Natural Medicine And Sustainable Healthcare By Sandra Grace

Sandra Grace | PhD, School of Health and Human Sciences, Southern Cross University

Abstract

Human health is inextricably linked to environmental health. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the quality of the soils in which we grow our food have a fundamental effect on the healthy functioning of the human body. Natural medicine has its foundations in practices that promote environmental sustainability through its low impact diagnostic and treatment approaches and its promotion of healthy lifestyles. It is time to acknowledge the green credentials of natural medicine practitioners who have long been custodians of sustainable healthcare and for natural medicine practitioners to be acknowledged as leaders in the field.

What’s natural about natural medicine?

What does it mean to be a natural medicine practitioner? For many it will mean encouraging your clients to consume plenty of nutritious, organically-grown unprocessed food, incorporating a goodly quantity of raw food and using cooking processes that minimally damage their nutritional content. It will mean taking plenty of healthy exercise. It will mean advocating mind-body health and focusing on harmonising body and mind, spending time in the natural world and finding natural environments that complement their clients’ temperaments and suit them spiritually and aesthetically. It will mean cultivating the spiritual dimension of their lives, including exercising kindness, having positive thoughts, cultivating friendships and a healthy work-life balance with plenty of sleep.

 

It will mean encouraging activities that promote happiness, perhaps by recommending the ‘grand essentials of happiness’: having something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. (1) Educating our clients in this way is fundamental to natural medicine practice. In fact, it is one of the key principles of natural medicine: docere – to teach and share our knowledge. (2)

 

All natural medicines from Europe and North America are underpinned by a number of these principles that demonstrate the inherently green credentials of its practices. Perhaps most explicit is the principle of vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of nature). Naturopathy, with its roots in traditional practices in Germany and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, drew on herbal medicine produced locally from home gardens, and the healing power of water through hydrotherapy.(3) Osteopathy and chiropractic, originally from the USA, treated people with manual medicine, good nutrition, physical exercise and hydrotherapy.(4)

 

Today, many natural medicine practitioners in Australia are highly trained professionals who make a significant contribution to Australian health care. Simple, non-invasive and inexpensive approaches, like those drawn from nature described above, are prioritised as a first line approach when appropriate. (A key responsibility of natural medicine practitioners is to identify red flags of any serious underlying condition and refer their clients appropriately.) Diagnosis is based primarily on case history and good observation skills. Assessment of vital signs can be conducted with minimally invasive equipment. Manual therapists use their palpation skills as a key source of information about their clients’ conditions.(5) For those clients deemed suitable candidates for natural medicine, treatment modalities are likewise environmentally frugal and include counselling, naturally occurring ingestives, touch and manipulation, normalising energy flow and guided exercise. Many natural medicine practitioners already avoid substances derived through animal experimentation, and the potential is there for all to do so. Unlike many aspects of conventional medicine, practising natural medicine can have minimal detrimental effect on the human and natural environment.

The relationship between human health and environmental health

Human health is inextricably linked to environmental health. We are deeply dependent on the quality of the soil in which we grow crops and where we graze animals, of the water we drink and of the air we breathe.

Natural medicine and soil quality

The connection of human and animal health to healthy soil has been recognised over millennia.(6) While there appears to be little experimental concurrence as to the nutritional differences between organically and conventionally-farmed food crops, there is growing acknowledgement of the benefits of organic practices to soil quality. In recent history this perception has found expression in the burgeoning organic farming movement, to which so many natural medicine practitioners subscribe. A meta-analysis to quantify differences in soil health between the effects of organic and conventional agricultural practices concluded that organic systems resulted in increases of up to 84% in key indicators, such as microbial carbon and nitrogen biomass, on a global scale.(7)

 

Soil quality is a significant problem considering unprecedented environmental challenges facing future food production.(8) According to Miller, (9) the soils in which we grow our food are not all healthy. Many have been contaminated with toxins like heavy metals and sewage sludge. Loss of biodiversity in the soil leads to diminished nutrient value in plants growing in that soil. Consequently, soil quality may be diminished in agricultural areas and urban environments. The term ‘edible landscaping’ refers to the inclusion of edible plants in landscaping works to increase the potential for food security. (10) However, early research suggests that consuming plants grown in urban centres may pose health risks in cases where heavy metal accumulation in plants has reached high levels.

