Kelsy Johnson

A customer walks through the doors of Dakota Pharmacy looking for answers. He makes his way through the rows of supplements at the front of the store to the pharmacy counter.

"I heard you can help me," he tells the pharmacist.

After being shuffled around between physicians and specialists, he is now on six medications and wants to know if there is another alternative.

Kevin Oberlander, owner of Dakota Pharmacy and a compounding pharmacist, sees this scenario all the time.

"People get to the point of frustration," Oberlander said. At Dakota Pharmacy, there is an alternative.

Dakota Pharmacy and Natural Health Center offers a hybrid of care unlike any other pharmacy in North Dakota. The pharmacy provides traditional prescriptions as well as high quality supplements to consumers, but next door, the Dakota Natural Health Center also offers acupuncture, cupping, chiropractic care and naturopathic medicine among many other services.

While the pharmacy fills traditional prescription drugs, it also offers compounded prescriptions tailored to the individual. In Oberlander's lab, pharmacists can change a prescription medication to suit the needs of individual patients. A compounding lab can change prescriptions from solid to liquid form or remove nonessential components of a medication to which that a person may be allergic. Oberlander even adjusts medications for veterinarians to administer to animals.

Oberlander believes that manufactured drugs are created to treat the masses, but a compound is the best therapy for the individual. The ability to meet the needs of the individual sparked the business to incorporate other health professionals. The business was first located in a hospital, where there was a close connection between prescribers and pharmacists. When Dakota Pharmacy relocated to its current location on Main Avenue in Bismarck, the staff quickly missed that connection.

Oberlander said pharmacies were encouraged to offer immunizations and diabetes screenings years ago, but Dakota Pharmacy took the initiative a step further and hired a nurse.

Then, in 2004, they hired their first naturopath.

"I firmly believe in traditional pharmaceutical medicine, but I don't believe it has all the answers," Oberlander said.

When Oberlander can't meet the needs of people who walk into his pharmacy, he refers them to Faye Johnson, a naturopathic doctor who works at Dakota Natural Health Center. Conversely, Johnson sends her patients to the pharmacy for natural supplements and prescriptions when necessary.

Johnson is one of a handful of naturopaths in North Dakota. Naturopathic doctors offer a holistic approach to patient care. A person's first visit is often over an hour, which is a long time compared to the typical 15 minutes with a nurse practitioner or physician. A range of conditions bring patients to Johnson's office, but the most common is fatigue -- a symptom where the cause is often misdiagnosed.

A major goal in naturopathic medicine is to address the cause of a condition rather than the symptom.

"We try to get at the actual cause," Johnson said. "They're putting out fires." Johnson sees patients from "birth to grave," but she tells her patients to keep a family practice physician as well. As a naturopath, she prefers to be just one part of the patient's overall healthcare team.

"We like to take a village approach," Johnson said.

Johnson holds a master's degree in acupuncture, which provides her two crucial therapies to use on her patients -- acupuncture and cupping.

Cupping therapy starts with a flammable liquid inside a glass earthenware, or bamboo cup. Once the flame is put out, Johnson places the cup on an area of the body for a period of time to create a suction effect and lift the tissue underneath. The process promotes increased blood flow among other benefits.

Johnson uses acupuncture specifically to help people who have allergies. The therapy can also help people who want to lose weight or quit smoking.

With such a broad range of options available for those who choose a nontraditional approach to their healthcare, some patients would rather avoid traditional medicine entirely.

Some patients prefer not to take medication at all, but Oberlander says there is sometimes no choice.

"Sometimes it is too late," Oberlander said. "You just can't go back to functional medicine."

Supplements and lifestyle changes can help reduce the amount of medication that patients are taking.

Treatment from a naturopath takes a lot of work compared to the options available within traditional medicine. Oberlander notes that it is much easier to take a tablet than to supplement and make necessary lifestyle changes.

For those who do choose this path, the results are dramatic. One patient was able to reduce his cholesterol medication to one third of his original dose over the course of a few years.

Only a handful of naturopaths exist in North Dakota, and their role is still being defined at the state level. Some insurance companies do not cover visits to a naturopath. And naturopathic medicine is sometimes placed under scrutiny by other medical professionals. In the state of North Dakota, the realm of services naturopathic doctors offer is limited, but two years ago, a board began the process of licensing for naturopaths. Oberlander serves on the five-person board that determines what naturopaths can do.

Since naturopaths prefer to treat patients with lifestyle changes and supplements, their work doesn't go without skepticism. Dakota Pharmacy took a risk in hiring a naturopath. "That was a step off a cliff for us," Oberlander said. "It could have gone either way." The medical community in Bismarck, however, has been receptive to the work Johnson and other naturopaths do. Oberlander thinks the trend toward trust will eventually lead to more supportive science in the future. In the meantime, critics exist.

"You're always going to have your naysayers," he said. "I'm OK with that." For everyone else, Dakota Pharmacy and Natural Health Center offer a unique path toward better health -- a path that integrates the traditional with the alternative.

Quick supplement recommendations:

To those who want to improve their health in 2013, pharmacist Kevin Oberlander and naturopathic doctor Faye Johnson offer some advice on supplements, which form the basis of any natural path toward better health.

1. Take a multivitamin. It should be food-based.

2. In North Dakota, everyone should be on vitamin D due to the limited sunlight we are exposed to.

3. Include fish oil to your daily regimen.

Kelsy Johnson, a native of Bismarck, works as a freelance reporter and nonprofit writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.