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The Alternative-Health Treatment for Acne Approach
Alternative medicine is an avenue that many patients choose to follow. In the United States alone, the number of alternative medicine providers increased by about 50% between 1990 and 1997. Even in a society that seems to be addicted to junk food and allergic to exercise, there is a contrasting philosophy that leads people to seek "wellness" treatments and medical care from Chinese medicine providers and other alternative practitioners, whether its homeopathy, acupuncture, massage or the like.
Alternative-health specialists like naturopaths frequently treat patients for acne and other conditions. They are licensed providers who attend a four-year naturopathic medical school, graduating with an ND degree (naturopathic doctor).
Naturopaths practice a more holistic form of medicine, relying on natural substances, treatments and approaches: nutrition, acupuncture, homeopathy, botanicals and counseling. They are strong proponents of preventive care and try to convince their patients to focus on positive lifestyle choices and wellness-not illness. Naturopathic medicine provides personalized health care and recognizes that each patient responds differently, according to Dr. Jillian Finker, a naturopathic doctor with North Shore Naturopathic, Inc., in Great Neck, New York.
"The naturopathic approach determines the underlying cause of the symptom picture, regardless of the type of acne-rosacea or vulgaris-and then heals the acne by bringing the body back to health," she says. "The 'allopathic,' or traditional, approach prescribes drugs solely to make the acne disappear, regardless of the negative effects on the body.
"Instead of using antibiotics or other drugs to clear up acne, a naturopath will utilize different techniques to find the functional cause of the acne," she continues. The naturopath may look for nutritional deficiencies in the blood work, perform hormone salivary testing, assess liver function and determine nutritional status in the physical examination."
Naturopaths are wary of the side effects associated with antibiotic use.
"Antibiotics disrupt the normal gastrointestinal flora-the 'good' bacteria-even when only used topically, and they can cause everything from hemorrhoids to an ulcer," Dr. Finker asserts. "Naturopathic therapies have little to no known side effects, and everything used supports the human body. There are many problems that cause acne, and a naturopathic doctor finds the root cause of the problem, such as hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, and then treats accordingly."
So, what do naturopaths actually prescribe? It depends on the individual needs of each patient, Dr. Finker emphasizes.
"If a patient with acne exhibits other symptoms of zinc deficiency, such as alopecia (hair loss), white spots on the fingernails, and a positive zinc taste test, I would prescribe 30 mg to 45 mg of zinc a day," she says. "If the patient needs to utilize zinc for a long time, I would monitor him or her for copper deficiency, since zinc supplementation can deplete copper levels. Zinc decreases sebum production, reduces inflammation and increases the healing process in damaged skin."
Zinc can be as effective-or even more effective-than the commonly prescribed antibiotic tetracycline, without the side effects, according to Dr. Finker. She expects to see a response in about 12 weeks.
"I can sometimes determine, within a few weeks, whether a protocol is working by the way a patient responds to the treatment by symptom picture, blood work and saliva testing," she says. "Usually, I will continue treatments for a few weeks after symptoms have subsided. I will then retest the blood work or hormones-whichever is indicated-to make sure that the metabolic problem has resolved, along with the symptom picture."
Naturopaths also deal with hormone imbalances.
"Acne is also associated with increased activity of 5-alpha reductase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to the more active dihydrotestosterone (DHT) form," Dr. Finker says. "If a patient presents with acne and other signs and symptoms of increased testosterone levels, I would prescribe fiber, Serenoa repens, Urtica dioica root and Curcubito pepo-supplements that help to inhibit DHT formation and reduce overall testosterone levels."
Of course, lifestyle issues are a major focus for naturopaths.
"Stress levels can disrupt the endocrine system, leading to the hormonal imbalances that cause acne," Dr. Finker says. "Lifestyle counseling is an important part in the treatment of acne. Meditation and relaxation techniques are taught to the patient, as well as specific methods to reduce stress and aggravation. I also recommend facials and all-natural products for external detoxification of the skin, since everything we put on our skin is absorbed into the body."
Realistically speaking, there will probably always be some rift between Western and Eastern medicine regarding what cures or effectively treats conditions like acne. Traditional physicians believe that diet and herbs won't really change one's acne status. Conversely, practitioners of alternative medicine firmly believe that herbs, supplements and other dietary changes will have a direct effect on how the skin responds. It all comes down to personal choice and the way you opt to "manage" your body.
Perhaps we will reach a point when both types of practitioners can pool their resources and work together for the best interest of the patient. Both types of practitioners, however, would likely agree that eating a healthful diet and ensuring that you get your daily required intake of vitamins and minerals can only improve the overall look of your skin. Talk with your doctor about whether you should take a multivitamin to supplement your diet and ensure that you're getting your minimum daily requirements. It can be dangerous to self-prescribe, going to the health food store and buying bottle after bottle of vitamins and minerals-all of which may seem innocuous. Operating under the "more is better" principle can get you into trouble, as the body is unable to absorb excess doses of specific vitamins and minerals. A multivitamin contains 100% of the daily recommended dose of the major vitamins and minerals. Anything above those dosages should be approved by a physician, or toxicity (poisoning) could result.
What is heartening, in an era where physicians clamor to have scientific evidence before prescribing anything, is that more research is being funded on alternative cures. For example, green tea has become the beverage of the new millennium, and Chinese medicine relies on it for its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Many over-the-counter topical treatments contain green tea extracts, which some believe reduce oil production in the follicles. One study found that patients who used a cream that contained 2% green tea extract saw a 75% improvement in their acne. As research continues, it is entirely possible that scientists will discover new substances that have unprecedented results.
Also popular is soy, which has become one of the top sellers in health food stores around the world. Made from the soybean, products like soy milk are being consumed by the gallon in lieu of dairy, and meat is commonly replaced with tofu. Scientists are now testing soy to see if it can be used in skin-care products. The theory? Soy, which has estrogen-like qualities, may block some of the hormonal "chaos" that occurs and contributes to acne.