Natural treatments - from head to toe
We explore some of the most prevalent conditions among the sexes and introduce men's and women's natural health tips that can help you feel better.
From acupuncture to Zen meditation, alternative medicine and modalities can help treat some of our most common aches and pains. Here, we explore some of the most prevalent conditions among women and men, and introduce the practitioners and procedures that can help you feel better—naturally.
Seasonal affective disorder
Although it’s not an issue during the sunny summer months, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of cyclical depression, can occur during darker autumn and winter months. Symptoms sap energy and make sufferers feel moody and blue.
“This is a very common form of depression, which is only noticeable during those months when there is very little sunlight,” explains Esther Kane, a registered clinical counsellor in Courtenay, BC.
Experts say that SAD affects 40 million North Americans, 75 to 80 percent of whom are women. Symptoms may include depression, hopelessness, and anxiety; lack of energy and oversleeping; social withdrawal and a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed; a change in appetite or weight; and difficulty concentrating and processing information.
“Research shows that many people who are diagnosed with SAD have been helped by light therapy,” Kane says. “This involves being exposed to very bright light from a specialized lamp, box, or device first thing in the morning, for 15 to 30 minutes a day. The great thing about light therapy is that it’s safe, has no side effects, and is really easy to use.”
Affecting a larger percentage of women (for every man with a migraine, three women suffer), migraines are often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. According to Migraine Canada, this may be related to the changes in estrogen levels that occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Other triggers, says Melissa Carr, a registered doctor of traditional Chinese medicine at Vancouver’s Active Life Health Clinic, include caffeine, stress, and certain foods. “The list of reasons for headaches is one of the longest in medicine, with over 300 different types and causes,” she explains.
While the occasional headache is not generally a concern, Carr says that chronic, severe, or “mystery” headaches should be properly assessed and treated. To this end, acupuncture has been shown to be highly effective in treating the root cause of the disease, rather than just the symptoms.
“Using thin needles to stimulate various points on your body, acupuncture can help regulate the blood flow in the small vessels that typically become constricted in a migraine attack,” she says. “It also helps the body to balance levels of serotonin … and releases endorphin compounds, which are natural painkillers, in the central nervous system.”
Because it generally relaxes tense muscles, acupuncture can also relieve the pain and discomfort associated with migraines. Carr says that a typical treatment, which lasts from 20 minutes to an hour, is a “pain-free, comfortable, and relaxing experience.”
Consultation with a naturopath may help in finding the right supplement to help relieve arthritis pain, including glucosamine, chondroitin, and/or methyl sulfonylmethane (MSM).
Simply put, arthritis refers to inflammation of the joints. The term arthritis, however, includes about 100 different diseases and conditions. According to the Canadian Arthritis Network, more than 4 million Canadians aged 15 and over have some form of arthritis; two-thirds are women.
Depending on the type of arthritis, symptoms may include aching, stiff, or swollen joints. Working to increase muscle strength, range of motion, and physical endurance through exercise is paramount in managing these symptoms.
Yoga, suggests the Arthritis and Autoimmunity Research Centre Foundation, is a “safe and mindful way” for patients to stay active, keep joints moving, and help to manage the pain and stiffness often associated with arthritis.
“I’ve lived with arthritis for almost 10 years now and I’ve discovered that … physical movements, like yoga, help me manage my chronic pain,” confirms Kim Scarrow, studio owner and teacher at Moksha Yoga Vancouver.
“A lot of people with arthritis are told to keep active, but that’s hard to do when you’re in pain. The nice thing about yoga is that you can do it in almost any state you’re in.”
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) has a wide variety of symptoms, including mood swings, fatigue, irritability, headaches, insomnia, and depression. An estimated 75 percent of menstruating women experience some form of PMS in the days or weeks leading up to their period. While this condition tends to peak toward the 30s, it need not control a woman’s life.
“A big part of PMS is related to hormonal changes in combination with a number of other factors,” explains Debbie Williams, a registered nurse and founder of Alternative Hormone Solutions in West Vancouver. “Nutritional deficiencies are a big one, and improving one’s diet can help combat the negative effects of PMS.”
Although she recommends the 20 percent of women who experience severe PMS consider taking a hormonal approach to alleviate their symptoms (this may, for example, involve the use of a natural progesterone creme derived from wild yams and soybeans), most women can simply change the way they eat.
“Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating more eggs, nuts, and krill, and choose foods that are high in complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits,” Williams says. “No processed foods whatsoever, and make sure to get enough protein. Lentils and beans are very good.”
Other options include supplementing with calcium, magnesium, vitamins B6, and E as well as herbal remedies such as ginger, raspberry leaf, dandelion, chasteberry, and evening primrose oil.
While as many as 50 percent of adults in North America suffer from varicose veins—bulging, grape-coloured veins that are visible under the skin in the legs and feet—women are more commonly affected than men.
“The number one risk factor [for] is being female,” confirms Dr. Janna Bentley, a physician at the Lakeshore Vein and Aesthetics Clinic in Kelowna, BC. “This is largely due to the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, which relax the structure of vein walls.”
Faulty valves, she adds, are to blame. “There are valves in the veins that keep the blood moving up to the heart. If they’re not working properly, the blood will flow backward and pool, causing the veins to twist and turn and become thicker and more obvious to the naked eye.”
While varicose veins are a chronic problem, Bentley says that compression is an ancient and effective way to relieve such symptoms as aching, heaviness, and leg fatigue.
“Compression has been used to treat varicose vein disease for thousands of years,” she says. “Compression stockings, for example, provide external support to the veins by steadily squeezing the legs and helping the veins and muscles move blood more efficiently. This can prevent further progression of varicose vein disease.”
