The argument between conventional medicine and “alternative” or holistic medicine has been raging for years. But there are signs that the two sides are getting closer. For the Livehealthy Festival 2021, psychologist Dr Reem Shaheen talked to the members of the Wellness Collective — chef and restaurateur Mira Naaman, holistic health & nutrition consultant Suzan Terzian and Nadia Sehweil, owner of Bodytree, an integrated health studio in Abu Dhabi — about how the holistic community is making inroads into the medical establishment.
What does holistic mean?
Nadia Sehweil: When we think ‘holistic’ we think all-encompassing, because our bodies are completely interconnected. There’s nothing you can take as a solo. Our emotions affect the way we think, the way we think affects our physical wellbeing and our mental wellbeing. We are fully-integrated beings.
What’s missing in the conversation between the medical establishment and the alternative practitioners?
Suzan Terzian: It has never been clearer than it is today that we have to look at the person’s health as a whole and not look at any one organ and its function on its own.
In the past this was viewed as “light science,” but I’ve been in practice for more than 15 years and in that time, the conversation has completely shifted as we understand the interconnectedness of the body and how important it is to view our health from a preventative base. And now we’ve been faced with a pandemic that has never happened in our lifetime and we’re realizing that if you don’t have everything in order and your wellness systems in place, you are not going to do very well.
The medical establishment – and I am not disrespecting them in any way, because they are amazing – need to change their conversation from the top down. They have even had to create a new paradigm, functional medicine, because in the conventional medical establishment, they were not taught about prevention. They were taught how to fix you if you were broken and we’re trying to say “We’re not broken.”
We’re trying to educate and empower people to take ownership of their health. You can’t just leave it all to the people in white coats. That’s why we implore the white coat wearers to speak this language, because people listen to you and we want to influence them to be their own health detective and look after their own health. You, as the consumer of your own health, can do a lot.
Mira Naaman: We see it when we go to the doctor – it’s all based on fixing the problem and less about lifestyle. If you say you have a headache, they rarely ask how you’re sleeping or what you’ve been eating or have you been exercising. It’s “Take these painkillers.” What I’d like to hear is what is the root cause of the pain? Is it something you’re eating or the way you’re living?
Nadia: If you’re sitting with someone who is unwilling to hear you out, you are not with the right doctor. We are not stupid people. Just because I don’t have a medical background doesn’t mean my questions are insignificant. We see this quite a bit as women. If a teenager gets cramps, let’s put her on the birth control pill and then 20 years down the line, what’s going on with her hormones?
Whatever you put in your mouth has an effect. If a gastroenterologist tells you your food doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t even be sitting with that doctor. There is a time and place for both types of medicine. I’d like to see more of a marriage between them so that there’s an understanding that preventative care is important and that taking steps to improve your health is important.
How do you decide whether to go for conventional or alternative medicine?
Suzan: There is no point in going to a naturopathic doctor if you don’t believe the science behind it, if you don’t believe in the body’s ability to heal once we remove the obstacles. Adjust your mindset, see if you can believe in the root cause theory.
If you see a goldfish in a bowl and the water is murky and the goldfish isn’t doing well, you’re not going to give the goldfish medicine – you’re going to change the water, change the environment.
Has conventional or Western medicine become a one-size-fits-all system?
Suzan: Yes. There’s a pill for every ill and the average time spent in a consultation is seven minutes. That is not enough. Disease doesn’t happen overnight, it progresses over years.
Nadia: Yes it has and we’ve all been victims of it. By the same token, that’s what has pushed us to take control and make a change. Don’t be scared to ask questions and if the doctor is dismissive, maybe that’s not the doctor for you.
What about supplements? Are they being pushed too much?
Mira: It goes back to asking the right questions. What kind of testing can I see?
Suzan: The green pharmacy is very real. I take supplements and love experimenting, but I do it with a lot of research. If you decide to dabble, make sure you get the highest-quality supplement. These are well-known in functional medicine circles. Research the brand and how they do their testing. Do they have testing by a third party? Are there any heavy metals in there or anything else that shouldn’t be? Also, know why you are taking it and get tested to learn if you need it.
How does a lay person research alternative or holistic medicine so that they make educated decisions?
Nadia: There is so much out there right now with so many people willing to give out free information. There are free podcasts to listen to while you’re driving or walking. Find functional medicine doctors and nutritionists to talk to. It’s a bit harder in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai, but they are there.
What if it’s taken to extremes? We’re seeing cases of orthorexia, where people stick to a very rigid diet. This is a mental illness. How do we get the balance right?
Mira: There has always been abuse of nutrients. Remember, people sell products. Fake meat is a bunch of chemicals squashed together like a patty.
Suzan: I don’t want healthy eating to be a fad. People don’t even know what that is any more. They want to be given a piece of paper telling them what to eat but I resist that, because after a couple of weeks your regular, automatic habits will take over again.
Nadia: If you can’t live without coffee, there’s a problem. If you still feel sluggish after a couple of weeks off it, that’s a clear sign that there’s something wrong.
What is the one message you would like to put out there?
Nadia: Take control of your own health and understand what metabolic health means.
Suzan: Look carefuly at how much sugar you’re taking in. When sugar is around, our immune system crashes – and we need our immune system.
Mira: Cook your own food!
Psychologist Dr Reem Shaheen was the moderator in the discussion with Mira Naaman, Suzan Terzian and Nadia Sehweil at the Livehealthy Festival on January 22, 2021.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.