Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

A Holistic Approach to Healthy Kids
Separating Fact from Fiction

by Carrie Bishop

April 01, 2011

Holistic healthcare may not be the yin to western medicine’s yang, but the two approaches to health and wellness are increasingly intertwined.

Sure there are an unknown number of alternative treatments many science-minded experts view as unfounded, quack cures, or downright dangerous. Yet, many holistic healthcare approaches once considered medical outliers, are making their way into mainstream western medicine for the treatment of kids with special needs and others. Think diet, acupuncture, healing touch and the like.

Holistic healthcare as defined by the nonprofit American Holistic Health Association is an approach to life that considers the whole person and his or her interaction with the environment.

“Holistic refers to helping the body heal itself rather than giving the body something to change its physiology,” explained Brad Ralston, DC, DACBN, executive director of the Brain Balance Achievement Center in Indianapolis.

While in the United States holistic healthcare providers cannot legally diagnose, treat or cure any ailment, disease or disorder, Lisa Timmerman, ND, at the Natural Health Care Clinic in Spencerville, Ind., said when she works with children who have special needs like autism, learning disorders, diabetes or cerebral palsy, they do get better. It’s her experience that by treating the whole person, which includes his or her mental, emotional and physical states, their bodies are better able to heal themselves. As a naturopathic doctor, Timmerman looks for causes of a health problem and seeks solutions through natural remedies or therapies.

In speaking of her clinic, Timmerman said, “What we’re looking to do is not chase after symptoms or recommend supplements or remedies to help with the symptoms. Our main objective is to find what is causing the problem.” And thus, helping improve the core issue.

Holistic care is no longer exclusive to alternative clinics. In fact, major medical centers such as Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, now incorporate holistic treatments and therapies into patient care on a regular basis. For instance, the hospital offers patients acupuncture to address pain and its child life program routinely provides play, music and art therapies to meet kids’ emotional needs and help the patients better express feelings and fears. “We know this will help them have a better outcome,” said Jeff Sperring, MD, chief medical officer at Riley at IU Health.

Riley at IU Health views holistic medicine as taking care of a child with any kind of medical condition in a manner that involves his or her entire environment, not the least of which includes the child’s family.

“In order for a child to have the best outcome and health, you can’t just think about the physical issues, but you have to think about the impact on family, support the family, and look at the emotional needs of the child to recover from acute illness or recover from the condition they have,” said Sperring.

Riley at IU Health is considered a national pioneer of family-centered care and even takes pride in its active family advisory committee, which tells staff how the hospital can better approach family-centered care. An example of this approach can be seen during rounds when the child’s medical team openly discusses plans for the patient with mom and dad, the nurse, and at times even the social worker. The discussions are often held at the patient’s bedside.

“The family is right there with us hearing about what happened overnight,” said Sperring. “They are talking about the plans. They know their kids better than we do and they may help us adjust the plans.”

Sperring said the hospital wants families together as much as possible. “If parents are involved with kids, the kids have better outcomes,” he said.

A stone’s throw away in Ohio is Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which also takes a broader approach to caring for sick kids. This hospital has had an integrative care department since 1998, that according to Michelle Zimmer, MD, medical director of integrative care at Cincinnati Children’s, was a grassroots movement started by nurses. The concept has grown to include a staff of 17 people with a holistic health specialist on almost every inpatient unit. Therapies offered include massage, healing touch, relaxation therapies and others.

“We have a lot of growing to do,” said Zimmer, who noted that the hospital is not yet offering acupuncture but said there are plans to create an outpatient integrative healthcare clinic in the near term.

Without doubt the traditional medical world is starting to embrace some holistic treatments and therapies. The key for medical doctors seems to lie in the science that backs holistic claims. As studies continue to test validity of various holistic treatments and as new programs emerge, area experts offer the following advice to parents who are seeking holistic help to treat their child’s special health concerns.

Don’t discount diet. Health experts across the board agree that diet is a critical part of a child’s overall wellness. “It’s huge,” said Timmerman, whose children’s program assists kids with special needs such as ADD, autism and other neurological deficits. She believes diet is a key component for restoring cognitive and physical health to these children.

Ralston has a similar perspective. “Diet affects behavior,” he said, noting that studies show overwhelmingly that children respond positively to eliminating some food groups from their diet.

“These children seem to be sensitive to particular food items or combinations of foods. [The Brain Balance] methodology is to test for the food sensitivities and eliminate those for one month to see if it improves the negative behaviors and trial them back in to see if negative behaviors come back once they are reintroduced,” he explained. Ralston feels diet is so important that he won’t start therapy until the child’s diet is squared away.

Keep an open mind with western medicine. In short, traditional medicine helps heal people. Don’t discount it. If an alternative healthcare provider says to ignore the pediatrician’s advice, consider that a red flag.

“There’s a place for hospitals, for drugs, for all of that,” said Timmerman, who often works in conjunction with medical doctors. She said she understands that there may be a short-term need for a drug or western-style intervention, but believes that natural health is a better answer for long-term wellness.

Ask for the scientific support of the treatment or program. “In general there’s a lot of attention that is given to holistic treatments and you have to make sure that there’s some science behind what you are choosing to do. You wouldn’t want to go to somebody who recommended against what your doctor is telling you to do,” said Ralston.

Likewise, Sperring said evidence is a critical factor in determining the value of a particular course of treatment. “As we learn more about alternative approaches, it’s something we’re always willing to consider. I think the hardest part for [medical doctors] is short of having evidence, we tend to not take chances with our kids,” he said, and points to a child’s pediatrician as being the gold standard for guidance on a child’s health.

On a similar note, Zimmer recommends that parents who do start their child on an herb or supplement should think of it as an experiment. “Understand what symptom you are trying to treat and document what you want to see improved. Jot it down. If over time the symptom is not getting better, then get off the supplement,” she said. “You have to be as critical of any herb or supplement as any medication you are trying.”

Ask your pediatrician or doctor for recommendations. Finding a good holistic healthcare provider is not as clear cut as finding a qualified pediatrician. Word of mouth seems to be the most typical way of identifying a practitioner. For one, Timmerman said her clinic never advertises but relies on word of mouth and networking with others in her field. A good place to start networking is with the pediatrician. Once families tap into the holistic health scene, they will begin to find alternative healthcare providers with good reputations by simply networking within the holistic community.

Ask good questions and trust gut instincts. Before diving head first into a holistic treatment, ask the practitioner about his or her qualifications. Find out the means for evaluating the child, cost of treatment and depth of knowledge the healthcare provider knows about the special need. Does the program sound too good to be true? Parents should listen to their intuition.

In the end, patients and families may have a lot to gain from an integrated approach to healthcare. Stay tuned as western and holistic therapies and treatments seek common ground.