Melinda Ring, MD, changes lives with integrative medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
For five grueling years Marijana Nikolas was sick. She couldn’t eat without feeling nauseous and had no energy; she couldn’t sleep and lost extreme amounts of weight. Pain consumed her body. Yet no doctor could identify the problem. Internists, gastroenterologists, gynecologists, chiropractors – none had a solution that worked and all prescribed meds were ineffective.
“Doctors told me my symptoms didn’t exist, that I was making them up,” says Ms. Nikolas. “I was very frightened.”
About to give up, her husband suggested a specialist in integrative medicine – Melinda Ring, MD, medical director of Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
At her initial visit with Dr. Ring, Ms. Nikolas felt hopeful. “Dr. Ring simply listened. She asked me to tell her exactly how I was feeling and what I thought the problem might be.”
“I liked that Dr. Ring worked with non-conventional medicine,” says Ms. Nikolas. One of the first steps in examining her was extensive blood tests, which showed an extremely low Vitamin D count, as well as hormone imbalance. “No other doctor even tested for this,” she says. Surprisingly, these were at the root of her health problems. It took over two years, but Ms. Nikolas’ nutrient and hormone levels are back to a normal range. “I would’ve been dead by now,” she reflects. “I have my whole life back.”
In traditional internal medicine, patients are typically diagnosed and given treatment with prescription medications. With integrative medicine there’s a search for overall healing. “I spend a lot of time with patients, going into other aspects of their lives and looking for root causes of their conditions,” says Dr. Ring, who works in collaboration with primary care physicians and as a consultant.
Having a pathologist for a father, it’s no wonder Dr. Ring took the path into medicine. “When I had a headache my father had me visualize the headache and tried to get it to go away by using some mind-body exercises,” she reflects. “From a very young age I was immersed in this idea of western medicine, but that there are also other healing approaches to the body.”
According to The Bravewell Collaborative, a community of philanthropists working to improve the health of the American public through the advancement of integrative medicine, the definition of integrative medicine is: “an approach to care that puts the patient at the center and addresses the full range of physical, emotional, mental, social, spiritual and environmental influences that affect a person’s health.”
“People come to me and say, ‘I have one doctor for my stomach, one for my lungs and one for my heart, but I feel like nobody is really looking at me as a person,’” Dr. Ring adds. “So that’s what I try to do for them – help them reunite all their body parts.”
It all begins with a simple step — listening. “There’s an art to it because it’s what somebody doesn’t say that can lead to the answer of what’s going on,” she says. “I think intuitively a lot of patients know what they need; my role is to help them recognize and verbalize what that is and work with them to create a plan to heal their system.”
The percentage of people using alternative therapies is growing, but there are concerns of no hard evidence to support integrative medicine. Dr. Ring begs to differ: “There’s an ever-growing amount of evidence and research. When you talk about energy medicine, we’re lacking explanations for how it works, but we have data showing these approaches can help with mood, sleep and pain. Research on herbs and supplements has helped identify what compounds are in them that are the active ingredients.”
Ninety percent of Dr. Ring’s patients are women, and one of the integrative medicine methods seeing promising results is bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT), the use of hormones identical to the type that your body makes to treat hormone imbalances. “The biggest issues I see from women are hormone imbalances from PMS to menopause, thyroid conditions, weight concerns, fatigue, gut issues and mood disorders — women having anxiety/depression and irritability. A common complaint is ‘I don’t feel right; I went to my regular primary care doctor and they didn’t find anything wrong, but I still don’t feel good.’”
According to a study done by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Institutional Review Board in 2011, women experienced a 25 percent decrease in emotional irritability and 22 percent reduction in anxiety, among other reductions such as night sweats and hot flashes within three to six months while taking BHRT.
As integrative medicine is used more and more in major hospitals it’s clear the alternative option has become more mainstream. Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern is collaborating with Northwestern Integrative Medicine to incorporate integrative medicine during treatment. For example, through a philanthropic grant, patients receiving chemotherapy are offered complimentary acupuncture and massages. “Our goal is that eventually integrative medicine is just medicine,” Dr. Ring adds. “From my perspective, if something works it should be part of what we offer.”