Delaware Holistic Healers Share Remedies for Common Ailments
Here's how to alleviate everything from headaches to digestive pain the natural way.
At Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, nurses use aromatherapy, or a blend of essential oils, to help quell patients' nausea.
Tongues don’t lie. “They tell the weather of your body,” acupuncturist Lauren Mund explains. “Is it the weather in the mid-Atlantic U.S. or sub-Saharan Africa? Is there blood stagnation? Yin deficiency?” Tongue diagnosis is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), one of the specialties Mund practices at Blue Heron Acupuncture & Herbs in Milton. Acupuncture, TCM, naturopathy and Ayurvedic medicine are among the growing number of holistic treatments available in Delaware.
The state’s largest health systems, too, are embracing holistic health. In 2018, Bayhealth Cancer Center, Sussex Campus began offering its oncology patients reiki, the ancient Japanese art of manipulating energy centers (chakras) with a series of hand movements that restore balance and wellness. At its main campus in Wilmington, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children offers aromatherapy, medical massage, yoga and meditation to patients and their families.
Acupuncture will be added to the list this season, and in 2020, holistic services will expand to the hospital’s locations throughout the Delaware Valley. “We do things in conjunction with the medical staff,” explains Colleen Davis, director of integrative medicine for Nemours. “As a team, we work together to improve all facets of care.”
But for a long time, alternative health was too alternative for Delawareans. “I was one of the first and only in the state,” recalls Alison Driscoll, an Ayurvedic expert who began her Wilmington practice in 2007. “The more people see the limits of Western medicine, the more interest there is in holistic health.”
Western medicine is necessary, Driscoll emphasizes. Acute conditions—from cancer to premature infancy—require medical intervention. Holistic health is more preventive and addresses chronic conditions like hormone imbalances, gastrointestinal disorders and ongoing pain.
“My job is to restore health and wellness by stimulating the body’s innate ability to heal itself,” says Kim Furtado, a naturopathic doctor in Lewes. “It’s a different approach than suppressing symptoms.” Indeed, pharmaceutical-based symptom relief is antithetical to holistic health. “We’re looking at the body’s systems to detect imbalances that are causing symptoms,” says Alan Keith Tillotson, Ph.D., an herbalist, TCM and Ayurvedic medicine practitioner at Chrysalis Natural Medicine Clinic in Wilmington. “What are the root causes that create the symptoms? That’s what we want to heal.”
Which brings us back to tongues: They are part of the evaluation that holistic healers conduct when they first meet patients. Most practitioners spend 1½ hours researching medical histories, asking about food and lifestyle choices, checking radial pulses and, yes, examining tongues. It’s all very necessary because, as Wilmington acupuncturist Helena Husfelt explains, a holistic diagnosis is very different from one given by a Western-trained doctor. “We don’t treat conditions,” she says. “We take a picture of the whole individual, then bring the body back into homeostasis.”
Here, holistic healers share their remedies for six common ailments.
One of the most frequent complaints health experts hear about is persistent pain, but what’s at the root of it? Whether it’s an autoimmune disorder, strained muscles or blocked chi, acupuncture can resolve the issue, says Husfelt.
Chi (energy) moves through the body along pathways called meridians. “It’s a highway, and if there’s a traffic jam, there’s no chi flowing to the other areas,” Husfelt explains.
First she inserts micro-thin acupuncture needles at pain points, as well as at distal points, like arms and legs, to unblock the chi and get energy moving throughout the body. Next, she dims the lights, turns on soothing sounds and lets patients rest anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes, depending on the condition.
“Acute or chronic pain typically takes longer,” she says, “but the beauty of acupuncture is that it will treat everything.”
Most patients describe what Husfelt calls the pleasant “acu-buzz,” or a feeling of “such deep relaxation that all perception of time and space is lost.”
She typically recommends weekly sessions for four to six weeks, at which point patients usually feel significant pain relief.
