Nature's Champions

Americans consult alternative health practitioners some 600 million times a year—more often than they visit family doctors. In that spirit, PT sought out seven natural health pioneers: holistic innovators who specialize in everything from plant power to prayer.

By Lori Oliwenstein, Jay Dixit, published November 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Raw Power

Natalia Rose

Home base: New York City

Claim to fame: Author of The Raw Food Detox Diet.

Claim: A careful transition to a diet high in raw foods will detoxify your body, increase your energy levels, and help you lose weight.

Argument: Cooking food destroys many of the very vitamins and enzymes that we most need for optimal health and energy. Raw foods—plant foods that have not been heated above 118° F—have all the beneficial, health-promoting components intact, giving much-needed rest to the digestive system so the body can heal.

Her regimen: Starts each day with vegetable juice or fresh fruit. Lunch is at least half raw-vegetable-based. If she cheats and eats cooked food, she does so at dinner.

Must-do recommendation: Foods should go from light to heavy in the course of the day. "We don't want anything interrupting our energy flow," Rose explains. "And if your body is busy digesting food all day, that's where all the energy will go."

What she's most interested in now: Rose's next book, The Raw Food Energy Diet, is based, she says, on the Einsteinian concept of matter as a manifestation of energy. "Our bodies, which we experience as matter, are also made of light energy. Trying to sustain these bodies on dense material food alone is ridiculous. If we want to become vibrant, virtually ageless beings, we need to feed our 'energy bodies' living light energy, which is exactly what raw foods are."

Research nuts and bolts: Rose doesn't conduct research, but points to work by Francis Marion Pottenger Jr., who studied the effects of diet on cats in the 1930s. Some cats got cooked meat and others, raw. The raw-food cats were more fertile and freer of disease. Though no studies have been conducted to show similar benefits in humans, says Rose, "You don't need a study to know you're losing weight and feeling great."

Inspiration: When Rose was in her 20s, she was dissatisfied with her body. Studying nutrition at the Natural Healing Institute of Naturopathy in San Diego, she battled depression, anxiety, exhaustion, niggling physical ailments, a belief she was overweight, and an ever-present discomfort in her own skin. She knew she needed help. Dieting made matters worse. Then she picked up a book about a raw food regimen. "This wasn't just a diet, it was a lifestyle," she says. "My energy improved and any inclinations towards depression dissolved."

Plan of the Caveman

Loren Cordain, Ph.D.

Home base: Fort Collins, Colorado

Claim: Eating as your ancestors did will keep you lean, healthy, and young.

Claim to fame: Wrote The Paleo Diet.

Argument: "We're Stone Agers living in the Space Age." Human nutritional needs are genetically determined and our genes are shaped by natural selection. People gain weight from foods introduced since the agricultural revolution. The result is heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in epidemic proportions. The solution is to return to the preagricultural diet of Paleolithic people.

His regimen: Like the South Beach Diet except with no grains, salt, or sugar. Eats only fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and seafood. Does not eat any sugars, saturated or trans fats, salt, bread, legumes, potatoes, pasta, processed foods, dairy, or grains. Even whole grains are disallowed.

Must-do recommendation: Eat only foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors could have eaten. So, nix whatever has to be cooked: potatoes, peanuts, beans, grains, breads, pastas, processed foods. Since the dominant food source for hunter-gatherers was animals, lean meats compose 55 to 65 percent of Cordain's ideal diet. He recommends exercising 90 minutes a day, seven days a week, noting that hunter-gatherers probably did three times that. Cordain concedes that nobody living in the modern age can follow every one of these proscriptions all the time. Most of the beneficial health effects of eating a modern day Paleo diet can be achieved with about 85 or 90 percent compliance.

Research nuts and bolts: Using remains of Stone Age people from around the world, Cordain calculated the energy expenditures of our prehistoric ancestors. A thigh bone, for instance, can tell us roughly how tall and how heavy its owner was. Once he knew the weight, Cordain could calculate how much energy it took that person to move around—the same way treadmills use your weight to figure the calories you burn during a workout.

By strapping GPS systems onto male Paraguayans while they're out foraging in the jungle, Cordain and his colleagues determined that cavemen probably ran 10 miles a day carrying 25 pounds. Cavewomen worked as hard, carrying children, setting up shelter, foraging for fruits and vegetables, and curing animal skins.

