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Holistic Practices Gaining Mainstream Credibility

From guided imagery to yoga to acupuncture, various methods helping people reduce stress Business Courier of Cincinnati - by Melissa Haller Courier Contributor


Years ago, talking about acupuncture, guided imagery or reflexology with a straight face might have earned you sidelong glances and a rapidly dwindling crowd of friends.

But not so much today, where approaches for battling stress and other ailments that have long been considered "new age" are taking hold in mainstream medicine. In fact, there's little debate that various relaxation techniques offer tangible physical benefits. Many hospitals, including Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and those in the TriHealth group, have embraced holistic practices that utilize guided imagery and yoga to help battle such things as presurgical jitters or the stress of coping with illness.

"People are acknowledging and recognizing the importance of spirituality as a key aspect of their lives," said Rodney Valandra, a clinical counselor with the St. Elizabeth Medical Center's employee assistance program. "And I don't mean in the form of religion, but in relaxation, yoga, meditation."

Cincinnati's Alliance Institute for Integrative Medicine has gained a national reputation for its holistic approach to care. Often, these approaches are in addition to traditional Western medicine and, occasionally, instead of or integrated with them.

"We see the effects of stress in children, teenagers, older adults," said Dr. Steve Amoils, medical director at the Alliance Institute, which offers a range of approaches from herbal supplements to acupuncture and craniosacral therapy. So does Bonnie Crawford, program director at the Wellness Community in Cincinnati. The community for cancer patients and their loved ones offers classes and encourages participation in imagery, yoga and other mind/body relaxation techniques.

That's because stress, in unhealthy or chronic doses, can cause a host of mental and physical problems, from increased blood pressure to anxiety, depression and a compromised immune system. It has been linked with heart disease.

Stressors and responses to them are different for everyone. "But any approach should be tailored for each person," Amoils said. "There is no one way to fix stress, but there are many things we can look at."

Most, if not all, of the mind/body therapies have the same science behind them: Purposeful relaxation interrupts the stress response immediately and, often, for an extended period. That can help regulate chemical production, lower blood pressure, improve the immune response and heighten overall well-being.

Such therapies can go further than calming stress in the moment. For instance, guided imagery or visualization involves focusing on a relaxing image or imagining the best outcome of a project, illness or stressor. For work-related stress, that might mean you're imagining the audience as it hears your upcoming presentation.

"You think, 'What do I want these people to look like or act like in response to my message?'" said Dr. Douglas Linz, medical director of TriHealth Corporate Health Services. "You focus on that beforehand; during the presentation, you look for that reaction and adjust your delivery based on the response. It's extremely effective."

With acupuncture, the ancient belief is that the energy - or chi - of a person is blocked, causing stress or other physical ailments. Needles inserted in specific points on the body are thought to unblock that chi. The newer, more scientific-based explanation is that inserting needles in tight muscles helps to relax them. "It gets the nervous system to calm down," Amoils added. Studies that have looked at blood flow in the brain during acupuncture see it changing, and it's believed to adjust the production of hormones and serotonin, adrenalin and histamines, he said.

But holistic methods are not miracles. "There's no pill, no alternative medicine or supplement that is an antidote to a poor lifestyle," Amoils warned. A nutritious diet and exercise are critical. "There's no one way to fix stress. What you have to do is look and see if you can get more tools for your toolbox with these (methods)."

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