With topics like “wellness,” “sustainability” and “going green” being all the rage, it’s no wonder that more people are turning toward “alternative” medicine to manage ailments ranging from allergies, stress, back pain and indigestion to cancer and heart disease. According to a 2008 report released by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, 38 percent of American adults now use various forms of alternative medicine, including acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, yoga, dietary supplements and homeopathy. Nine percent of the children surveyed had also been treated with alternative medicine. And more than 42 major research institutions are now investigating alternative medicine, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, the University of California at San Francisco and the Mayo Clinic.
What counts as “alternative”? Although people argue about the semantics, in general “alternative” medicine is a medicine or therapy that falls outside of what is considered conventional in a certain country or culture. Those three words — what is considered — are important, by the way, because what may seem “alternative” in one country (think using herbs to treat depression in the United States) may be “conventional” in another (e.g., Europe). “Complementary” medicine, on the other hand, is a remedy or therapy that is used in conjunction with conventional medicine, as is “integrative” medicine.
Whichever term you use, the therapies share certain characteristics. First, they tend to be based on traditional (i.e., indigenous) medicine or folk knowledge. Second, they share an emphasis on healing the whole person (body, mind, spirit). Third, many have not yet been studied, and if they have been studied, they are sometimes (not always) found to be lacking in effectiveness, which has prompted some critics to call these techniques “quackery,” “absurd” and “nonsense.” But the practitioners themselves say they have overwhelming anecdotal evidence that the therapies work, that more studies need to be done, that not everything can be measured with the scientific method and that a lot of conventional medicine also does not perform well in randomized trials. In fact, author David Freedman wrote last summer in The Atlantic Monthly, “on balance, the medical community seems to be growing more open to alternative medicine’s possibilities, not less.”
Intrigued? The Bay Area — including Alameda and Oakland — is something of a mecca for alternative health practitioners. We’ve profiled practices here to give you a taste of the kind of work they do, the kind of people they are and who benefits from their services.
Roselle McNeilly, LAc and Whitney Thorniley, LAc
Oakland Acupuncture Project
For a lot of people, acupuncture — an ancient Chinese medical practice in which small needles are used to unblock energy pathways in the body — is financially out of reach. Often provided by private practitioners and rarely covered by insurance, acupuncture in this country has become something of an elite medicine, on which people can easily spend $65 to $150 per week.
But acupuncture in China has historically been a “people’s medicine,” says Roselle McNeilly, 31, co-owner of the Oakland Acupuncture Project, located in the Laurel District. “It was provided by local healers and barefoot doctors, often in group settings. It was only after it was introduced here, with our system of health care, that it became a luxury.”
McNeilly and her business partner, Whitney Thorniley, 38, are dedicated to providing affordable acupuncture to their community. Part of a growing movement toward practicing “community acupuncture” in what McNeilly describes as a “responsible and beneficial way,” the clinic offers the treatment on a sliding scale from $15 to $35 a visit. “This way we’re able to help a large group of people who normally wouldn’t be able to afford this care,” Thorniley says.
Thorniley got into acupuncture when she hurt her knee in 2004. She was thinking about having surgery done when a friend suggested acupuncture. “I thought it sounded weird,” Thorniley says. “But I tried it, and my knee healed. It got better. And I felt my energy got better. I felt more extroverted. The more I saw my own health improving, the more curious I got about it, and eventually I decided I wanted to learn how to do it.”
McNeilly, on the other hand, first learned about the practice at the age of 13, when her mother started studying to become an acupuncturist. “I thought she was crazy, but I did learn a little growing up with that,” she says. “And then after college I was doing work in an occupational health office, and I developed a repetitive stress injury in my wrists. I got acupuncture and it helped. I realized that office work really wasn’t for me, that I wanted to do acupuncture instead.”
After graduating from the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, the two women set up the Oakland Acupuncture Project in February 2008. Clients can be treated in one of two private rooms at the clinic. But most are treated in a big group room that features five reclining chairs. “People can come in with their partners or friends for treatment together,” Thorniley explains. “And it allows us to see more people at once.”
Pain, menstrual problems, digestive problems, eczema, emotional distress, erectile dysfunction, stress, asthma, sports injuries, colds, flu and fertility are all standard fare at the clinic, but the acupuncturists also treat pregnant women, children and teens. And with word of mouth spreading the good news about the clinic, the two women have taken on a third partner, Jeff Levin, and opened a second office on Grand Avenue in early November.
