The Holistic Approach to Women’s Health
Consulting a holistic gynecologist could nurture your mind, body, and spirit while providing natural solutions to common women’s health problems.
For women seeking whole-body health, that yearly visit to the gynecologist’s office may fail to fulfill certain essential needs. But by partnering with a holistic (or “integrative”) gynecologist, women may discover a richer healthcare experience that helps guide them to optimal wellness. “Many holistic gynecologists are concerned with maximizing vitality and preventing illness rather than simply curing disease, as in the realm of conventional medicine,” says holistic gynecologist Rebecca Elia, M.D. “In holistic gynecology, creating wellness involves looking beyond just the body and incorporating mind and spirit—as well as examining a woman’s health in the greater context of the transitions or transformations she’s currently going through,” she adds.
Indeed, holistic gynecologists often explore the emotional, social, and environmental influences affecting their patients, along with a number of physical factors (such as diet and exercise) typically not taken into account during gynecology visits. “Holistic gynecologists aren’t limited by the classic medical practice of looking at patients as individual organ systems,” says Erika Schwartz, M.D., internist and author of The 30-Day Natural Hormone Plan. With that emphasis on integrative medicine, she adds, holistic gynecologists often turn to alternative therapies that aim to “connect the mind and body” (such as acupuncture, massage, and biofeedback).
While holistic gynecologists vary in their approach to patient care, traditional women’s healthcare services like screening tests and breast exams are standard in each checkup. The distinction between holistic and conventional gynecology, however, lies in how each practice perceives the limitations of such services. “Much of what conventional medicine labels as ‘preventive care’ (such as mammograms and pap smears) are, in fact, early disease detection and not preventive at all,” notes Elia. In addition to prescribing proactive prevention strategies (such as changes to nutrition and stress management), holistic gynecologists aim to uncover—and remedy—their patients’ more nebulous health issues. “In holistic gynecology, symptoms are often evaluated in a manner that allows the physician to detect problems unexplained by ‘normal’ test results,” says Elia. “This happens frequently with diseases that don’t fall into a conventional medicine diagnostic system, such as adrenal fatigue,” she notes.
For many women, holistic gynecology’s greatest advantage is its potential to provide gentle, natural solutions to common women’s health problems. “If a patient were dealing with irregular periods, for example, a conventional gynecologist might immediately put her on birth control pills,” says Schwartz. “A holistic gynecologist, on the other hand, would be more likely to address issues like diet, exercise, and sleep, and look at how the patient’s lifestyle might be affecting her menstrual cycle.” And when using more conventional care, holistic gynecologists frequently turn to alternative therapies to offset any adverse effects and support the patient’s healing and wellbeing. In the case of women undergoing fertility treatments, for instance, a holistic gynecologist might employ certain mind-body techniques, says Schwarz. “Because fertility treatments can be quite harsh and rigorous—and because patients tend to feel very anxious and wound up about the process—holistic gynecologists often use acupuncture, massage, and other practices that help reduce stress and may promote a more positive outcome,” she explains.
Although most holistic gynecologists are well-versed in alternative therapies, many tend to focus on specific areas of expertise. “One physician may practice yoga-based therapy, while another may specialize in herbal remedies or energy medicine,” says Elia. So while a lone physician may not be able to provide all the treatments recommended for a particular problem, holistic gynecologists tend to have a network of alternative-medicine practitioners who can lend their expertise to your treatment program or health regimen.
To date, the science behind alternative treatments for gynecological problems is somewhat lacking. Still, a growing number of studies suggests that certain natural remedies and mind-body therapies may be highly effective when it comes to dealing with women’s health issues. Acupuncture, in particular, appears to aid in the treatment of several conditions (including menopausal symptoms and urinary incontinence). The needle-based ancient Chinese therapy has also been found to boost odds of conceiving among women who have struggled with fertility issues: In a 2008 review and analysis published in the British Medical Journal, investigators sized up seven studies and found that pairing acupuncture with in vitro fertilization increased the likelihood of achieving pregnancy by about 65 percent. Other research reveals that the herb black cohosh may cool hot flashes and help treat vaginal dryness, while hydrotherapy may be useful in the treatment of endometriosis (a pain-causing condition that occurs when the tissue normally lining the uterus starts to spread into the ovaries, bowels, bladder, and other parts of the body).
What’s more, many natural substances may ease gynecological problems while enhancing your overall health. Both found to soothe menstrual cramps, omega-3 fatty acids and magnesium are also known to protect against heart disease (the leading cause of death among American women). Preliminary research shows that consumption of antioxidant-rich green tea, on the other hand, holds promise in the treatment of uterine fibroids (the most common type of non-cancerous tumors in women of childbearing age). And boosting your intake of protein-packed soy foods (such as tofu and edamame) may help alleviate vaginal dryness.
To track down a holistic gynecologist, try contacting the American Holistic Medical Association (at www.holisticmedicine.org). For more help in finding a physician, consider consulting alternative-medicine practitioners (such as acupuncturists, chiropractors, herbalists, and naturopathic physicians) in your community. “Because all gynecologists are different in their approach, it’s crucial for each woman searching for a new doctor to make no assumptions and ask questions about her potential doctor’s areas of expertise,” notes Elia.
As more and more people become attuned to the benefits of alternative medicine, a holistic, integrated approach to gynecology will likely become more widely practiced, predicts Schwartz. “Conventional medicine is certainly invaluable when it comes to providing acute care of women’s health problems,” she says. “But for treatment of a chronic condition—and prevention of such conditions—patients need a physician who treats each individual as a whole and truly serves the needs of women.”