Why are we so drawn to alternative medicine?

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The other day I began my story of how I fell in love — and then out of love — with the crunchy community. I said I wanted to explore some of the dangers and pitfalls of the wellness industry.

But before I spend too much time discussing the negative sides of “crunchy living” and alternative medicine, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that alternative healing practices definitely have their strengths and benefits, and I totally understand their allure.

Many of us turned to alternative medicine when conventional medicine failed us.

Because the truth is, the conventional (Western) medicine model can be very disempowering for patients.

The doctor typically holds all the power: it’s their office; you go in on their time. They tell you what to do. They decide your prescription and the dose, and tell you when to come back.

They often use unfamiliar, infantilizing jargon that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and belittled. And they often shame you if you admit to googling your symptoms or trying out alternative healing practices. It can feel like they don’t want you to have any agency in your own wellness.

No matter how old, intelligent, or experienced you are, you often leave a doctor’s office feeling like a child. It’s a relationship where the doctor knows everything and you know nothing.

We often come out of a doctor’s office feeling like we weren’t heard or taken seriously. We often feel like there is nothing we can do to aid in our own healing. And we feel like our doctors don’t take into account our whole selves: we don’t feel like our spiritual and emotional selves are acknowledged.

And that’s if we can even get ourselves to step through the door. Hospitals and doctor’s offices are often cold, sterile, unwelcoming places. They tend to be crowded and busy, and we feel anonymous. Monitors beep, we stand in lines, everything smells antiseptic. Most of us will do just about anything to avoid going there in the first place.

Compare that to many holistic wellness centers, which are typically more welcoming and empowering. The floors are often carpeted and you’re encouraged to take off your shoes. There is often soothing music playing, and diffusers bubbling with calming essential oils. The lights may be dimmed and there is probably a potted succulent on the receptionist’s desk.

Your alternative healthcare provider often listens carefully as you discuss not only your source of pain, but your daily routine, your diet, your emotional responses to you suffering, and alternative remedies you’ve tried. They take you seriously when you say you’ve tried acupuncture or cutting out gluten. They typically use language you understand. They often offer a number of options and encourage you to find a dose that works for you. They might give you their email address in case you have additional questions for later.

You typically leave a wellness center feeling like a whole person who is actively participating in finding a solution.

And sometimes you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home. The Internet offers an infinite number of ideas, suggestions, and solutions. There are millions of people out there telling you that you can take control of your own health. You just have to read the right books, eat the right food, do the right exercises, or take the right supplements.

Who wouldn’t want to go that route over the medical route if possible?

Well, unfortunately, I’ve discovered firsthand that there are some problems inherent in the alternative health model as well.

For one thing, alternative healthcare is not as well regulated, so a lot of nonsense – often dangerous — can slip in. There is often not enough accountability for peddlers of alternative medicine.

And sometimes the burden of figuring things out for yourself can become overwhelming rather than empowering.

And when alternative healing doesn’t work, you can wind up feeling like you didn’t try hard enough, or that you’re just too lazy, or any number of self-defeating things.

And it’s these problems that I want to explore a bit more in future posts.

Thanks for following along!

The Problem with the Crunchy Community: An Intro (My Story)

My crunchy journey started around 2010, when I found myself unable to get pregnant after a year of trying. I found my family doctor completely and utterly useless in the matter, so I turned to the Internet.

There, I discovered a world where toxins are everywhere, trying to sabotage our health. The Standard American Diet is leaving us sick and disordered. The medical community is keeping secrets because it profits from our lack of health.

I bought into it completely. Vibrant health (including fertility) could be achieved with knowledge, hard work, and and the right foods and exercises.

And, I mean, why wouldn’t I buy right into it? After another year of trying — this time armed with traditional foods, supplements, and nontoxic cleaners and body products — I did finally get pregnant. I gave birth (at home, of course) to a robustly healthy little girl. I fed her all the right foods (including breast milk, of course) right from the start, ensuring a healthy future for her.

It was an incredible victory.