 

Natural medicine practitioners are likely to be strong advocates for organic farming, which seeks to limit these hazards to soil safety through non-toxic fertilisers and biological pest control, and enhances soil by traditional methods like crop rotation and isolation, green manure, composting and companion planting.

Natural medicine and water quality

The same orientation by natural medicine practitioners to organic farming practices that promote soil quality operates to promote water safety. Water quality, whether used for drinking, domestic purposes, food production or recreational purposes also has a profound effect on health. Water of poor quality can cause epidemics of disease and contribute to background rates of disease that manifest over a range of time scales.(11) Many programs for improving water quality and safety not only support public health, but also promote socioeconomic development and well-being.(12)

 

The greatest contributor to water pollution is runoff from agriculture of inorganic pesticides and fertilisers. Even antibiotics passed through humans into wastewater have been shown to contribute significantly to water pollution.(13)

Natural medicine and air quality

Atmospheric pollution has long been known to affect those with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD and asthma and has been linked to higher risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, poor mental health and cognitive defects.(14) Recent bush fires in Australia clearly demonstrated the impact of air pollution on our health. Regular updates were posted by the NSW government using the Air Quality Index and people, particularly at-risk groups, were advised to reduce exposure for the sake of their health.(15)

 

Natural medicine offers a range of adjunctive therapies for sufferers of asthma and COPD that, unlike conventional inhalers, are entirely carbon-neutral, including breathing exercises such as Integrative Breathing Therapy and Buteyko, diet, herbs and yoga. No non-disposable or polluting materials are required for practising these therapies. Contemporary asthma inhalers use hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) as a propellant, which is a potent greenhouse gas.(16) Doctors in the UK are discussing moving to less deleterious dry powder inhalers. We need to ensure that no medical devices, including any used by natural medicine practitioners, make their way to landfill, adding a secondary and considerable contribution to greenhouse gas production and the habitat loss caused by accumulating non- biodegradable materials.

 

Atmospheric pollution has long been known to affect those with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD and asthma and has been linked to higher risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, poor mental health and cognitive defects.(14) Recent bush fires in Australia clearly demonstrated the impact of air pollution on our health. Regular updates were posted by the NSW government using the Air Quality Index and people, particularly at-risk groups, were advised to reduce exposure for the sake of their health.(15)

 

Natural medicine offers a range of adjunctive therapies for sufferers of asthma and COPD that, unlike conventional inhalers, are entirely carbon-neutral, including breathing exercises such as Integrative Breathing Therapy and Buteyko, diet, herbs and yoga. No non-disposable or polluting materials are required for practising these therapies. Contemporary asthma inhalers use hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) as a propellant, which is a potent greenhouse gas.(16) Doctors in the UK are discussing moving to less deleterious dry powder inhalers. We need to ensure that no medical devices, including any used by natural medicine practitioners, make their way to landfill, adding a secondary and considerable contribution to greenhouse gas production and the habitat loss caused by accumulating non- biodegradable materials.

Sustainable healthcare

There are crucial implications in the emerging conclusions about air, water and soil quality for natural medicine practitioners, who practise modalities that inherently avoid, or at least minimise, the use of many of the factors shown to cause environmental damage. In view of current accelerating environmental degradation, there is an urgent need for universally-adopted environmentally sustainable practices, globally, nationally and locally. The Australian Traditional Medicine Society launched its green strategy in December 2019 outlining ways to promote sustainable business practices for natural medicine practitioners (see JATMS 25(4):218-220). Recently, the Australian Medical Association also released their position statement on environmental health. (17) According to this statement, ‘Enhancing environmental sustainability, through reducing carbon emissions, curtailing waste, and managing resources efficiently, will deliver better outcomes for patients, and provide broader social and economic benefits’. While it is true that streamlining office and clinic practices along sustainable lines is an environmentally responsible principle, it is not the sole preserve of natural medicine practitioners. However, natural medicine practitioners can legitimately stake a claim to environmental observance available to them alone: the inherently green quality of their therapeutic practices.

Conclusion

The quality of our planet’s air, water and soil are crucial to health. Many conventional modern methods of producing food, managing health and disposing of waste are harmful to humans and their environment. Natural medicine employs healing practices that circumvent many of these harms and promote individual and environmental health. Because this is so, natural medicine practitioners can lay claim to green credentials that are specifically theirs. They can justifiably promote the planetary benefits that their professions bestow.

REFERENCES

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