Say What?: How Integrative Medicine Can Improve Wellness in the African-American Community

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Imagine a seesaw on a playground, where there is a teenager sitting on one end and a toddler sitting on the other end. Due to the differences in weight and size, you would expect the teenager to be sitting on the ground, while the toddler is floating in the air waiting to go down.

Now that doesn’t seem like an exciting activity for either of them, right?

Well just like in life, too much emphasis on one thing isn’t really effective. You would rarely see any sport played with only one strategy or any house built with only one brick.

In order to succeed at a goal, most times you must approach it from multiple angles and with different tools.

This same thinking should be used when we talk about the healthcare system. However, the healthcare system in the United States mainly practices what they call “conventional medicine”, which is known to focus on things like medication, physical rehabilitation, and psychotherapy to treat conditions in a “one-size fits all” kind of way.

Now we all know that America is known as the “melting pot” of the world, where millions of people from different countries, ethnicities, and cultures have made a home for themselves and their families. However, these unique differences aren’t taken into consideration when medical treatments are made.

Unfortunately, this hiccup eventually leads to people not following through on their healthcare provider’s treatments or they end up falling back into their unhealthy ways.

I believe that integrative health can possibly solve this problem.

What Exactly Is Integrative Health?

We’ve heard the terms holistic, integrative, and complementary health being thrown around these past few years in regards to a more natural, healthier living.

Automatically, you may think of a vegan doing yoga in the park, right? Well, not exactly.

There are far more elements to these lifestyles than that, yet they share a common theme of understanding that a person is more than just their condition or illness.

Say What?: How Integrative Medicine Can Improve Wellness in the African-American Community

For centuries, parts of the world like India, East Asia, Africa, and South America, have utilized alternative remedies like prayer, fasting, imagery, acupuncture, herbs, messages, etc., instead of just the conventional medication and surgery options mostly used in this country. Some even view the opinions of natural or tribal healers the same as (if not more than) licensed medical professionals.

Luckily, these practices have gained more of a following in the United States over the years, which eventually led to the development of a governmental agency called the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

According to the NCCIH, integrative health is a combination of conventional health approaches (like medications and rehab) and complementary health approaches (like acupuncture, yoga, and probiotics) used to treat the whole person, rather than just one thing.

How Does This Help The African-American Community?

Particularly in the Black community, there are many variations of cultures that make up a whole.

While many Black people in this country can trace their origin to the continent of Africa, many have migrated from several other countries in the Caribbean, South America, and Europe with their own set of unique traditions and customs.

Even if a family was born and raised in the U.S. for several generations, regionally there are also differences in Black cultures regarding food, music, fashion, language, and even how health care is viewed. For example, Southern culture is different than West coast culture, and so on and so forth.

In places like the South, where comfort food is known to be prepared with more seasonings or flavored drinks are prepared with more sugar, following doctor’s orders that limit these favorites may be more difficult.

Also, religion or spiritually often play an important role in healing within African American culture. For example, a local pastor or reiki healer may be called to pray or “cleanse” an illness out of someone with the help of their family or community.

When it comes to medications, some African Americans may also utilize herbs like turmeric, cayenne, garlic, etc. to reduce high blood pressure and inflammation, instead of using prescriptions from their provider.

These activities can be traced back to tribal healing practices and a longstanding distrust of Western medicine’s treatment towards Black people.

There are several other generalizations and traditions that conventional medicine may deem to be “unhealthy”, and the honest truth is that controlling conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes rely on restrictive diets, non-smoking, and regular exercise (excluding those that are born affected).

Think about it, if a person’s lifestyle doesn’t support regular exercising or cooking at home due to financial or environmental constraints, wouldn’t they be more likely to develop chronic conditions?

What about if they mistrusted the healthcare system so much that they chose to not get regular physicals or examinations until something was wrong?

The answer is yes.

Also, due to other unfortunate racial barriers to proper nutrition and healthcare within the African-American community, many disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer exist in disproportionate numbers.

Photo by Alex Green on

However, many studies have shown that using a combination of slow, progressive, and realistic changes in lifestyle with “non conventional” methods can have more of a positive, long-term impact than huge, drastic, and unrealistic changes.

For example, studies done by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs have revealed how the addition of hypnosis, meditation, and chiropractors helped veterans with spinal pain and mental health conditions. They found that those patients felt better and reduced their need for pain medicines that can often have serious side effects.

Black people are not all the same. However, it is important to recognize that spiritual healers, a supportive community, healthy nutrition, mindfulness, and other complementary treatments can not only be beneficial, but a vital part of wellness within the Black community.

So What’s Next?

Speak up. That’s it.

Now keep in mind that integrative medicine combines complementary and conventional medicine together. That means if a person’s blood pressure when they visit the doctor’s office is 215/110 (yes, I’ve seen it this high before), it may not be the best time to only use a favorite yoga chant to try and lower it.

Why not?

Well because while there may be some studies out there that support the use of yoga as a preventative method for lowering high blood pressure, it won’t be as effective in lowering that pressure realistically before stroke-like symptoms or cardiac damage start to occur.

Therefore, treatments including blood-pressure lowering medications, insulin, surgery, rehabilitation, and mental therapy are equally as important too—especially in emergency situations.

There are many modern, life-saving medicines and procedures that are absolutely necessary to the survival rate and quality of life for certain conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, etc.

So if you are a person who is looking for your healthcare provider to include cultural traditions and other holistic alternatives within their treatment plan, speak up. Or, if you are a healthcare provider who recognizes the importance of integrative health in caring for other cultures, speak up. Have a real conversation about combining traditional and non traditional methods together to make a realistic treatment plan.

If not, many people will continue to feel left out and unheard in something that should be a basic right to everyone—quality healthcare.

Photo by Angela Roma on

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