I did all the same hard work to get pregnant a second time, two years later. This time I gave birth to a beautiful, nine-pound boy with blond hair. A miracle. My dreams had all come true. Because I had done everything right.

Until I found out that my beautiful baby had been born with a genetic, life-threatening disease, and would need every conceivable medical intervention to survive, from tube-feeding and antibiotics to genetically modifying his white blood cells. And even if we saved his life, he would probably deal with health and developmental issues for the rest of his life.

I learned something very hard in that first year with my second child: nothing can guarantee vibrant health. NOTHING.

* * *

To be honest, I still have a crunchy soul.

I still believe there is healing power in good food and nature. I still believe there is a lot of toxicity in our modern world, thanks to greed + industrialization. I still believe there are limits to what the medical community can offer, and that answers to real health and wellness may often come from outside that world. I still see incredible value in turning to more traditional ways of living for healing.

I still buy mostly organic food, I cook from scratch as much as possible, and I try to avoid pharmaceuticals unless absolutely necessary. I don’t use anything with synthetic fragrances and I avoid plastics.

But I have come to better appreciate what the scientific and medical community can offer us.

And even more importantly, I’ve come to see that there are dangers hidden within the crunchy community, too.

Three Major Problems with the Cult of Health and Wellness

Over time, I’ve noticed a few major problems that can arise from the being active in the crunchy community. These are all things I’ve experienced personally:

  1. It offers a false sense of control over our health.
  2. It puts unreasonable pressure on individuals to pursue unattainable health.
  3. It ignores and demonizes the very real and good gifts that medicine and science have to offer.

Over the next couple of weeks,* in a short series of posts, I want to explore each of these issues separately.

These issues around being “crunchy” are things I’ve been wrestling with for the last couple of years, and I just felt it was time to try to articulate them, for myself if for no one else.

I will be very interested in hearing your experiences along the way!

*Or months, if I’m being realistic. I have drafts written already but they are a mess. And I have no idea when I’ll get another good night’s sleep.

5 Things I Learned This Winter (2019)

Winter has always been hard for me.

Seasonal affective disorder runs in my family. Every winter we Friesens all turn into those sad, shriveled little plant creatures in Ursula’s garden in The Little Mermaid.

But it became doubly hard when I had a non-ambulatory child. Navigating a stroller through snow and slush is challenging on a good day; and when said kid fights every step of the bundling-up process the whole thing starts to feel completely futile. We end up spending every day indoors.

And winter became triply hard when said kid decided that sleeping at night was irrelevant.

No sunshine + no exercise + no sleep for months on end = not a good recipe for my mental health.

(The meds and respite care I was so excited about a couple of months ago both ended up not working for us so that’s a bummer.)

BUUUUT we did go on a vacation (which was a bit of a mixed bag — see below) AND we started getting a bit more sleep in these last couple of weeks so it’s not all bad!

Anyway, I’m joining Emily P Freeman to share a few of the things I learned this winter.

1. Family vacations are better with friends when you have young kids.

Last year we went to Florida for ten days to escape the miserable Canadian winter and it was wonderful. The only thing that would have made it better was friends (especially for Lydia, who got bored and lonely without anyone to play with.)

This year we decided to go again — but this time for two weeks, and with another family with young kids. And it was so great!

For one thing, when we all got hit by a violent stomach bug in the first week (EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US), it was really helpful to have another pair of adults to take care of things when one of us was puking our guts out or cleaning toddler vomit out of our hair.

There were four whole adults to take turns with dishwasher duty or to grab diapers from the grocery store, or to google the best route to the zoo. I felt it gave us all a chance to relax a little more than we would have on our own.

And it was so lovely for Lydia to have a playmate around the clock! She was so much happier with a friend.

(Also? We saved so much money! We were able to split the cost of the villa and groceries, making it a very affordable vacation.)

2. I love owning a Kindle Fire.

Our family has never owned a tablet or e-reader before this February, so I didn’t know what I was missing. (We tend to be very late adopters of technology, mostly for financial reasons.)