Many of their clients, the two women say, report that in addition to curing their physical ills, the acupuncture helps them become a truer version of themselves. And in a way, that’s what the clinic’s approach to acupuncture is about, too. “We want acupuncture to become the ordinary medicine for everyone it’s supposed to be,” McNeilly says. “It doesn’t have to be some alternative ‘woo-woo’ esoteric thing. It’s medicine people can afford and that, chances are, will make them feel better.”
Oakland Acupuncture Project,
3576 Laurel Ave., (510) 842-6350;
3718 Grand Ave. Suite 1, (510) 999-4627;
Beth Murray, CCH
Back to Life Wellness Center
Developed by a German physician in 1796, homeopathy is a form of medicine that relies on highly diluted remedies derived from plants, minerals and animals. According to the homeopathic “like-cures-like” philosophy, what would cause symptoms or illness in a large dose will actually cure them in small doses. And while over-the-counter homeopathic remedies are now available in natural foods stores and even some drugstores, classical homeopathy involves seeing a practitioner and then getting an individualized diagnosis and treatment plan, says Beth Murray, 44, a homeopath with the Back to Life Wellness Center on Webster Street in Alameda.
Murray sees patients who walk in with all sorts of maladies, but like many other alternative health practitioners, she doesn’t just focus on the presenting symptoms (e.g., an allergy, stomach pain, stress or insomnia). Instead, Murray explains, “in homeopathy, all physical symptoms are seen as manifestations of what’s going on in the spirit. So I look for the remedy that will heal the spirit, because that’s the one that will heal the physical symptom. In classical homeopathy, the right remedy gets to the core of who someone is.”
To better understand that core, Murray, who is both a poet and practitioner of the Sensation Method of homeopathy, tunes into the way her patients talk about their physical symptoms, thoughts and feelings and tries to get a sense of what they’re experiencing. “I am naturally empathic, so I tend to feel the feelings that people might not express,” she says. “But more commonly, people find themselves sharing very deeply with me. After I meet with someone for the first time, I take a few days to let my intuitive understanding of who they are mingle with the more intellectual process of studying
the case and the remedies that might help them. In the end, it is the combination of these two methods that usually gets me to the right remedy.”
Diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in June 2011, Murray, who often gathers plants to make her own homeopathic remedies, sees her next step as getting more deeply involved with cancer patients. “I had three rounds of chemo before I stopped,” she says. “I started homeopathic treatments, plus acupuncture, Chinese herbs, Buddhist meditations and qigong (an ancient Chinese practice of aligning breath, movement and awareness). My tumors are now shrinking rapidly. So although I’ve always treated people with cancer, now I’m developing a deeper understanding of what cancer is. This will be a big new branch of work for me — helping people see the alternatives to conventional treatments.”
Murray, who lives with two dogs in West Marin, also treats exotic animals at three veterinary clinics in the Bay Area and wild animals at the Oakland Zoo. Her patients there have included giraffes with arthritis, a bereaved hyena and monkeys with anger management issues.
Back to Life Wellness Center,
1505 Webster St., Alameda, (415) 662-6838,
Visit www.myanimalhomeopath.com for information on Murray’s homeopathic practice and work with animals; also see www.wholehomeopathy.com.
Sara Knuth, N. D.
Be Well Integral Healing Space
People who feel nervous about going to “alternative” practitioners like acupuncturists and homeopathists might feel more comfortable going to a naturopath like Sara Knuth, N.D., of the Be Well Integral Healing Space on Pill Hill in Oakland.
Located in a medical building right smack in the middle of a neighborhood packed with Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and dozens of other health care providers, Be Well features two acupuncturists, a massage therapist and Knuth, who has been practicing naturopathy for four years. She has practiced two of those years in Oakland.
Naturopathic doctors go through the same amount of training as conventional medical students and take all of the same courses on anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. But they also get training in homeopathy, botanical medicine and nutrition, and when it comes time to do “rotations,” they only study family medicine, not other medical specialties.
Knuth, 30, says she had liked science and had planned to become a medical doctor. But when it came time to look at medical schools, she found herself drawn to schools teaching naturopathy, “because those are the ones that combine the best of conventional and alternative medicine,” she says, “and that provide research-based training.”