Critics point out that the lives of hunter-gatherers were nasty, brutish, and short, with a life expectancy in the 20s. Why emulate that? Cordain's response is, sure, Stone Age people had it rough, but most died when they walked into tarpits, got clubbed in the head by enemy tribesmen, or were swallowed by saber-toothed tigers—not from disease. Today's hunter-gatherers live well into their 60s, free of "diseases of civilization," such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Inspiration: When Cordain became a college athlete in the late 1960s, he sought food that would improve his athletic performance. The article that changed his life was "Paleolithic Nutrition," a now-famous paper published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It made the case that human beings could be most healthy by emulating the diet and exercise patterns of the Stone Age. Cordain was sold. He speculated that modern health problems didn't start with packaged snack foods but with the advent of agriculture. People began eating more and more—including more high-carbohydrate, fatty foods—all the while stuck in the bodies of Stone Agers. So to maximize our health and fitness, Cordain concluded, we should emulate Paleolithic man.

Food as medicine

Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Home base: Tucson, Arizona

Claim: The use of plants and herbs—as both food and medicine—can enhance our health and well-being.

Claim to fame: Appointed to President Clinton's commission on alternative medicine; advises the National Institutes of Health.

Argument: A diet based on plants and whole foods is in itself medicinal, as are dietary herbs and spices, which not only promote wellness, but can cure disease. If you're healthy, such a diet will render supplements and extracts generally unnecessary.

Her regimen: "Predominantly plant-based," with meals made almost exclusively from scratch. Recipes take advantage of a wide variety of spices and herbs. In addition, she takes a multivitamin and omega-3—and exercises—daily.

Must-do recommendations: Low Dog's regimen for the healthy is based on a simple but powerful lifestyle makeover. Not only should you eat a whole food diet, says Low Dog, but "You should also sit down at a table at least once a day and eat with a fork." For people who are ill, there is an entirely different set of recommendations.

Physical activity is also a must. "Thirty minutes every day, no exceptions," says Low Dog, a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. "Think of it the way you think of washing your hair."

What she's most interested in now: Low Dog is exploring the roles patient beliefs and cultures play in the treatment of disease. "I'm looking at how to work within someone's beliefs," she says. "How do you talk to patients when their culture and beliefs directly collide with your own?"

Inspiration: In Low Dog's family, which is part Native American, "folk remedies were definitely 'it,'" she says. "You had to have a hemorrhage or broken bones to go to the doctor." But as she points out, while her heritage inspired her interest in integrative medicine, she has gone far beyond the confines of any one culture. Her approach to healing draws not only on remedies from Native American cultures, but also from the traditions of Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, Appalachian midwives, and Vietnamese and Korean healers—as well as mainstream medicine.

Her herbal expertise predates her M.D. by several decades. "I was an herbalist, a massage therapist, a martial arts instructor, and a midwife," she says. She even opened a shop—Tieraona's Herbals in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Ultimately, she decided she needed the training to diagnose disease and prescribe stronger medicines.

The Qigong Show

Effie Poy Yew Chow

Home base: San Francisco, California

Claim: The practice of Chow Medical Qigong—a system of slow, meditative movements and regulated breathing to facilitate the flow of qi, or vital energy, through the body—can restore health and movement to even the sickest of people.

Claim to fame: Appointed to President Clinton's commission on alternative medicine.

Argument: Qigong builds energy so that people can overcome toxins in the environment and imbalances in the life force that cause illness, Chow says; its focus on breath and slow movement maximizes the body's oxygenation.

Her regimen: It would be an understatement to say that the basis of Chow's own regimen is the practice of Qigong. It is, in some ways, the entirety of the regimen. "Qigong is a lifestyle," Chow says. "What I teach is what I live." Included in these teachings are dietary approaches, meditation, and the use of supplements as well as Western medicines, when needed.

Must-do recommendations: Practice Chow Qigong exercises and meditation movements, which "exercise the internal organs as well as the neuro-muscular-skeletal system," says Chow. In addition to the practice, she requires a positive mental attitude, giving each client a "prescription" for "at least eight hugs and three bellyaching laughs a day." Says Chow, "A positive mental attitude with love and intention is 75 percent of healing."

Research nuts and bolts: Chow often points to research into the effects of acupuncture needles and how they affect the meridian system (the set of interconnected pathways in the human body through which qi circulates), as well as MRI studies that have shown that the slowness of Qigong practice is better able to spike the body's electrical fields—its qi—than are weight lifting or jogging.

Inspiration: Though she grew up in a family from Canton City in southern China, surrounded by herbs and other staples of traditional Chinese medicine, Chow began her career as a nurse.

