Holistic Health: A New Youth Movement or Just Another Trend?

What's all this about alternative medicine? Well, what did you do the last time you cought a cold? Did you ignore it, sleep it out, take hot showers? Or did you drink tea or chicken soup? Did you take Echinacea and Goldenseal, or Zinc supplements? Or did you take cold medicine? If you are like most young people today, you feel comfortable doing all or any of these things. And if you stop to think, choose a method that was not written on the side of a box, or a prescribed directly by a doctor, you may be participating in an alternative health movement without even knowing it.

Just three years ago, the Center for Alternative Medicine Research in Boston, MA published an alternative health survey. In this survey of 2000 adults, researchers estimated that 46 percent of the American population had visited an accupuncturist, helrbalist, naturopath, or another kind of alternative health specialist (and this does not include the millions of people who treat themselves at home). That's almost half of us, and chances are those numbers will continue to go up. This rise shown up in our popular culture. In one of Woody Allen's latest movies, a character runs from a party in search of Echinacea after sneezing. This shift has a lot of youth asking: What should I know about holisic health? And while there is a lot to learn and think about, you may be surprised about what you already do know.

The exciting thing is, this is the first generation of young people who are taking their health into their own hands. Whether we are reading about herbal remedies, going to alternative health practitioners or simply asking for several opinions when we're feeling sick, today's youth are participating in this quiet but important movement. On the downside, the alternative health industry is growing fast and there is a lot of money to be made, particularly on the web.

But this shift towards alternative and what is called "holistic" health" is more than just successful marketing. Hopefully, it is just one in many ways that young people are taking control over where they get their information and how they choose to live their lives.

Holistic health is the overarching term used to define the combination of Western medicine and alternative approaches to healing. Illness is our body's natural response to fighting off infection. How we deal with illness is influenced by what we have learned growing up, our cultural beliefs, and now more than ever, youth have grown up in households where their parents have looked at health holistically.

Western medicine is a treatment-oriented framework: you get sick, we treat you. Western medicine is based on a doctor--patient relationship. When was the last time a doctor asked you what you thought? Typically Western doctors approach youth (and most adults, for that matter) as if they have "the only knowledge" to treat their patients' symptoms. It's true that most doctors know a lot, but you are the only one who knows your body. Western Medicine aims to treat illness as quickly as possible. (There have been many advances in medicine that have helped us live healthier, longer lives--like the polio vaccine, antibiotics, and medical regimens for HIV.) The flip side to that is that the medicines are synthetic and can have toxic side effects. Antibiotics can give women yeast infections, and if not taken properly, can cause a lot of damage to our bodies in the long run. Because of medications, there are now medicine-resistant strains of tuberculosis.

Alternatives to Western medicine include: acupuncture, body work (yoga, shiatsu, acupressure, qi gong, massage), herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, vitamin therapies, shamanism, aromatherapy and numerous other methods for helping people stay well and deal with illness. In most alternative practices, there is a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner who works with a client. Because most non-western practices are aimed at improving overall health (often termed a "wellness" approach), most practitioners do not just focus specifically on treating symptoms. In addition, many people use things that they have learned in their cultures and homes: like Grandmother's chicken soup among many Jewish Americans, and among many Latinos, it is not unusual to go to a spiritual healer and/or curandero when someone gets ill.

These alternatives have always been present in our communities and cultures. The deeper we dig into our history the more we may learn about ways that people have been disempowered, told that their own knowledge of their bodies was wrong. Ironically, the industry behind today's movement is set on selling you products. And they arenot very affordable or accessible for working class or poor neighborhoods. Websites like Healthshop.com are a good example of this trend. It offers stories and articles about alternative and holistic health, but its primary purpose is that of a catalogue, where people can buy herbs and other products online. Another current downside of alternative therapies is that a lot of alternative therapies are not regulated or researched. This means that there are a lot of things we still don't know. Some products boast miracle cures for weight loss, acne, fatigue, etc. A general note of caution: nothing can be cured by miracles. Illness is something that affects our body over time; therefore it takes time for us to get better. And even some of the products meant to "supplement" your health, like drinks made Guarana or Ginseng are often filled with sugar or other additives that might outweigh their benfits.

But what does all this have to do with youth? As youth we are often caught between the pediatrician and the adult doctors who don't speak our language. Our bodies are changing. Our social attitudes are changing as well. A lot of us are experimenting and it makes sense that more and more of us are taking a self-educating approach towards health.

In addition to dealing with regular health stuff, we are also growing as members of society. Things are changing all around us at the same time we are changing, and if we get sick, our families' or friends' responses are often our first sources of information. What do your friends do when there might be signs of a sexually transmitted disease? Where are they getting their information? And, where can you get more information so as to know all of your options? As we leave home, or get older, we learn that there are different ways of doing things that may not be what our families did. Part of this is coming into our own power as people, power that even our parents might not even know that they have.

Marina Belilovsky, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco, talks about how her mother deals with illness: "My mom always knows what to do when it comes to health: everything from foot pain to menstrual cramps." Her mother's knowledge includes remedies such as "tea bags for sties, compresses for ear infections and antibiotics for throat infections." In Marina's case, she has had the resources to give her the drive to educate herself about different health issues. One example she gave was around drugs: "When my friends are doing drugs, I always get information so that they can learn what is happening with their bodies, because we don't often get that information at school."

In contrast to illness, health is referring to how we are functioning overall, and in the context of holistic health, includes everything from our diets, to the way we sleep, to what we eat and how we carry ourselves. Sports and exercise are a way that we as youth are able to be more aware of our bodies. As are more expressive and meditative forms of movement like dance or yoga. Anyone who is physically active can tell us how important it is to eat and sleep well, as well as not pushing our bodies too far.

It might sound kind of cliché, but the lessons that we learn now about our bodies will determine how we live our lives as we get older. If you have someone like a doctor, acupuncturist or a naturopath you can trust, there's no reason why you can't have the best of both worlds, to draw from both a Western medicine approach and an Alternative medicine one. But it takes a lot of research and a willingness to keep an open mind. It might help to think about our bodies as microcosms of the bigger world. As you're out there planning a youth revolution, don't forget to keep things peaceful here of the homefront. Inside the body that keeps you going.

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