Do alternative medicine doctors do a better job of treating fatigue than conventional doctors? Or, are both sides missing the root cause?
If you’ve visited an alternative medicine practitioner like a chiropractor, acupuncturist, naturopath, or something similar, the practitioner probably told you that she doesn’t treat your symptoms. She goes beyond symptoms and treats the root cause of your illness.
This is how alternative medicine practitioners differentiate themselves from conventional medicine. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is explained as though it addresses the root cause of your illness while conventional medicine only addresses your symptoms.
But is this actually true?
Is alternative medicine the only way to address the root cause of your fatigue?
CAM and the modern world
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a type of health care used in conjunction with or in replace of conventional medical care. CAM includes modalities such as:
- Massage therapy
- Naturopathic medicine
- Homeopathic medicine
- Nutritional or vitamin supplements
- Energy healing
- Functional medicine
In Canada, more than 70% of people (1) regularly use complementary and alternative healthcare and it continues to grow in popularity.(2) At the time of this writing, chiropractic care is the most popular form of CAM care.
What is the root cause of an illness, exactly?
A root cause is the original cause of an illness. In a simple example, the root cause of your broken arm was a skiing accident. Unfortunately, identifying the root cause of chronic illnesses like fatigue becomes incredibly challenging.
It could be the food you eat, your hormone levels, your genetics, your stress level, the quality of your sleep, your iron levels, etc. The examples I listed could be symptoms or root causes.
So what exactly is a root cause?
To better clarify what a root cause is, there needs to be some specific criteria. Below, I offer my thoughts on what exactly constitutes a root cause:
- If the root cause is treated, you no longer require treatment or medication for your issue.
- If you stop treatment before alleviating the root cause, your illness returns.
- The root cause explains your symptoms.
Does alternative medicine get to the root cause of fatigue?
Below are a few quotes from random acupuncture websites:
Chinese medicine is a very comprehensive system of medicine. It works with your body to produce true healing instead of suppressing symptoms.
The nature of Traditional Chinese Medicine looks to diagnose the root cause of your symptoms and address them, rather than only addressing the symptoms themselves.
Being an acupuncturist myself, I can attest that this is what we were taught in school – acupuncture goes beyond treating the symptoms. It treats the root cause of disease.
If you take a quick look at a chiropractor, naturopathic doctor, or other alternative medicine websites, you’ll begin to see a similar theme. All of these modalities claim to treat you holistically and at the root level. This is where I start to question things.
If each of these modalities claims to treat the root cause but each of them treats a different root, who is actually solving the real problem?
The inherent issue with any alternative medicine technique is that it is limited. You know the expression: “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”? The same is true for alternative medicine.
Acupuncturists are looking how an imbalance in your meridians is causing illness. Chiropractors are looking for how spinal misalignments (subluxations) are causing illness. Energy healers are looking for blockages in your chakras and relating that to illness. Physiotherapists and massage therapists are looking for muscle imbalances and/or weaknesses and noting how those can cause illness. Each therapist is identifying a different root cause of illness based on his/her education.
The issue with this system is that every practitioner is biased. Natural health practitioners are (often) trained in one modality. They view illness through the lens in which they were trained. But illness comes about in a wide variety of ways and is not specific to spines, meridians, chakras, or muscles.
The inherent problem is that each therapist is finding the root they’ve been trained to find.
They are blind to all the other possible causes of your illness. A physiotherapist likely won’t consider how the food you eat is contributing to your back pain. The physiotherapist will focus on your posture. A holistic nutritionist will definitely look at how food may contribute to your back pain. But she won’t consider how your posture may be causing your back pain.
Is it posture or food that is the root cause of your back pain?
For example, if you had shoulder pain, you could visit an acupuncturist, chiropractor, physiotherapist, and energy healer. Odds are, you’d receive 4 different diagnoses and treatments for why your shoulder hurts.
The other inherent issue with alternative medicine is that the practitioners treat everything with their one chosen tool. A chiropractor will treat your health issue with a spinal adjustment. An acupuncturist will treat the same ailments with acupuncture or herbs. A nutritionist will provide diet therapy.
I’m not convinced alternative medicine gets to the root cause of an illness.
Does conventional medicine do any better?
Does conventional medicine get to the root cause?
A lot of my readers will be in favor of alternative medicine and against conventional medicine. Even though conventional medicine gets a bad rap for treating symptoms, it sometimes is incredible in identifying and treating the root cause of illness.
Think of the last time you got strep throat. Your main symptom was a sore throat, yes? I don’t imagine your doctor prescribed you painkillers and sent you on your way. Instead, she probably swabbed your throat and ran a culture. If it was positive for the streptococcus bacteria, she likely prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection.
In this example, conventional medicine addressed the root cause of your sore throat – a streptococcus infection. Where conventional medicine drops the ball is in the management of chronic illness like fatigue. When it comes to chronic illness, conventional medicine tends to only address the symptoms.
Take type 2 diabetes for example. For many, the root cause is a poor diet – a diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in healthy protein and fat sources. Unfortunately, conventional medicine tends to prescribe a medication like metformin. Metformin works by stopping your liver from producing glucose. (3) However the root cause of type 2 diabetes is not that the liver is producing too much glucose. It’s caused by a diet consisting of too much sugar.
Refer back to my criteria for what defines a root cause. If you use metformin to treat your diabetes, you need to continue taking it for the rest of your life. Metformin addresses a symptom, not the cause.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to the root cause problem. It’s a beautiful combination of both conventional and alternative medicine.
What type of medicine gets to the root cause of chronic fatigue?
Enter Functional Medicine. Functional Medicine is a new system of medicine that combines the best aspects of both conventional and alternative medicine.
One way to think of Functional Medicine practitioners is as super generalists. They know a little about a lot of different things. Functional Medicine takes a thirty thousand foot view of your health. And it is this broad perspective that allows Functional Medicine to shine.
A Functional Medicine practitioner will likely know about acupuncture, physiotherapy, chiropractic, and many other alternative medicines – but also conventional treatment with a scientific understanding of how illness develops and progresses.
Perhaps more importantly, a Functional Medicine practitioner will be able to identify the ideal nutrition plan for you. This will be based on your genetics, your health/wellness goals, and your current health issues. It’s this sweeping perspective that gives Functional Medicine its strength. Knowing a little about a lot of things helps the Functional Medicine practitioner identify what really is the root cause of your fatigue.
Instead of having solely a hammer as a treatment tool, the well-trained Functional Medicine practitioner has a chest full of treatment options. In my opinion, it is this varied understanding that positions Functional Medicine to flourish in the treatment of fatigue and many other chronic illnesses.
Also published on Medium.