Baldness has long been a sore spot for men, approximately 40 percent of whom will experience some hair thinning or loss by the time they reach their 40s.
“Sometimes it has to do with stress or poor nutrition, a medical condition, or it could be caused by a medicine they’re taking,” says Urs Eichenberger, owner of Strands Hair and Skin Treatment Centre in Vancouver. “It may be genetic, or just a normal part of aging. Whatever the cause, when men start to notice that their hair is thinning or dropping out, a natural treatment that combines essential oils and botanical extracts with massage can really help.”
Aromatherapy using essential oils such as rosemary, lavender, cedarwood, and thyme may be effective in treating hair loss. Simply add any one of these to a carrier oil such as jojoba or grapeseed (left undiluted, some essential oils can be harsh on the skin) and massage into the hair and scalp for two to three minutes before rinsing.
The massage, says Eichenberger, plays an important role in treatment by promoting circulation and bringing more blood to the scalp, which can help to stimulate hair growth. Aromatherapy has also been shown to reduce stress, which may be a trigger for hair loss.
Snoring affects roughly four out of every 10 men. Aside from bothering his bedmate, snoring can actually prevent the snorer from sleeping deeply and soundly, resulting in fatigue and lack of concentration the next day.
“When we drift off, all of the muscles in our body relax and become floppy,” writes Mark Stengler, author and naturopathic doctor in San Diego. “The muscles that make up the airway get floppy too, and as the airway narrows, airflow is reduced, causing tissue in the throat to vibrate and make the sound of a snore.”
“The snorer may be asleep all night, but they are not getting any deep or ‘rapid eye movement’ sleep,” he adds. “The next morning they wake up exhausted.”
Stengler goes on to warn that “if the flow of air is reduced too much, the oxygen level in your body can drop, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.”
Luckily, there are many alternative treatments for snoring. Natural nasal sprays and homeopathic remedies are often recommended, as is music therapy.
British researchers found that doing singing exercises every day helped reduce levels of snoring while a Swiss team reported that playing the didgeridoo—a wind instrument that makes a droning sound—daily can reduce snoring, as well. Both studies related a decreased level of snoring to improved muscle control in the upper throat as a result of music therapy.
Adult men who have poor posture or do manual labour involving heavy lifting commonly experience back pain. A chiropractor may be able to help.
Most chiropractors address problems related to the spine, which can cause upper, lower, and mid-back pain, along with other health issues. “The pathway to well-being is a healthy spine,” says Dr. Sima Goel, a Montreal-based chiropractor.
“Back pain that lasts for more than a few seconds, more than once a year, is the body’s way of warning of a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Chiropractors treat back pain by adjusting the spinal column using their hands or specialized instruments. They can also provide information and guidance on how to stay healthy through proper nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes.
“There’s no need for anyone to suffer from back pain, and there is an alternative to drugs and surgery,” stresses Goel, adding that a typical chiropractic appointment takes no more than 20 minutes or so.
The tiny prostate gland, which produces part of the seminal fluid that provides nutrients to sperm, can create some mighty big problems for men. Prostatitis, for example, is an inflammation of the prostate that can cause pelvic pain and make urination difficult. Chronic prostatitis affects about 11 percent of Canadian men under 50 years of age.
Although it’s a complex problem, research from the Canadian Physiotherapy Association shows that physiotherapy can relieve the symptoms of chronic prostatitis by correcting muscle imbalances through the stretching and strengthening of the muscles in the hips, abdomen, and pelvic floor.
“Even a healthy male who hasn’t had prostate cancer or surgery can develop pain in and around the genitals, rectum, pelvis, groin, abdomen, hips, thighs, or buttocks,” explains Nancy Dowker, a registered physiotherapist at Pelvic Support Physiotherapy in Ottawa.
“With a condition like prostatitis, the pelvic floor muscles often go into a protective muscle spasm. Holding those muscles tight creates tension that can cause problems in the pelvic core.”
Physiotherapy, she says, can help to relieve chronic pelvic pain caused by prostatitis by teaching men to let their muscles relax. While not all physiotherapists treat pelvic pain, those who do have special training can offer a personalized treatment plan to help relieve symptoms. They may also be able to explain how to manage pain better though relaxation and breathing strategies.
Naturopaths may prescribe supplements for support and treatment of prostatitis, including saw palmetto, used traditionally to help improve urinary tract symptoms and urinary flow; echinacea; Siberian ginseng; and garlic.
Being an athlete doesn’t increase the risk of developing athlete’s foot, but being a man does. Because men typically wear heavy, airtight shoes that squeeze their toes, they stand a better chance of contracting this fungal infection, which loves hot, dark, moist environments.
It’s easy then to pick up athlete’s foot, also called tinea pedis, in the gym or locker room—just the kind of environments this group of dermatophytes (mold-like fungi) loves.
Although athlete’s foot mainly develops in the moist areas between the toes or elsewhere on the feet, it can travel to other parts of the body quickly through infected clothing or hands. Uncomfortable, it usually causes itching, stinging, and burning between the toes; cracking and peeling skin; or excessive dryness on the soles of the feet.
Hydrotherapy is one way to treat athlete’s foot. For an antifungal foot soak, fill a basin with warm water and add 20 drops of tea tree oil; soak feet for 15 minutes, three times daily, and dry thoroughly when done.
“Tea tree is a powerful natural antifungal, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory, perfect for treating fungal infections such as athlete’s foot,” says Quang Le of True Aromatherapy Products in Fort Langley, BC.
“Lots of people come in for this reason, and tea tree oil, either applied directly to the skin or in a warm bath, is what we recommend.”