Looking beyond the quick fix


Chronic illness is a health crisis. Our modern, conventional medical system has evolved to handle acute care exceptionally well. We’ve developed advanced treatments for injuries, infections, and interventions to keep the body alive while it has a chance to heal itself. This same system isn’t very effective with chronic illness – especially those illnesses that are preventable and stem from lifestyle choices.

Herbalists and other integrative practitioners use a holistic health model of wellness. This is a view that recognizes the effects of many different influences on a person’s overall health. A holistic approach aims to create long-lasting, robust health.

However, achieving this requires the patient or client be motivated to make changes in their lifestyle to support what their body needs. When a client is reluctant to make changes, or feels the changes are too difficult, the client often leaves with a negative view of the integrative approach and continues to have declining health. Finding a solution for these challenging patients can be difficult. Practitioners can address this by looking to the environment around the body instead of focusing on what goes in the body.

Most often, practitioners focus on making changes to the health influences that go into the body – food, exercise, supplements, and medications. This bias is rooted in the allopathic medical model that relies heavily on pharmaceuticals to shift the way the body functions. Integrative practitioners often look to foods, herbs, and supplements to replace missing nutrients and support struggling body systems. Some of this bias is due to clients having greater access to information on medications and supplements and their inherent desire to ‘take a pill’ and not do the hard work of healthy living.

As practitioners, it’s important to help clients do the best they can with what they have and from where they are. The reluctant client always presents a challenge because compliance is low, enthusiasm is low, and the outlook for success is low. However, there is an option. Instead of asking a great deal of a client or asking them to make significant changes, small, incremental changes that don’t feel like a big deal can bring great success.

Especially in cases of chronic disease, a series of lifestyle changes might be the needed boost to shift clients into larger changes in diet and exercise. Consider this case study:

A female client, age 48 complains of joint pain, headaches, brain fog, insomnia, and general moodiness. Onset was gradual and not all symptoms are present all the time. Client indicates she is unwilling to make dietary changes because it is “too hard to coordinate different meals with her family.” She is unwilling to add exercise to her daily plan because she is a working professional and “does not have time to go to the gym.” Diet is typical suburban American, with a heavy bias toward dining out.

A list of nine proposed changes offered her the opportunity to choose the ones that would best fit her lifestyle and motivation. The list included:

  1. Shift to whole foods rather than processed foods

  2. Commit to taking 1-2 additional flights of stairs daily

  3. Supplement with Vitamin D and magnesium to support general health

  4. Obtain a pedometer or turn on step counting on her phone to assess the baseline step count. Attempt to increase daily step count by 100 steps each week

  5. Swap sodas and juices for filtered water

  6. Move bedtime 15 minutes earlier

  7. Move phone/screens out of bedroom at bedtime

  8. Spend five minutes sitting still and deep breathing

  9. Replace any personal care items with organic and natural alternatives

This client agreed to adding in more flights of stairs, supplementing with vitamin D and magnesium, and swapping sodas for filtered water. She felt these would be most likely to fit into her lifestyle. Providing options allows the client to feel empowered about her own healthcare, leading to greater commitment and stronger compliance. Empowered patients are more likely to have successful outcomes.

After two weeks the client reported that her joint pain was less, but not gone. She felt more energetic throughout the day, but still felt like it wasn’t enough. With counseling to encourage continued compliance and support for the changes made so far, the client was willing to continue her selected changes, and replace her personal care products with more natural alternatives. This included changing her fragranced body lotion for an almond or avocado oil blend with essential oils, changing out cosmetics for those with minerals instead of synthetic ingredients, and trying some new shampoo and conditioner.

After four weeks, the client felt her moodiness and brain fog had ‘greatly improved.’ Joint pain was lessened further, and the client felt like she was “ready to do more.” At this point, introducing more significant dietary changes like cooking with organic foods, choosing natural versus prepared foods, and preferring vegetables over breads and grains were back on the table. The client felt like her provider had listened to her concerns and addressed the symptoms in a way that fit her lifestyle. This built trust and enabled the relationship to grow over time rather than being clipped early with demands for dramatic change or a change that seemed too difficult for the client to take on.

Even though these changes seem small, they are generally easier to implement, more likely to be followed, and will create a small, but noticeable bump in a patient’s resilience. When providers start out with an achievable victory, patients are more willing to take larger steps, and may even make choices to do so without prompting. Each victory builds trust and confidence in a holistic strategy for making true shifts toward wellness. Clients become excited and hopeful about their new habits and future.

No matter what the specialty, when a patient trusts their provider is working with them to make achievable lifestyle changes, the patient is more likely to find a positive outcome. Supporting them through the process with herbal and nutritional supplements, healthy eating, and lifestyle suggestions is truly ‘slow medicine,’ but for long-lasting, successful results, it’s time to set aside the heroics.