This is the second in a two-part series on integrative medicine, the combination of conventional and alternative therapies.
Mysterious diseases that neither seem to have a single cause nor a single cure are the most compelling forces behind the rise of integrative medicine. The diseases, called "complex chronic illnesses," have confounded doctors, who attempt to treat patients suffering from the conditions for which one form of medicine doesn't seem to be enough.
Complex chronic illnesses affect more than one system in the body. Because of this, patients recover most successfully with the use of an amalgam of therapies that involve both conventional and alternative approaches.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia are leading examples of complex chronic illnesses. Both conditions involve the immune, circulatory, digestive and nervous systems, which interact with each other in bewildering ways.
The immune systems of persons afflicted with CFS churn out abnormally high levels of the hormones normally responsible for stimulating immune cells into action. But high levels of these hormones can also create a deep sense of fatigue. Individuals with CFS can also have serious problems with memory and concentration ("brain fog"), sleep, pain and digestion.
Widespread bodily pain is the most characteristic symptom of fibromyalgia. While sufferers of the condition perceive the pain they experience as coming from their muscles, the muscles don't show any signs of disease. The pain occurs when the brain encounters disturbance while processing normal nerve impulses. Fibromyalgia sufferers can also experience CFS-like symptoms.
One Haystack, Many Needles
A labyrinth of factors causes the two illnesses. While each factor by itself may not be sufficient to cause the illness, a multiplicity of factors can conspire to establish an insidious pattern of chronic symptoms that can be difficult to dislodge. With a sudden trauma or injury, extreme or chronic stress, environmental toxins, possibly certain germs and a person's genetic vulnerabilities, the factors all join together to wreak havoc, which is complex chronic illness.
Because conventional medicine is based on disease with a single cause, mainstream physicians have, for the most part, failed to treat complex chronic illnesses. Individuals with CFS and fibromyalgia need more than a single drug, surgery or other high-tech solutions.
Complex chronic illnesses involve a "web of causality" with many factors that "are not linked to each other in a linear, predictable manner," explain researchers Pierre Philippe and Omaima Mansi of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Montreal.
A Foggy Brain, a Book in the Refrigerator
Abby, who didn't want her last name used, knows all about the result of interlaced factors. The 43-year-old psychotherapist received whiplash from an auto accident 11 years ago. For more than a year she suffered pain, which caused disturbed sleep and chronic stress, and it was during this time that she also became pregnant.
After giving birth, the Greenwich, Connecticut resident developed a series of bacterial infections. Her doctors put her on a heavy course of antibiotics, and one year later she developed a flu that never seemed to leave.
Abby was on a downward spiral, one that led her into a seven-year sojourn through CFS and fibromyalgia. At her worst she was barely able to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Her brain fog was so severe that she once found a book in her refrigerator.
The Promise of Integrative Medicine
With the help of a naturopath, Abby turned to herbal medicines and supplements and an organic, nonallergenic diet to support her digestive system. She practiced meditation and breathing exercises every day and received acupuncture regularly to stimulate her body's healing process.
To complement the alternative therapies, an understanding physician prescribed medications to treat depression, pain and sleep disturbance.
"I don't know what I would have done without those medicines, because they restored my sleep, when nothing natural would," Abby says. "Then my immune system had a chance to heal."
Today, while Abby occasionally suffers from mild symptoms during stressful times, she is able to jog three times a week, and she lives a full life with her husband and 10-year-old son. She continues to use herbs, supplements and a healthy diet.
Integrating the strengths of conventional and alternative therapies has been the key to Abby's healing and holds promise for countless others who face the challenges of complex chronic illness.