Reiki has also been shown to deliver substantial solace from pain and the anxiety that often accompanies it. At Bayhealth Cancer Center, Sussex Campus, Yvonne de Vastey, a reiki practitioner for over 30 years, volunteers her services for oncology patients weekly. She also performs reiki on patients with myriad ailments from her home.
Reiki, an ancient Japanese healing technique that promotes wellness by balancing the seven chakras, is becoming more popular among oncologists and other healthcare practitioners.
“I’ve been doing reiki since the days when it was ‘witchcraft,’” quips de Vastey, who worked at Jefferson and Penn Medicine for years before moving to Delaware. “Research now indicates that reiki reduces patients’ anxiety and pain level, and even relieves cancer-related neuropathy.”
De Vastey would like to see reiki become ubiquitous at Bayhealth, from obstetrics and gynecology to the operating room.
“All living things are made up of energy—and there are energy fields in and around the body that the reiki practitioner connects with,” de Vastey explains. She practices reiki on herself every day and recommends patients as frequently as they are able to undergo it. It’s difficult to explain the “why” without delving into quantum physics, she says, but most patients report their pain and anxiety subside by the end of a session (anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour) and diminish over time.
De Vastey begins at the site of the pain—typically the head or neck, and, for neuropathy, the fingers, legs or feet—and the connection continues beyond the reiki session.
The patient’s only role is to clear their mind of clutter so they can tune into what’s going on, de Vastey says. “Reiki is like a cheap vacation. You don’t even need to pack. All you need to do is show up and let go.”
Stress, travel, poor nutrition, dehydration. All of these things can cause constipation. But before you reach for a synthetic fiber supplement or laxative, try triphala.
One of the go-to remedies of Ayurvedic medicine, triphala is a polyherbal powerhouse of phytochemicals and vitamins that have nutritional and anti-inflammatory properties, delivered through its three main ingredients: bibhitaki, amalaka and haritaki fruits.
“Triphala is a beautiful remedy,” Driscoll says, noting that it’s the one treatment she feels confident recommending to anyone with digestive upset. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that 80 percent of “dis-ease” is linked to digestion, which is why Driscoll goes straight to the root of the problem by examining patients’ diets.
“When you eat the right foods, there is no need for medicine [to help with digestion],” says Driscoll, who points to excesses of red meat, plus high-sugar, low-fiber and processed foods as common culprits.
She also recommends avoiding cold food and drinks, dried fruit and, for a sensitive few, raw foods that bring on bloating and gas.
When things aren’t moving as they should, start with one 500-milligram capsule or teaspoon of triphala steeped in hot water before bed and at least two hours after your last meal. “If you feel no effect, you can build up to four capsules,” Driscoll says.
It’s also important to remember that most ailments begin with digestion, she says. “Triphala not only helps with constipation but will also cleanse and tonify all aspects of the digestive process.”
What’s more powerful than an over-the-counter pain reliever? Healing touch, Davis says. The emerging treatment, complementary to traditional healthcare, is now employed at Nemours, where trained experts in the Healing Touch Program rely on the technique to calm children who are in pain.
“By the time the therapist is done, that child is asleep,” Davis says.
Similar to reiki, healing touch also works with the seven chakras, she explains. Through “light touch or above-body touch,” practitioners can influence the energy field surrounding the body. It soothes during the session and supports the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
Benefits include reduced stress, anxiety and depression; a strengthened immune system; deep relaxation; and overall improvement in well-being.
Whether nausea is brought on by pregnancy, motion sickness or a viral illness, “a Sea band can help relieve the discomfort,” Davis says. The Sea band is an elastic wristband with a hard knob sewn into the underside that presses against an acupressure point on the inside of the arm to help ease queasiness and vomiting.
For unrelenting nausea, such as that caused by chemotherapy, some experts are now turning to aromatherapy, a blend of natural essential oils.
