had been given increasingly higher doses of barbiturates to manage the epilepsy, and her treatment left him with questions about Western medical practices.
"The basic treatment for epilepsy is just to take barbiturates, which are nerve depressors. So it just suppresses the symptoms," said Robson, who practices meta-medicine in the Roaring Fork Valley. "But it was not really ever getting to the root cause of what was causing that epilepsy."
As a result, Robson wanted to better understand illness, learn how the mind and emotions influence physiology, and be self-empowered to prevent disease rather than rely solely on drugs. He has done this through meta-medicine, a multi-disciplinary health system that attempts to connect a biological illness with the stress-based root cause and psychological and spiritual meanings.
What sometimes was labeled "hocus pocus" or voodoo and considered "unsafe" by some, complementary health methods are becoming more mainstream and regarded for preventative aspects.
From massage and chiropractics, to yoga and meditation, to acupuncture and Qi Gong, if individuals are open-minded, experts in the field say patients have much to gain from complementary health practices.
Practicing alternative therapies does not mean the patient has to give up allopathic medicine to pursue natural healing, either, hence the names "complementary," "integrative" or "integral," which are the preferred words among such practitioners.
"The process we're going through is bringing complementary and allopathic disease management together for the benefit of the individual," according to Rita Marsh, a registered nurse, family nurse practitioner and a founding member of the Dävi Nikent Center for Human Flourishing, which offers a range of talks, films, classes and workshops in integrative medicine.
Marsh, whose journey into natural healing began more than 30 years ago when she was a nurse at Aspen Valley Hospital, believes the tide is shifting in how the medical world views complementary health. Research through Johns Hopkins School of Medicine shows that use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is increasing in the United States. A recent survey indicates:
• Forty percent of Americans use CAM for chronic conditions;
• CAM was most frequently used for pain control, and nearly 50 percent of respondents reported using CAM because their prescribed medications were ineffective;
• More than half of these patients used dietary supplements or herbal therapies; and
• Thirty percent to 70 percent of cancer patients who are inadequately treated by their physicians turn to CAM in hopes of curing or alleviating pain.
"If you look at how much people pay out of pocket for complementary health, you know it's helping," Marsh said. In 2007, U.S. adults spent $33.9 billion out of pocket on visits to complementary health practitioners and purchases of related products, classes and materials, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.
Additionally, leading allopathic institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Beth Israel Hospital and Harvard School of Medicine, have established integrative healing programs and are investing more money into such research.
As a nurse, Marsh saw the benefits of healing touch with countless patients, noting that it empowered them to take charge of their own well-being. It led her to explore other avenues that could benefit both mind and body, such as the study of psychoneuroimmunology, an interdisciplinary science that looks at how psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems affect one another.
"In summary, I started out in a very traditional Western education approach to health care, and I was seeing that it wasn't working," Marsh said. "I've had incredible opportunities to explore a more holistic approach to health." Throughout her integrative health career, Marsh has helped conduct research for a major health insurance company, taught classes in higher education and met international leaders within the industry. She also serves as the co-chair on the board of directors of Davi Nikent, which aims to establish a retreat center based on the principles of integral health.
Patients seek out natural healing to help relieve chronic pain, manage stress or ease the symptoms of invasive medical procedures such as surgery and chemotherapy.
Cinda Erickson, a certified massage therapist and owner of Pathways to Health in Glenwood Springs, has used Reiki on cancer patients.
"I can't replace cancer treatment ... but if I can help you calm yourself during chemotherapy then that's good," said Erickson, who has been practicing Reiki for 15 years. She also offers Swedish massage, reflexology, hot stone, sound treatments, polarity therapy and seated chair massage.
Practitioners of Reiki believe they are transferring universal energy through their palms, which allows for self-healing and a state of balance within an individual. Erickson likens Reiki to rebooting a computer, deleting "old" programs that are blocking energy, causing imbalance to the immune system, physiological processes, the brain and spirit.
To supplement her work, Erickson has knowledge about physiology and believes that the human body has the ability to produce the "drugs" - hormones, proteins and other substances - it needs in order to heal and function properly.
Erickson's approach is organic; during a session, she talks with the client about specific problems and may start with one method, but allows the session and patient to dictate what else might be needed. For instance, one client suffering from migraines came in for Reiki, but Erickson added in shiatsu and biosonic repatterning (which stems in the belief that audible ratios can foster states of relaxation, increase blood flow and circulation, and achieve elevated levels of consciousness) because the patient also had other emotions that were "blocking" the healthy flow of energy and preventing optimal health.
Tapping into different parts of the brain and consciousness is inherent in the work of Glenwood Springs counselor and art psychotherapist Kym Allison.
"The amazing thing about art therapy is when you start to draw an image you can approach really different emotions in yourself, and it's very safe and gentle," Allison said. "With art therapy, we activate an area of the brain that often gets ignored."
Because art therapy is a fairly new field in terms of mental health, Allison says it is still trying to be "taken seriously." But Allison - who holds a double degree in counseling and art therapy - has used art as a form of expression and to heal from her own traumatic life experiences. She believes art therapy allows individuals to express feelings they don't know how to put into words, communicate thoughts they may be frightened to verbalize, and discover repressed emotions.
Using guided art activities, she combines traditional talk therapy and nonverbal techniques to help with life transitions and relationships; gender/sexual identity; spiritual counseling; addiction recovery; brain injury; and other psychological blocks that may be inhibiting healing.
While many of Allison's patients have embraced alternative forms of healing, she says few consider themselves artists, and that is in no way a requirement.
Art therapy and other forms of complementary health do not require an individual to have knowledge about each practice, but practitioners believe that if people dedicate the time and apply themselves, they can adopt healthy behaviors and prevent disease.
Meta-medicine coach Robson bases his work around this philosophy. As a World Silver Medalist and three-time British Kung Fu Champion, Robson always has been deeply invested in a healthy mind-body connection to achieve optimal fitness. And he now realizes that his mom's epileptic fits would increase during times of heightened stress. It's why he uses meta-medicine to help clients dissolve stress.
"Basically, meta-medicine is about enhancing balance in the mind, which will then produce balance in the body. The body knows how to heal itself," Robson said. "That's the power of it - it's not just understanding your symptoms; you no longer fear symptoms because it's just an opportunity for growth and development and learning."
Robson coaches individuals to bring the mind into balance by looking at the equal benefits and drawbacks of a situation, stating that labeling a situation as "bad" creates greater stress that can express itself as disease and illness. "The symptoms only show you what you're stressed about. The symptoms only show you where you've lopsided your mind," he said.
In his own case, Robson views his mom's death as a catalyst for him to "to live more fully."
"I really got to wake up to the fact that life is pretty fragile, and it can be taken away in an instant," Robson said. "So it's important to live right and live good, pay attention to life and don't just waste it."