The Longevity Project, Part 4 | Plants over pills: Non-traditional medicine growing in popularity, especially in Colorado’s mountain towns
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot & Today. Read more at SteamboatPilot.com/longevity.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — You might shake your head at Kris Rowse’s sound vibration room, the one full of 17 gongs that play a musical note attuned to the vibration of a specific planet or asteroid, or you might even think she’s nuts. That’s OK. More than a decade ago, before Rowse took a yoga class, she’d probably agree with you.
She was an event planner then, someone who ran, among other events, the Steamboat Soccer Tournament. But she was also turning 40, and she was feeling what many say they feel when they reach their middle age: A dissatisfaction that was hard to pinpoint.
“I could feel that there was a shift, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Rowse from her gong studio, Trust Love Connection, in her Steamboat Springs home. “I wanted a change, but I felt disempowered in how to achieve that.”
That change began with yoga, a well-known gateway to spirituality as well as fitness. Rowse met a life coach through the class, began using one, and the coach told her about sound vibrations. The sounds soothed Rowse, and then a woman from Boulder came down to teach it, and, well, you could say the planets aligned.
You could say that because Rowse, at 51, now works as a sound vibration practitioner as well as a life coach and astrological reader. She uses astrology — yes, she’ll ask you “what’s your sign,” but not as a pickup line — to help you navigate the different energies headed your way, according to the constant shift of the solar system.
She believes the universe was telling her something when she was 40, and now she helps others figure out what it’s telling them. She uses the gongs as a pathway to their true feelings, as well as to help them with stress, fear, anxiety, grief or depression. She knows what to play based on what your astrological chart tells her.
“I was having a discussion with a client the other day, and then I said, ‘Hey, stop talking now. Why don’t you close your eyes, and then we will come back to it,’” Rowse said. “I played the gongs, and it gets our head out of the game. It lets us feel.”
Think about the way music affects us, Rowse said. Think about how an upbeat song, such as “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, may make us want to dance, or how the song “Careless Whisper” by Wham may make us want to cry. The gongs aren’t that much different.
Despite this explanation, if you still believe Rowse seems from another planet, or even another galaxy, well, she’s not interested in convincing you otherwise. She’s doing well, with a lot of out-of-town clients as well as those from Steamboat.
“My clients are already into energy,” she said. “I’m not a converter. This is really, really popular enough that I don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing people.”
Rowse wasn’t just referring to her own practice. Non-traditional medicine, or alternative medicine, makes Rowse and many others who practice it a good living, especially in Colorado, and even more especially in the mountain towns of Colorado, such as Steamboat.
What: The 2020 Longevity Project Speaker Event
Speaker: Sean Swarner, longtime adventurer and first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest
When: 6 p.m. Sept. 30
AND ALSO …
What: The 2020 Longevity Project local panel on living well in the Colorado mountains
Panel: U.S. Ski Team racer Alice Mckennis from Glenwood Springs; Navy SpecOps veteran and cancer survivor Dash Doung Wong of Aspen; U.S. Paralympic racer Noah Elliott of Steamboat Springs; visually and hearing impaired reporter/documentarian Nick Isenberg of Carbondale
When: 4 p.m. Sept. 29
Tickets: Free for both events with advanced registration at SteamboatPilot.com/longevity
Rowse is the more extreme example of it, but there are others who practice naturopathy, a natural approach to medicine, and because it’s legal in Colorado, cannabis qualifies as well. And while traditional doctors have a healthy skepticism of it, many in Steamboat also embrace it and even refer their patients to it.
Many non-traditional practitioners, such as Rowse, feel likewise about traditional Western medicine: She does not treat disease or cancer, for instance, and will tell folks to see a doctor if she believes there’s something serious going on.
But she’s had clients say their anxiety evaporated after a session with the gongs, or night owls who went home and slept all night. She uses the gongs herself by trading time with another sound practitioner.
“When I started this 11 years ago, it was way more woo woo,” said Rowse, using a term that Urban Dictionary defines as “the supernatural.” “It was definitely not mainstream. But it’s a lot bigger now, and I can say, from a personal level, I’m a completely different person.”
Searching for help when Western medicine can’t provide it
When Western medicine failed Cristen Malia, she sought help from her mother. But in Malia’s case, she was battling Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that causes fatigue and joint pain, among other problems, and the traditional antibiotics didn’t cure her. So she used holistic medicine, the kind her mother preached to her back when she was a kid.
“She didn’t raise an eyebrow to anything,” Malia said.
That meant acupuncture, maybe visiting a friend who was a chiropractor and learning from a holistic doctor. She was already eating well, thanks to what she learned from the diet her mother fed her, and she kept experimenting with different methods and products. Eventually, her fatigue disappeared, as well as her migraine headaches, and she spent less time on the couch.
