A Beginner’s Guide to Alternative Medicine

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Author Name: Lucas Cook
Date: Tuesday April 12, 2022

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Alternative medicine goes by many different names, including holistic, integrative, and complementary medicine. Most people use these terms interchangeably. However, alternative medicine actually refers to any practice that seeks to provide healing outside the realm of medical science. Included therapies rely on pseudoscience, which means they often lack biological plausibility and scientific testing. Consequently, many deem them ineffective and unreliable.

Even so, those who rely on alternative medicine to maintain or restore their health often swear by whatever method or practice they use. If you’ve heard similar reports from friends and family, perhaps you want to give alternative medicine a try, too.

Here’s what you need to know before digging in.

Complementary vs. Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine in its purest form is actually very rare. If you were to solely use interventions like yoga and acupuncture instead of conventional medical treatment, this would classify as alternative medicine. However, most people use these practices in conjunction with mainstream treatment, which makes them complementary.

Thus, it’s not a matter of complementary vs. alternative medicine but a matter of how they work together to promote healing.

For instance, scientific evidence suggests that meditation, tai-chi, massage, and nutrition can improve mental health and quality of life in cancer patients. However, these practices are most effective when paired with chemotherapy and other conventional treatments. Thus, both patients and physicians generally consider complementary medicine more effective than using alternatives alone.

What Are the Five Major Types of Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

There are five major types of complementary and alternative medicine:

  • Whole medical systems: Practices may include traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, Ayurveda, and naturopathy. Whole medical systems generally include multiple medicines from two or more of the five major types.
  • Mind-body interventions: These methods explore the mind-body-spirit connection under the assumption that they affect bodily functions and symptoms. Interventions may include meditation, breathwork, progressive relaxation, and visualization.
  • Biology-based practices: Alternative biology-based medicine uses substances you can find in nature such as vitamins, minerals, and plant products like herbs and cannabis.
  • Manipulative and body-based practices: These practices involve physical movement or manipulation, often with the help of a guide or expert in the field.
  • Energy medicine: Practices may address or deal with hypothetical or verifiable energy fields such as biofields and electromagnetic fields.

Examples of Alternative Medicine

The five major types of complementary and alternative medicine above encompass a broad range of treatment methods, theories, and practices. Below, you’ll find a few common examples of alternative medicine and why people consider them effective – or ineffective – in treating both mental and physical ailments.

  • Yoga and meditation are common mind-body techniques that have become more popular in recent years. Now, many people use them to improve immune function, reduce stress, and alleviate pain.
  • Dietary or nutritional supplements can be beneficial to your health, but they may also involve health risks. For instance, taking too many of one kind could cause an allergic or even fatal reaction in some people.
  • Botanicals like cannabis, essential oils, and other plant-derived alternatives can have subtle mental and physical benefits including stress management and pain relief.
  • Faith healing is common in religious communities and often involves prayers, sacrifices, rituals, and other faith-based practices that may offer perceived benefits to participants and onlookers.

Benefits of Alternative Medicine

There’s little scientific evidence to support alternative medicines’ effectiveness. Thus, the benefits of alternative medicine ultimately come down to users’ perceptions. When used alone, they often work as a placebo, which can improve patients’ frame of mind.

Therefore, even if there’s no supporting research, alternative medicine can help people adopt a more positive outlook, which can promote healing and reduce suffering.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine Examples

There are an infinite number of alternative-conventional medicinal combinations. For instance, complementary and alternative medicine examples may include anything from meditating during chemotherapy treatments or taking supplements and prescription medication together.

In one case, using complementary medicine may be beneficial. In another, it might do more harm than good. That’s why it’s important to consult your doctor before switching to alternative medicine or integrating complementary medicine into your comprehensive treatment plan.

For instance, your physician may recommend ginkgo supplements to reduce inflammation. However, they might suggest something different for patients taking prescription blood thinners because ginkgo may increase bleeding risk in these people.

Consult a medical professional before taking a holistic approach so you address the root of illness, not just the symptoms. What works for someone else might not work for you, so be choosy and do your research.

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