Nemours has been using aromatherapy in its oncology division for several years and plans to extend the treatment to all patients. Nurses provide children with individual sniffers that work like nasal sprays, so as not to disrupt other patients. Lavender and citrus are among the most popular, Davis says, but nurses are educated about which scents work best for specific conditions.
Essential oils are believed to “turn on” smell receptors in the nose, which send signals to the brain and nervous system that alter perception of such symptoms as pain, anxiety and nausea.
“The aromatherapy helps children relax and sleep,” Davis says.
At home, you can use a diffuser or try steam inhalation. Stir a few drops of essential oil into a bowl of hot water—in addition to lavender and lemon scents, ginger and peppermint work well for nausea. Then, dip a hand towel into the bowl, wring it out and cover the nose and mouth.
Millions of Americans suffer from thyroid imbalances, Tillotson says. What starts as hyperthyroidism (a condition in which the thyroid produces too much hormone, causing the body to use energy faster than it should) may eventually turn to hypothyroidism as the gland stops producing hormones that the body needs to function at an optimal level.
“Instead of replacing those hormones, I want to know what’s causing the thyroid damage in the first place,” Tillotson says, citing iodine deficiency, changes in gut microbiome (inflammation in the digestive tract) and too little selenium as common root causes.
If patients see him early enough in the progression of their condition, Tillotson says he can reverse thyroid damage and save them from being on medication for the rest of their lives. Instead, he’ll prescribe supplements like L-tyrosine, selenium, iodine, ashwagandha and guggul gum, as well as these preventive measures: healthy diet (with probiotics and foods containing iodine and selenium) and daily exercise.
Acupuncture is a centuries-old healing technique from China, in which tiny needles are inserted at specific points on the body to alleviate pain or treat various health conditions.
Women who have trouble getting or staying pregnant often need help regulating their hormones and restoring blood flow to their reproductive areas. Acupuncture can help do both.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment, though,” Husfelt cautions. “Patterns of disharmony are unique to each patient. But the brain is our biggest pharmacy, and acupuncture triggers the body to provide that healing.”
Tillotson also treats infertility. First, he analyzes the gastrointestinal system. That may sound odd, but GI tract disorders can lead to a blockage of hormone production.
“Dysbiosis is one commonly overlooked cause of fertility problems,” Tillotson explains. “It’s an imbalance in the digestive tract from an overgrowth of the wrong kind of bacteria. These create inflammation that can interfere with hormones.” If that’s the case, Tillotson prescribes certain nutrients and herbs, specific to the patient, that help alleviate inflammation.
If you’ve adopted a nutritious diet and daily exercise regimen on your own and are still having trouble conceiving, it’s best to consult a specialist like Tillotson for help.
The holy trinity of menopause symptoms—insomnia, hot flashes and mood swings, oh my!—are classic signs of hormone imbalances. Instead of a simplistic, estrogen-first solution, Furtado takes a broader view of the hormone situation.
“The adrenal glands and ovaries are sisters who have been working hard their whole lives,” Furtado explains. “One gets to retire and go to Hawaii. Girl, thanks for your service. The sister left behind is charged with making all the hormones.”
But adrenals aren’t always up to the task, which leads to adrenal insufficiency and a host of menopausal symptoms. Furtado employs such naturopathic remedies as vitamins, nutrients and other forms of detoxification to ease symptoms.
“Adrenals become fatigued because of toxic overload,” she explains. “Detoxing—through good nutrition, adequate sleep, stress management, and herbs like yellow dock and milk thistle—helps support organs like the liver and kidneys so that they can remove toxic chemicals that have been stored in the body.”
Herbs like Siberian ginseng, black cohosh and evening primrose are said to help with hot flashes, Furtado shares, but a physician can help prescribe the right combination of remedies if you don’t find relief on your own.
“It’s healable,” Furtado says, and most of her patients feel relief in six to eight weeks. H