“Western medicine can serve until it doesn’t,” Malia said, “and then it needs to be really examined. There are a lot of other ways to heal.”
More patients are seeking alternatives to traditional, Western medicine when they can’t find an answer but believe there’s one to be found.
Joseph Kimmerly, the general manager of Billo, a marijuana dispensary in Steamboat, got into pot years ago the way others might develop an interest in wine. He was fascinated with all the ways marijuana could smell, in so many different forms, and all the different ways it could affect him. He made it a career four years ago in part for what it did for him as a patient.
“You start out trusting the traditional system, and you assume they will solve the problem, and yet, traditional doctors don’t get to know you that well. They’re just copying and pasting what others have tried,” said Kimmerly, who suffered from sinus problems and headaches daily. “I went through shots and surgeries and steroids, and I felt like doctors weren’t listening to me. I found cannabis, and that’s the one thing that’s been consistent as far as working.”
Recreational users flock to Billo, but perhaps as many as 25% of customers come seeking relief. Kimmerly isn’t allowed to give medical advice, but he can ask about their lifestyles and struggles and recommend a few products that could help make them functional again based on his own experiences.
Pain is the most common complaint, although Kimmerly can also recommend products that help with sleep problems, chronic gut disease and mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. Kimmerly also attends conferences with doctors researching the medical benefits of cannabis. Hemp, the pot plant used to make clothing and medicine, is also used in CBD, a product used to battle the same kind of issues. Billo sells CBD, some with THC — the chemical that makes you feel loopy —and some without or in low doses.
Western medicine’s limitations are many, but one of its biggest failings is the hardships in treating chronic conditions, or conditions that make us feel not our best but aren’t necessarily life-threatening or even debilitating. This is where alternative medicine can really shine, said Dr. Justin Pollack, a naturopathic doctor from the Mountain River clinic in Frisco. Pollack moved to naturopathy after wanting to practice in Summit County.
“I’m in an area where we have a lot of healthy people,” Pollack said. “We don’t have the conditions of an urban city, with obesity and cardio problems. We have ski instructors and athletic mountain bikers. So my practice adapted to what people experienced when their bodies break down.”
Pollack now specializes in allergies, pain, inflammation and digestive problems. Once he’s established that a patient doesn’t have a life-threatening condition through testing by traditional doctors, he looks at how he can treat them using natural medicine and by asking lifestyle questions. He’s generally not looking to cure his patients: They want his help to learn how to thrive.
“One of our biggest is diet,” Pollack said. “They may be eating something they are sensitive to that’s causing chronic inflammation or gut issues.”
Malia now practices with Minds in Motion in Steamboat as a counselor who emphasizes mindfulness based on yoga and psychotherapy. Mindfulness, she said, is a huge part of healing.
“It helps me feel empowered on the path of healing,” Malia said. “It makes me feel, ‘I can do this. I can be aware of what’s happening in my own body and learn how to regulate my own nervous system.’”
A natural approach to treatment
Out of all the alternatives to Western medicine, naturopathy probably resembles the more traditional model the most. Though they are lobbying to change this, naturopathic doctors aren’t allowed to prescribe under Colorado state law — those laws vary by state — and they can’t treat cancer or some other conditions, but they can offer herbal medicine and products that can act very much like prescriptions, and they will administer blood work and tests. Some do minor surgery, and they see patients with the idea of helping them feel better. They can even treat the side effects of chemotherapy, even if they can’t offer chemo themselves.
But there are some major differences, first among them is a natural approach to medicine.
“If it’s a digestive issue, sometimes it’s a very different approach,” Pollack said. “An MD may be prompted to go with an acid blocker. But instead of blocking a natural process, maybe we can heal the issue with herbs and other methods.”
Naturopathic doctors believe their biggest difference comes from the time they spend with their patients to form individual ways to treat their problems instead of relying on prescriptions used to treat the masses.
Dr. Grace Charles, a naturopathic doctor with Minds in Motion who also has training in traditional medicine, works with patients struggling with fertility and women with hormonal imbalances who are tired and cranky. She will use her own knowledge of traditional medicine as well as refer her patients to others if necessary, but she believes in her approach.
“I spend more time giving them the tools,” Charles said, “A traditional doctor may say, ‘Your weight is too high, so I want you to cut calories and go on an exercise program.’ I will say, ‘Here are three options for breakfast.’
“A natural practice can be more difficult because I’m giving you something that can help, but I’m also trying to get you to change your lifestyle as well.”
Even those who practice naturopathic medicine as well as more traditional approaches, such as Charles, refer to and receive references from traditional doctors, but they cherish that time with their patients. Pollack and Charles both said that’s one thing they loved about their practices.