In her Oakland office, Knuth sees patients ranging from infants to the elderly, but she has a special interest in women with infertility issues. “It’s such an expensive endeavor if you do conventional medicine,” she says, “and there are natural options that are worth exploring in certain situations.” She also has a strong interest in adjunctive cancer care, which means helping people deal with the side effects of conventional drugs, as well as bringing the immune system back after radiation and chemo treatments. With all of her patients, she says, she tries to get “a holistic picture, so I fully understand what they’re experiencing.”
Much of the naturopathic focus is on the causes of disease, rather than its symptoms. So if a patient comes in with uncomfortable allergies, for instance, Knuth may use an herb, like nettles, to decrease the sensitivity of the mast cells (which secrete symptom-causing histamines in response to an allergen), rather than just suppressing the symptoms.
Naturopathic doctors are different than lay naturopaths; the doctors are certified and licensed as primary care physicians, while the lay naturopaths (also called “traditional naturopaths”) are not. Naturopathic doctors may also prescribe pharmaceutical drugs if they think they’re needed (although in California, naturopathic doctors need to be supervised by a medical doctor if they’re prescribing anything other than epinephrine, bioidentical hormones and thyroid support). And many naturopaths, including Knuth, work closely with medical doctors, conferring about specific patients, as well as new research into and treatments for diseases.
“I’m very impressed with how respectfully they treat me,” the young doctor says, “and how willing they are to share information.”
Be Well Integral Healing Space,
401 29th St., Oakland, (510) 836-0200,
Ron Mutch, D.C., and Dannielle Mutch, D.C.
Radiant Life Chiropractic
As a boy in Alameda, Ron Mutch, D.C., grew up going to chiropractors because his whole family went. “My dad’s quality of life was saved by a chiropractor when I was about 2 years old,” Mutch says. “He was in a bad car accident and put on bed rest for six months, which we all now know is the worst thing you can do with a back injury. Then the doctor advised surgery. But the surgeon said, ‘If we screw up and your spine fuses, do you want to spend the rest of your life sitting up or lying down?’ ” A good friend recommended that he see a chiropractor instead, and Mutch’s father never had surgery. Instead he became a regular patient of a local chiropractor. And Ron Mutch and his sister got chiropractic adjustments every six months. Chiropractors treat disorders of the neuromusculoskeletal system and associated health effects, typically by manipulation, mostly of the spine, joints and soft tissue.
After studying psychology in college, Mutch was trying to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted a job that he would enjoy and when he thought about who he knew who really enjoyed their work, it was his childhood chiropractor. “He was a man who lived his life with intention, doing something that was healing and of service to others, that brought about transformation,” Mutch explains. “That appealed to me.”
Mutch met Dannielle at a continuing education seminar during his last year at Life Chiropractic College West in Hayward. She had been introduced to chiropractic as an 18 year old, when she visited her first one for chronic neck problems. Over the course of about a decade of treatments, however, she found that it also helped her allergies, migraines and her energy level. “My chiropractor told me that I’d make a really good chiropractor,” she says, laughing. “And from that moment on, I felt like I was on a moving sidewalk. Opportunities opened up, and everything led to my becoming a chiropractor.”
She opened an office on Santa Clara Avenue in Alameda in 2003. After graduating in 2005, Ron joined her practice. Several years ago he also started offering nutritional counseling via Standard Process, which creates vitamin supplements from whole food. In May 2011 they relocated to their current office on Westline Drive.
Today the couple, who live in Oakland, trade off working in the clinic and caring for their 4-year-old daughter, Molly. They treat all kinds of patients but have a special interest in children, ranging from newborns to teens. “Many of the problems that we have as adults begin in childhood and go undetected,” Dannielle Mutch says. “It’s so much easier to address these issues in childhood than it is after years of compensation have set in.”
To support their pediatric practice, the Mutches have a “family room,” which includes a comfy couch for nursing and a child-sized treatment table, shaped like an elephant. And Dannielle has started doing more and more work on pre- and post-natal women. “My own pregnancy made me realize how much strain pregnancy can put on a woman’s body,” she says. “It inspired me to go back and deepen my understanding of and skills for taking care of pregnant women.” She is now certified in the Webster Protocol, a chiropractic technique that helps to correct sacral misalignment and balance pelvic muscles and ligaments, which, in turn, releases tension around the uterus. This allows the baby to get into the best possible position for birth and creates an environment for an easier, quicker, safer delivery.
