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Alternatives:Healthcare Outside the Box

Needles, Herbs and Hypertension

By Owen C. Franklin

For many people, the unpleasant side effects of some medications ?the coughing, the fatigue and the dizziness ?may be too much to bear.

If you tap into any online hypertension discussion board, you’ll likely find a particular theme of messages.

I know I need medication, but is there anything else I can do?

I know I need medication, but I’d also like to think I’ve explored all the possible options.

Does anyone know if alternative health techniques can help control blood pressure?

All puns aside, it seems many people are sick of medicine.

But why would people put away pills that help them manage a serious chronic illness such as hypertension?

A recent study conducted by the Association of Black Cardiologists suggests that 38 percent of people being treated for hypertension may stop taking their medication due to tolerability problems. For many people, the unpleasant side effects of some medications — the coughing, the fatigue and the dizziness — may be too much to bear.

But when it comes to hypertension, control is key. More often people search for alternative options to manage their disease.

An alternative renaissance

It’s an odd backlash — as our society moves towards a more modern and technical culture, it seems to be sparking new interest in ancient practices, natural foods and holistic medicine.

"Today, everybody wants to have natural treatment," said Joanna Zhao, Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Clinic Director at the Five Branches Institute in Santa Cruz, California. "We have almost 100 patients a day."

Zhao says many of those patients seek treatment for hypertension.

"We use acupuncture to help lower high blood pressure because it has very good results," said Zhao. "Sometimes, it has immediate results and the patients come back once a week or so."

Acupuncture 101

If you’re not familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the effects of acupuncture on hypertension may sound confusing.

"What acupuncture does is reduce the heat kidney channel and reinforce the kidney energy," said Zhao.

Come again?

TCM, which incorporates acupuncture, herbology, massage and meditation, works on the premise that the body is comprised of twelve "channels." These channels are named for the different organs they reach — such as the lung channel and the spleen channel.

Energy, or "Qi" (pronounced "chee"), flows through these channels. Problems occur when a channel is blocked, or if excessive Qi is moving from one area to another.

Acupuncture practitioners use tiny needles at targeted areas to stimulate these channels. The body, according to TCM, is marked by a series of lines, called "meridians." By pricking these meridians, a practitioner can manipulate and "heal" the different channels. By clearing pathways and increasing or reducing the flow of Qi, practitioners strive to restore balance within the body.

This theory is applied, in different ways, to treat many diseases, When treating hypertension, practitioners pinpoint the meridians along the arm and leg to stimulate the channels from the kidney and liver. The idea is to clear a blocked channel that is causing too much energy to build up in certain areas of the body.

"When people have hypertension, they have excess heat," said Zhao. "We can improve circulation in the body and clear up this stagnation."

A drink to your health

While acupuncture appeals to many people, others fear the dreaded needle.

But TCM offers less invasive treatments as well. Herbal therapies, taken in the form of teas, are also used to treat hypertension.

"Each herb has a character," said Zhao. "There are herbs that are hot, there are herbs that are cold and there are herbs that are calming."

Each herb affects the flow of Qi in different ways. According to Zhao, herbs diffuse through the bloodstream and alter the different channels. Some enable channels to facilitate more energy, while others "tone down" an excessive flow.

A practitioner will customize a recipe to suit each client’s needs.

"If you are using tea for a patient with chronic hypertension, the problem may be stress and then you would use the calm herbs," said Zhao.

Doubts from the docs

While these practices have been used for hundreds of years, they still spark skepticism, especially from more "conventional" medical circles.

"I would not approve of anything that has not been tested in a proper double-blind study," said Irene Gavras, M.D., a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine who works with the University’s hypertension clinic. "Sometimes people say these treatments have been practiced for 5000 years and that qualifies as a test — but that answer doesn’t satisfy me."

While people with a wide spectrum of skills and professional credentials practice alternative medicine, Dr. Gavras is skeptical of all treatments that don’t meet scientific standards.

"I’ve had some patients who tried acupuncture," said Dr. Gavras. "But during their acupuncture treatment they still needed the same amount of blood pressure medication. It didn’t make any difference."

While all physicians may not embrace alternative treatments, new research by health officials could lead to more acceptance. In 1996, The National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Since then, the organization has worked to collect and evaluate information about alternative medicine.

"I can keep an open mind," said Dr. Gavras. "But I want some objective evidence."

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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