The Danforth has a sweet tooth for alternative health. Will future generations continue to indulge?
By Jenna Simpson
Natural health clinics. Herbal dispensaries. The Carrot Common. Push-pin boards overflowing with flyers for alternative therapies. Even the most casual passerby walking along the Danforth can’t ignore the indications of a vibrant alternative health community.
What exactly does alternative medicine mean to Danforth residents and practitioners?
On the Danforth, conventional and alternative medicines coexist peacefully. Roger Lewis, manager and master herbalist at Thuna’s Wholistic Dispensary, says they receive many patients referred by medical doctors. “That’s the kind of doctor that we like to work with. That’s not the kind of doctor we want to steal a patient from. We’re not pretending to be medical experts—we’re herbalists.” He emphasizes that a balance between Western and alternative health practices benefits the patient. Lewis, who has worked at Thuna’s for 15 years, is certainly not alone in his approach. Daniel Chiang, owner and practitioner at the Inspired Life Health Centre on the Danforth since 2003, also emphasizes the importance of harmonious treatments. “Complementary medicine is not [used] instead of going to your doctor. Go and see your doctor, and we can complement and enhance that.” Although there are significant challenges to achieving the desired balance between conventional and alternative medicine, such as affordability and regulation, practitioners like Lewis and Chiang emphasize the necessity of striving toward this goal.
Is it a new trend, or an old tradition?
Both the difference in regulation and the enthusiasm surrounding alternative health practices come from the fact that, unlike institutionalized Western medicine, they are traditionally passed on “informally” from person to person. Amy Sedgwick is co-owner of The Red Tent Sisters and a resident of the Danforth. She educates women interested in alternatives to conventional birth control by charting their menstrual cycles. She also promotes natural alternatives to infertility problems. Sedgwick practices “Maya abdominal massage,” a treatment for the uterus and digestive system that can improve fertility in women, treat painful menstruation, and ease symptoms of ovarian disease. She was taught this massage method by a 60-year-old woman she met in Belize, who was herself taught by a 100-year-old shaman.
Sedgwick’s technique is an example of a long-standing tradition passed down from one generation of practitioners to another, but her experience with alternative health as a patient shows how this knowledge also passes along family lines. “I got my mom interested, and she’s been going [for alternative therapies] for about three years now,” Sedgwick says. “My daughter also goes for preventative care and health promotion. All three of us sometimes go in on the same day.” Sedgwick’s interest in alternative treatments encouraged a family commitment to natural health that spans three generations of women. This multigenerational dynamic is common to many people’s experiences in alternative health. “We definitely see people bring their parents in,” says Patrizio Nardin, a Danforth naturopath. “People who have not tried alternative healthcare treatment before are now trying it—and it’s exposing others to it.”
Unfortunately, attempts to involve older generations in alternative treatments aren’t always successful. Donna Ortolan, a 46-year-old Toronto resident, has been using natural remedies for 26 years but couldn’t persuade her parents of the benefits. “My mom was not a fan of healthy alternatives . . . sometimes it can prevent or slow down illness, but I couldn’t get that idea through to her. I find that age group will take all the medications prescribed [by Western doctors] but not question what they are really for. I hopefully have taught my kids to ask questions.”
What will it become to the next generation?
It seems the “kids” are asking questions, and they are having more luck encouraging their parents. “Teenagers hang out in [the Carrot Common] at the juice bar or the grocery store. They’ll pop in and ask questions and bring in a parent to start coming in for services,” says Maureen Campbell, office manager of the Inspired Life Health Centre. So why are practices that have been around for so long being firmly embraced by youth? Lewis observes that “the biggest growth was the introduction in the early ’90s of alternative cultural trends and the Internet. The younger culture is more into alternatives, and the various indigenous health practices are a part of that.” Many alternative forms of treatment have been practiced for hundreds and even thousands of years, but there is something still more important than their rich history: their continued use by future generations.
Many practitioners on the Danforth seem confident that the young parents who are involved in alternative medicine will pass their participation on to their children in a more fundamental and lasting way than previous generations have. Campbell describes “families where a mother comes in and brings in her children, then her parent—so it tends to spread from one person. One will have a good experience, and it spills over in the family. I’m finding that a lot of younger people are coming in quite frequently. I have a feeling that they’ll pass things on as well.”
More than simply a tradition to be inherited, both alternative medical practices and confidence in them pass from one invested person to another—up to parents, down to children, and out to friends. And with kids having an increasingly frequent and normalized experience with unconventional treatments, it may not be many more generations before natural and Western medicine become simply medicine—both of them too integral to our health to be called alternative.
Photos contributed by Mike Stimpson, Megan Cole, Ryan Somma and Jesus Presley