With all their patients, the Mutches emphasize, they are treating the whole person, not just a backache or stress. “It’s not about treating conditions,” Dannielle Mutch says, “but about restoring the normal function of the spine and nervous system. The body has innate healing abilities. It seeks health.” Adds Ron Mutch, “It’s like remodeling a house. People come in and say they want a new kitchen. And sometimes we look at them and say, but your bath-room’s on fire! Once that’s out, we’ll look at the kitchen.”
When asked how they balance running a busy medical practice and caring for their daughter, both chiropractors laugh and then grow more serious. “We do try to practice what we preach,” Ron Mutch says. “Our focus is on doing both what’s sustainable and what allows us to thrive.” Adds Danielle Mutch, “You have to look at the stressors in your life and have enough support to deal with them. Otherwise you crash.”
Radiant Life Chiropractic,
512 Westline Drive, Ste. 300, Alameda, (510) 523-1221,
Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic & Education Center
Growing up in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Texas, herbalist Tellur Fenner paid no more attention to the plants and weeds around him than any other kid in the suburbs. “My family wasn’t into this stuff,” Fenner, 31, explains. “So I assumed that most plants were either not useful or downright poisonous.”
Fast-forward 16 years and Fenner, now 35, is steeped in the world of plants. As a Western herbalist — someone who studies and uses plants native to the United States and Europe, as opposed to plants grown in China — Fenner says he understands how modern Americans are estranged from the plants that grow around them. But “I’d be hard pressed to find a California plant that I can’t recognize or whose historical or modern uses I don’t have knowledge of.”
At his Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic in Oakland, Fenner specializes in using native wild plants found growing in the Western United States. His pharmacy is stocked with more than 200 plant remedies, including teas and tinctures he has made from uva ursi, madrone, Oregon grape root, white sage, yerba mansa, California ginseng, devil’s club and many other local plants. And he uses them to treat people with all manner of illnesses, including allergies, menstrual issues, digestive disorders, headaches, emotional troubles and urinary tract infections.
“I’m not anti-conventional medicine,” he says. “Drugs and surgery certainly have their benefits. I just happen to think they are overused and in many cases inappropriately administered. To me, an integrative health care model that incorporates both alternative and conventional methods seems the most rational approach.”
As an herbalist of the “generalist” persuasion, Fenner isn’t just a healer. He also believes in the importance of an interdisciplinary practice that integrates the study of botany, ethnobotany, ecology, pharmacy, physiology, phytochemistry and other biological sciences. He also teaches classes (and leads field trips) all up and down the West Coast on topics including finding and using edible and medicinal plants and identifying poisonous plants. (Locally he teaches classes at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Point Reyes National Seashore, Tilden Regional Park Botanical Garden, Merritt College, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and other institutions.)
He’s also become something of an advocate of cultivating edible/medicinal native plant gardens in this region. “I think this can complement and augment the urban gardening movement,” he says, “because it introduces useful plants that are both native to the region and aesthetically pleasing.”
While the idea of using local plants for healing may seem foreign to us, Western herbalism was much more accepted in this country — even regularly taught at what were called “Eclectic Medical Colleges” — up until the early 20th century. With the advent of the conventional medical system, however, herbalism (and other alternative healing systems) was “pushed underground,” he says. “It was relegated to the fringe.” Today, in many places in Europe, China and Japan, Fenner notes, herbalists practice right alongside conventional doctors. But in the United States, degree programs are almost non-existent and there is no licensing process, so herbalists remain outsiders.
Fenner himself got his training by first attending small, informal herb schools and then creating and completing a more serious four-year program in medical herbalism at Prescott College in Arizona. This allowed him to work one-on-one with leading botanists, herbalists and other plant specialists on the West Coast.
A resident of Oakland for six years, he admits it’s a little strange that someone who loves plants so much is living in such a dense region. But he says he gets out into the wild enough to keep himself sane. And the Bay Area is one of the few places in the United States where one can make a humble living as an herbalist. “Ten years ago I would have laughed if you told me I’d be living in Oakland,” he says. “But right now it makes sense.”
Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic & Education Center,
823 32nd St. Apt B., Oakland, (510) 428-1810,