At Minds in Motion, in fact, they all work as independent contractors, but they all ask each other for opinions and sometimes treat the same patient with their specialty. Charles and others call this treating “the whole patient” rather than seeing a doctor who likely has just a few minutes before prescribing a pill without offering options.
“People feel more in control of their health,” Charles said. “They get a choice in what happens to them, and I can offer non-drug solutions. We can fertilize the soil, so to speak.”
Some traditional doctors dispute the degree to which this is true. Brian Harrington, the Routt County Public Health Medical Officer, works as a family physician at Yampa Valley Medical Associates. Family physicians also spend time with their patients, he said, and attempt to find solutions to the problem and not just cure symptoms. He resents the idea that he’s simply there to cure symptoms.
“They like to put themselves on a higher mantle,” Harrington said of alternative doctors, “and yet I do that too. I talk about diet. I try to treat the whole patient.”
Harrington, in fact, gets irritated when non-traditional practitioners try to degrade conventional medicine.
“That’s silliness,” Harrington said. “That’s a red flag to me. If you can’t build up your practice on your own merits, that’s a red flag.”
However, Harrington himself defends alternative medicine. He doesn’t even like the word “alternative” because it implies that conventional medicine is the “correct” medicine.
“There’s a role for lots of kinds of approaches,” Harrington said. “I try to figure out what my patient believes in. What was alternative in the past isn’t an alternative anymore.”
One of Harrington’s partners with Yampa Valley Medical Associates, Michelle Jimerson, calls herself “a huge fan” of alternative and what she calls “complementary” medicine. She’s researched chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncture specialists to see what they offer.
“I think it’s great we have so many options here (in Steamboat),” Jimerson said. “Western medicine doesn’t always have all the answers. I honestly wish there was more of a crossover between the two.”
It’s usually not just one issue that’s caused the complaint, Jimerson said, and sometimes a different approach can help with one issue while a more traditional treatment can help with another.
“We do try to do a lot of behavioral health,” she said. “That’s why I love family medicine, I can spend extra time with my patients.”
Malia, like some of her patients, may come to alternative medicine after they discover the more traditional Western approaches aren’t working for them. Malia, like her mother, is more of a plant-based eater, something she developed as she grew up.
“My dad believed in eating whatever I wanted, and Mom was nothing like that,” Malia said. “I discovered on my own that I didn’t feel well when I ate what Dad let me eat. So at my dad’s, I wouldn’t eat the cookies or drink the soda. I was an athlete, and it was important to me to feel good.”
Beware of hucksters
Doctors who do practice non-traditional medicine are used to doubters.
“Especially the husband,” Charles, who treats mostly women, said with a laugh.
But Charles understands the doubt. She may even expect it when a patient is referred to her by a conventional doctor.
“Some feel as if they’ve been shoved in the door, and sometimes, they are really skeptical as a result,” Charles said. “Sometimes, their mind gets changed.”
Sometimes, those doubts are warranted, Harrington said. Sometimes, non-traditional medicine resembles the “doctors” selling cures in expensive bottles next to saloons on dirt roads. It can be expensive as well, as insurance rarely covers non-traditional treatments.
“There’s a lot of hucksterism out there,” he said. “I have some heartburn over people who try to huck something and tell you you need it and are making money off it and promoting it without evidence.”
There’s a danger beyond just getting conned, Harrington said.
“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is, and I resent claims made without any substantial evidence,” he said. “It can harm then because a patient may choose something other than what is helpful to treat a condition.”
Then again, all medicine is at fault for selling cures that may or may not be valid, Harrington said.
“If you’re willing to spend the money, and it doesn’t hurt you in any way, and you walk away feeling better, and you’ve avoided surgery, well, great,” Harrington said.
As much as a fan as Jimerson is of non-traditional medicine, she also believes conventional medicine has an important place. She would worry, she said, if someone refused traditional medicine in favor of an herbal cure, especially if something seemed seriously wrong.
“I’m biased, but I do think everyone should have a medical home, with a primary care doctor,” she said. “We try to be open to all sorts of different ways to treat someone, but I still do think traditional medicine has a role in that. At the end of the day, you probably do need something from us.”
In Steamboat, however, doctors are willing to work with other methods to make sure their patients feel as good as they can.
“There isn’t a lot of head-to-head competition,” Jimerson said. “Everyone works together. It would be unfortunate if a naturopathic doctor said you didn’t need to see a doctor, but we are very lucky in that sense. Especially when you are talking about longevity, there should be a blending of the two.”
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When his wife started experiencing foot pain while pregnant with the couple’s first child more than a dozen years ago, Derek Harper was with her for visits with several podiatrists.