But she kept seeing the revolving door. "People would get discharged, but then shortly after they'd come back, and that would keep happening until they died." Her real wake-up call came when her father died from a medication reaction. She went back to her roots, learning Chinese medicine and actively promoting it.

Guru of Grace

Larry Dossey, M.D.

Home base: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Claim: Prayer can have a profound effect on improving health, as can other intangible factors such as optimism, music, and plants.

Claim to fame: Author of Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.

Argument: People who follow a spiritual path live 7 to 13 years longer. "The effects of spirituality and consciousness on health are so profound that we are no longer justified in turning away from these ideas," says Dossey.

His regimen: Every morning, Dossey says a silent prayer of gratitude. His prayers most closely resemble those of Buddhists, who "pray like nuts, but don't offer their prayers to a supreme being. I tease my religious friends about viewing God as a communications satellite," says Dossey. "But prayer isn't sent to someplace, it simply is." In fact, he doesn't even like the word "prayer," preferring "prayerfulness," which captures the idea that it's not what you say but the way you are. Being grateful, Dossey believes, is one of the best ways to be.

Must-do recommendation: People should pray, but in a way that feels most comfortable to them. When writer-monk Thomas Merton, who was known to have a deep prayer life, was asked how he prayed, he said, "By breathing." Dossey believes that ideally prayer should become an integral part of how you live and "how you are"—as natural as breathing.

Research nuts and bolts: In 1988, Dossey heard about the first significant controlled clinical trial of prayer: Patients who were prayed for—unbeknownst to them—did better. That study has since been questioned, but Dossey began praying for his patients as an internist, deciding that not doing so was like withholding a valuable medication. He also researched every prayer study he could find; two-thirds showed positive results.

Inspiration: Dossey began his career as a "dedicated materialist," believing that no alternative therapy was in the same league as drugs and surgical procedures. But he was afflicted with migraine headaches so severe they blinded him. During medical school, they got so bad he tried to drop out. The only thing that kept him in school: His adviser wouldn't accept his withdrawal. Dossey cycled through every conventional treatment, but none worked. In desperation, he tried biofeedback, in which blood pressure, sweating, body temperature, and other measures were monitored and fed back to patients. Ninety-nine percent of Dossey's migraine symptoms disappeared.

Dossey went on to start one of the first biofeedback labs in Texas. He became fascinated with how modifications of consciousness could benefit health. Later, he became more interested in spiritual issues in medicine.

When Dossey wrote Healing Words, only three medical schools offered courses on spirituality and health. Today, more than 90 do.

The Vitamin Cure

Andrew W. Saul, Ph.D.

Home base: Hamlin, New York

Claim: High doses of vitamins alone can prevent and cure serious illness.

Claim to fame: Author of Fire Your Doctor! How to Be Independently Healthy.

Argument: For more than 60 years, researchers have shown that the use of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids to treat disease and promote wellness—known as orthomolecular medicine—can reverse impending blindness, improve multiple sclerosis, combat mental illness, shrink malignancies, cure arthritis, restore damaged immune systems, and rebuild hips without surgery.

His regimen: In addition to following a "high-fiber, high-veggie, non-junk-food, very-low-meat diet," Saul takes a multivitamin with every meal as well as megadoses of vitamins C and E, omega-3 fish oils, lecithin, and zinc. Why such large quantities of nutrients? "The first rule of building a brick wall," says Saul, "is to have enough bricks."

Must-do recommendations: Everyone can benefit from a near-vegetarian diet, regular exercise, and vitamin C "to saturation," says Saul. People with arthritis should take B6, niacinamide, and C. Those losing their eyesight due to macular degeneration should take vitamins C and E, selenium, zinc, and carotene.

What he's most interested in now: Saul is fighting what he sees as a conspiracy by the National Library of Medicine, which refuses to index The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, though it is peer-reviewed and seems to meet their criteria.

Inspiration: In the 1960s, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling began experimenting with very large doses of vitamin C; Pauling went on to name and delineate the field of orthomolecular medicine.

Intrigued by these ideas, Saul began testing them on himself. During one illness, he fasted for several days. "I felt the best I had ever felt while feeling bad," he recalls. He treated bouts of pneumonia with high doses of vitamin C. "Experience showed me that erythromycin will not cure it as fast as high-dose vitamin C," he asserts. He says his father has been able to rid himself of angina by taking vitamin E.