Anyway, we already owned two laptops and a smartphone each. What else could a tablet possibly offer, I wondered?

Turns out, a lot!

A sweet and generous Internet Friend intuited that I would enjoy having a device on which to read e-books, and decided to gift me a Kindle.

(She consulted me about other e-reader options, but we decided together that a Kindle Fire would probably be most beneficial because I rely heavily on the library and wanted to be able to borrow books using Overdrive and Hoopla. Most other e-readers, including the Kindle Paperwhite, unfortunately, aren’t compatible with those apps, at least in Canada. A Kindle Fire, I learned, is basically just a regular tablet, on which you can link to the Internet and download all sorts of apps; but you can also read e-books on it. I worried at first that it would be uncomfortable to read books off of a screen, but friends assured me they did it all the time and loved it.)

So I got the Kindle Fire. And I can’t believe what I was missing!

One of the first things I did was install Hoopla and download the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels I’ve been pining over ever since we finished the TV series on Netflix. And it worked so great! And looked so beautiful on the screen! I was smitten.

I can finally borrow e-books from the library! I can take advantage of those Kindle deals I’m always seeing! I can read with one hand while holding a cranky Felix! YAY!

3. A Kindle Fire (or other tablet) is an AMAZING resource for homeschooling.

So the NEXT thing I did after tracking down the Avatar books was to download a few free educational games for Lydia to play. And wow! They’re so great! She loves them, and learned so much within the first week! I am just blown away.

As you know, we unschool, and I believe the best and most meaningful learning happens in real life (e.g. the best math learning happens when you save and spend actual money, or take measurements for an actual project, etc). It also works best when it’s self-directed. But sometimes I still wonder if Lydia could benefit from practising traditional math equations and things like that; but that is just not something she’s interested in doing.

Well, there’s an app for that! Or more like, a few dozen!

For example, Pet Bingo has Lydia doing the equivalent of six sheets of math equations to earn a “pet” that she can name and feed and play with. She’ll happily sit and do math for an hour just to find out what cute pet she’ll get. She begs to play! To do MATH EQUATIONS.

These apps are so great for assuaging any worries that she’s not learning enough “school-ish” stuff. (What if she has to take tests for higher education in the future??) And they’re fun enough that she chooses to play out of her own free will.

I feel like an hour of Khan Academy Kids on the Fire is roughly the equivalent of a day at school. Throw in an episode of Wild Kratts and some time at the park/forest/pool/ice rink/etc, and BOOM: you’ve got a pretty well-rounded education for an elementary-school-aged kid.

They’re so accessible, too: the new Fire HD 8 costs about $100 CAD (or less in the US), and I haven’t spent a dollar so far on apps. For that one-time cost you get a whole world of educational material at your fingertips.

I can’t wait to see what else we discover together!

4. Salt Matters.

I guess this was the season that people either felt really sorry for me or just really appreciated me (HA!) because I got another gift in the mail from an Internet Friend: The book Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat.

It’s a beautiful book jam-packed with cooking wisdom, and so far I’ve only gotten through the the part on salt. And it convinced me to splurge on some more expensive salts. (She suggests that the two things worth spending more money on are salt and olive oil).

I’d been buying Real Salt for a number of years, but recently decided I should try to save money and just buy some generic sea salt. Salt is salt, right?? But I was surprised to find I was consistently dissatisfied with the results.

Turns out, not all salt is created equal. And different salts work better for different things. The texture of the crystals has a surprising effect on how we experience the flavour. Samin explained it all to me and I suddenly understood why I wasn’t loving the salt I’d bought. (It’s fine for some things, though.)

So I bought another bag of my beloved Real Salt (Really, it’s an extra $9 every six months or so, and it’s a saltier salt so it goes further; and also some fancy fleur to sel for really special occasions.

In fact, I used the fluer de sel for finishing some edamame last week and it elevated the dish from pretty good to sublime.

Who knew salt could make such a difference?

Well, that’s about it for today!

What did you learn this winter?

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