Toronto resident Aerin Fogel was raised in a household where alternative healing was used in combination with modern medicine.
“I was familiar with a lot of [alternative healing] modalities from a very young age,” she told Global News. “I came to it more in my own right in my late teens and early 20s when allopathic medicine didn’t have answers to my questions.”
Fogel, 30, said when she was diagnosed with an illness that is “mostly still a mystery in the medical community” and went through a series of traumatic experiences as a young woman, she turned to the healing arts for support.
These health experiences, she said, made her realize that humans are complex beings, and healing should be approached holistically.
“I needed something remedial to what I was going through,” she said. “[Alternative healing] allowed me to begin to work with chronic illness and trauma on an incredibly effective and transformative level, whereas allopathic medicine had offered me very little in my situation.”
Now, Fogel works in alternative healing, performing Reiki, astrology readings and hands-on energy healing.
What is energy healing?
“The concept [of energy healing] is that our body is made up of energy pathways,” said Dr. Mel Borins, a Toronto-based physician and author of A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why.
“It’s the belief that there’s more to us than just the physical — that there’s a spiritual side of us, or that there’s an energy that extends beyond the body — and that by applying hands, like in therapeutic touch or in Reiki … we can manipulate the energy that’s radiating from the body.”
Forms of energy healing have been common practice in cultures for centuries, Borins said. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, it is believed that energy passes through a meridian system in the body, and ailments can be healed by accessing this energy.
While many doctors in North America may not suggest energy healing as a solution to a health problem, alternative treatments are still popular in Canada. According to government data, more than 70 percent of Canadians regularly use “complementary and alternative health-care therapies” including things like reiki, acupuncture, yoga, reflexology and chiropractic treatments.
Plus, according to a recent report, Canadians are becoming increasingly interested in alternative treatments. Research shows massage and chiropractic care are the most popular therapies, but there’s also been an uptick in energy healing since 1997.
Why people turn to energy healing
For some people like Fogel, alternative healing modalities have been part of their upbringing, and interest has continued into adulthood. Others may see natural remedies as practices that complement modern medical interventions.
Alternative therapies are also something people turn to when they have problems that medical doctors are seemingly unable to help them with.
“People are always interested in natural approaches to healing,” Borins said. “They are concerned about side effects that modern medications and modern approaches have … especially if they have a condition that hasn’t been helped by modern medicine.”
Fogel echoes this stance. She said she mostly sees female clients, and many of them seek “energy work” in addition to or instead of things like medication. She said common issues people are dealing with include loneliness, depression, anxiety, chronic illness, and pain.
Dr. Eric Cadesky, a Vancouver-based family doctor and president of Doctors of B.C., acknowledges that aspects of a person’s life, like personal or financial, for example, can have an effect on their physical well-being.
“There are a number of situations where people’s symptoms are unusual, and they may be caused by things that cannot be identified,” he said to Global News.
“We know that different [people] present psychological and emotional challenges in a physiological way, and so while not everything will have a test that tells us the answer, it’s important that doctors work with the patients to address all aspects of their health, which is the mind, the body, the spirit, the sense of community as well as the social determinants.”
Does energy healing work?
So does evidence support the effectiveness of alternative therapies? When it comes to energy healing, there’s little scientific data to back it up.
“The studies … really show that the beneficial effects come not from the practice itself, but rather the relationships and the time spent with someone else,” Cadesky explained. “I think people are looking for meaning in their lives, and that’s why something that seems mystical, or magical, or ancient holds promise for people who are looking for that meaning.”
Despite this, Cadesky said there is evidence to suggest that spending time with others has a positive effect on one’s mental, emotional and physical health. This is particularly true in group therapy settings, he said.
“When there are group therapies, people benefit not from any sort of mystical healing, but rather the power of relationships and connections to other people,” he said. “We have known for millennia that having connections, a sense of belonging to a community, and having ongoing relationships is good for the body, the mind, and the soul.”
There is also evidence that other forms of natural healing including mindfulness and acupuncture can be effective, said Borins. Mindfulness has been studied to help treat depression, and acupuncture might be useful for things like neck aches and headaches.
“But when it comes to things like therapeutic touch and reiki, there is some research, but the research is what we as physicians would consider pretty poor, as in it’s not properly done, there’s not enough people in the trials, and there’s not double-blind [studies],” Borins said.
“So even though there is some research saying it might be useful, the research is not of a quality that doctors would accept.”
When medical advice is ignored
While complementing medical treatments with natural remedies like energy healing is one thing, completely forgoing medicine is another. In certain cases, people have died after refusing modern medicine and opting instead for natural approaches.
Borins said it’s important for people to be educated on what’s effective and what’s not in terms of treating health issues. Putting your health at risk can have serious consequences.
“I want to alert people that just because something is natural and supposed to be free of side effects doesn’t mean it’s entirely without harm,” he said.
“I want people to be cautious about seeking alternative therapies, especially if there’s no real science behind it.”