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Two specialists talk about enhancing patient care through holistic approaches

Finding balance — physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually — is what integrative medicine is all about. At Geisinger, it doesn’t replace conventional treatments. What it does do is introduce and integrate approaches such as movement, meditation, sound therapy, aromatherapy and natural supplements to enhance patient care. 

Michelle Smith, director of Geisinger’s House of Care, uses a variety of these approaches with visitors to bring relief and a sense of calm. “The House of Care is a low-cost lodging option right on the campus of Geisinger Medical Center,” she explains. “Guests who are undergoing extensive treatments sometimes stay for a few weeks along with their family members. We do everything we can to make everyone’s time here as comfortable as possible.” 

With a Master of Science from the Maryland University of Integrative Health, Ms. Smith is certified in both yoga and sound therapy, and often uses a combination of approaches with the people she cares for. “Whichever approach I choose, the end goal is the same: helping to get my client in a relaxed and peaceful state,” she says.

Yoga therapy

Yoga therapy is not just a yoga class, the way many might imagine it. Ms. Smith works one-on-one with her client. Physical poses and stretches may be involved, but much of her approach involves breathing and mindfulness. “Basically, I’m teaching people to shift awareness,” she explains. “Many of the people I work with are struggling with pain, anxiety or sleep issues. I teach them to put space between themselves and whatever triggers they’ve been focusing on — to notice their bodies and learn how to shift their thoughts.”

Sound therapy

For sound therapy sessions, clients lie on a massage table. Ms. Smith moves around the room, playing a variety of Tibetan singing bowls with different tonalities. “Vibrations from the bowls can actually go deeper than hands-on massage,” she says. “Many people experience a sense of softening or floating. And for those with bone cancer, the vibrations can relieve some of the pain.” 

Integrative medicine for children

Adults aren’t the only ones benefiting from integrative medicine at Geisinger. Pediatrician Santisree Tanikella, MD, offers integrative medicine two days a month at Geisinger Pediatrics Lewisburg, as well as incorporating it into her regular practice at Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital.

“Integrative medicine is not a new phenomenon, and many cultures take a holistic approach to care,” she says. “Mind, body and spirit have always been connected in traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathy and Ayurveda, where finding balance is a key to health. It’s a wisdom that’s been lost with Western medicine.”

Dr. Tanikella, who treats newborns through 26-year-olds, says her goal is to find the easiest and least invasive approach to care. “Sometimes pharmaceuticals are necessary, but if a condition can be treated with lifestyle or dietary changes, natural supplements, mindfulness, meditation or aromatherapy, I prefer to try these approaches first,” she says.

"Our kitchens are full of medicine"

According to Dr. Tanikella, seeing food as medicine can have a huge impact on a person’s health. And it’s often where she starts with her patients. “Our kitchens are full of medicine,” she says. “And learning to use this ‘pharmacy’ often helps the body heal itself.” Instead of processed foods, fast foods and a diet filled with sugar and other additives, Dr. Tanikella recommends turning to nature. “Cruciferous vegetables have anti-cancer properties, green tea and dark chocolate are packed with antioxidants, olive oil and certain types of fish are excellent source of omega-3s, which can help with cardiovascular and mental health — the list goes on and on,” she says.

Even the herbs we cook with can make a difference, says Dr. Tanikella. She recommends rosemary, thyme and oregano for their anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial effects. Cumin and fennel can help reduce gas and cramping, and the combination of turmeric and black pepper can ease arthritic pain. “Green tea and chamomile tea also have medicinal properties,” she adds. “And fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut are filled with the probiotics that help modulate gut health.”

Helping patients find balance

Stress, anxiety, a poor diet, exposure to environmental toxins and lack of sleep can all lead to illness. Helping her patients find balance through dietary changes, mindfulness and other approaches has allowed Dr. Tanikella to treat a range of conditions, including mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and ADHD; gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, reflux and colic; and a variety of other conditions ranging from headaches to insomnia.

“Thanks to integrative medicine, I’m often able to avoid prescribing pharmaceuticals for anxiety and sleep issues,” says Dr. Tanikella. “I’ve also been able to get a lot of my patients off antacids by changing their diets and recommending multivitamins, probiotics and botanicals. Studies are showing the gut to be extremely important to the health of the entire body. There’s a gut-brain connection that’s currently being explored — and what we’re learning is fascinating, whether we’re talking about mental health, autoimmunity issues or GI challenges.”

Michelle Smith, who has Crohn’s disease, can personally vouch for integrative medicine’s effectiveness. “Thanks to these modalities, I’m better able to manage the disease,” she says. “I still take Humira®, but I’ve managed to get off two other medications. Integrative medicine does not replace traditional medicine; it complements it. And helps us provide our patients with the best possible care.”

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