Advancing Natural Medicine Through Research: The Helfgott Research Institute

Chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory disease, and diabetes are the leading cause of mortality in the world, causing 60% of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

By Alexis Lynn

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Chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer,respiratory disease, and diabetes are the leading cause of mortality in the world, causing 60% of all deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 35 million people who died worldwide from chronic disease in 2005, half were under age 70. These numbers emphasize the intense need for research related to chronic disease. In America, chronic disease is replacing infectious disease as the primary health concern, further highlighting the need for research related to its complex nature.

At the Helfgott Research Institute in Portland, Ore., healing chronic disease is one of the many goals of researchers.

At the Helfgott Research Institute in Portland, Ore., healing chronic disease is one of the many goals of researchers. Established in 2003 at the National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM), Helfgott is a professionally independent, nonprofit research institute whose mission is to conduct rigorous, high-quality research on the art and science of healing, specifically working to understand natural forms of medicine. Although chronic illness can sometimes be effectively treated by pharmaceutical medicine alone, it often requires a more comprehensive approach due to its complex nature. Lifestyle, nutrition, and behavioral changes all affect chronic disease, so Helfgott employs traditional approaches combined with natural medicine such as herbs, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture in order to prevention and treatment.

One of the unique aspects of Helfgott’s research is the way clinical trials are conducted. “We are committed to studying natural medicine the way that it’s practiced,” says Heather Zwickey, PhD, director of research at Helfgott and dean of research at NCNM. “When a naturopath sees a patient, they don’t ever give just one thing. They always address the diet, and the lifestyle, and may provide some herbs, and maybe a homeopathic; it’s never one thing. If that’s what naturopaths are doing in practice, then that’s what we ought to be studying.” Instead of studying medicines individually or in a manner that would reduce an herb to its constituent components, Helfgott researchers look at a combination of herbs being administered. Zwickey continues, “Part of our mission is to study whole systems of medicine; we try to do as little with isolated components as possible.”

The need for evidence-based research and clinical studies to evaluate and confirm the safety and effectiveness of natural medicine continues to grow. Just as pharmaceutical medicine undergoes clinical trials, natural medicine is researched and studied through clinical trials. Helfgott employs experienced faculty in the fields of nutrition, psychology, immunology, whole systems research, and acupuncture, among other natural medicine research faculty, to carry out natural medicine clinical trials. Further, Helfgott faculty work with conventional biomedical researchers, using groundbreaking technology to study ancient traditions. A donation from Don Helfgott has helped fund the state-of-the-art basic science laboratory, as well as the resources to carry out clinical research.

Dedicated to the advancement of natural medicine, Helfgott was founded with the goals of training students and faculty interested in conducting research, collaborating with other Institute’s vision research institutes and organizations, and conducting research specifically on naturopathic and Chinese medicine. At Helfgott, scientists from the fields of naturopathic medicine, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, immunology, and nutrition work together to apply their expertise to the study of natural medicine.

“Our philosophy is that every study is a collaboration,” notes Zwickey, emphasizing the importance of collaborative research at Helfgott. Studies at Helfgott almost always involve external organizations, which “not only strengthens the study, but those relationships are what ultimately get natural medicine accepted in some of these more mainstream places.” Current faculty research projects at Helfgott include grants directly funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In addition, Helfgott participates in several collaborative grants with Oregon Health & Sciences University as well as with other Western biomedical and naturopathic schools.

In addition to working with external health organizations nationwide, Helfgott is largely involved in the local community as well. “One of the things that we’ve been doing is being the conduit for people in Portland to learn about who’s in their community and what type of research they’re doing,” says Zwickey. Helfgott is active not only at the local level, but at national and international levels as well.

Helfgott also sponsors an online forum, Helfgottblog.com, which is aimed at increasing awareness about integrative medicine on a worldwide scale and providing a forum for dialogue about our current healthcare system. For more information about Helfgott, visit www.helfgott.org.

"We envision Helfgott as the premier natural medicine research institute. Our vision includes a consortium of researchers from naturopathic medicine, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, physical medicine, energy medicine, and other natural medicine disciplines. We envision an institute based on health rather than disease. We see a think tank that develops new innovative approaches to healthcare, and clinical floors where these approaches can be piloted. We see the development of research moving away from treating symptoms, and moving toward promoting health." --From Helfgott Research

About the Author

Alexis Lynn is an editorial assistant with Natural Medicine Journal. She has worked as a report writer and research analyst for several market research firms in Colorado. Alexis holds a master's degree in mass communications and journalism from the University of Denver.