About two out of five adults have tried alternative medicine at some point in their lives. Many clinics, especially those focused on holistic health, also offer alternative medical therapies along with conventional therapies.
For us to be better-informed, it is important to know what alternative medicine is, their theoretical bases along with examples, and their various advantages and disadvantages.
Alternative medicine involves procedures that are outside the scope of conventional medicine as practiced in the West. A related term, complementary medicine, involves alternative medical treatment applied along with conventional treatment methods. For some reason or another, alternative medicine is not part of medical school curricula in the West.
However, there are licensing bodies for anyone who wants to practice a field within the scope of alternative medicine. There is also ongoing research to help determine its efficacy in patients who try it.
Examples of Alternative Medicine
Alternative medicine is not a single system; it is composed of a variety of systems, each with differing traditions and treatment methods. Here are some of those systems:
- Homeopathy – In this system, it is thought that a disease is caused by an excess of a certain substance. The homeopathic method to treat that disease is to give the patient very low doses of the substance thought to cause it. Doing this is said to trigger the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Homeopathy is a relatively well-known system; there are even pharmacies selling homeopathic preparations nowadays. (1)
- Biology-based alternative medicine – This system involves giving patients herbal medicines or doses of vitamins way higher than the daily recommended doses. Usually, the remedies given are specific to the patient’s place of origin. Well-known herbal remedies include ginkgo biloba and ginseng which have been used for thousands of years already. Supplements like glucosamine and fish oil may also be included. (2)
- Biofield therapy – This system postulates the existence of energy fields in the body. Disease happens when these energy fields are disrupted, and treatment involves turning these energy fields back to normal. Methods in biofield therapy include acupuncture, a method in traditional Chinese medicine which restores the proper flow of energy (called “qi”) in the body, and reiki, which involves the manipulation of so-called “life energy” by means of physical actions, like tapping with the palms. (3)
- Electromagnetic field therapy – This system postulates the existence of electrical fields that affect the body’s health. One example of this involves placing magnets in strategically chosen areas in the body. (4)
- Mind-body therapy – This system involves changing one’s health state through the mind. A well-known example of this therapy is yoga. Tai chi, hypnotherapy, and meditation also count under mind-body therapy. (5)
- Naturopathy – This system aims to strengthen or speed up the body’s natural healing mechanisms. It can be accomplished by using one or more of the techniques above, plus a change in lifestyle and the use of herbal medicines and home remedies. (6)
All of these alternative medicine systems aim to restore the body to its holistic health state – an aim that is not often included in discussions of conventional medicine. Methods from these systems can also become complementary medicine methods when applied alongside conventional treatment methods.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Going for Alternative Medicine
- Anyone who aims for holistic health, more than the absence of disease, can opt for alternative medicine.
- Some methods in alternative medicine can be applied even when not ill. For example, one can do yoga or meditation to relax oneself, even when not in a diseased state.
- Some natural remedies have been proven to be as effective as their conventional counterparts.
- Because there are so many alternative medicine therapies out there, your treatment plan need not be narrowed to a single goal (which, in conventional medicine, is the absence of disease)
- Alternative medicine can cover spiritual or emotional needs.
- Many alternative medical treatments have no scientific basis at all, so trained doctors are generally conservative when recommending them.
- Going for alternative medical treatments may delay proper treatment for some health conditions, such as cancer which should be treated as early as possible.
- Information about alternative medicine is not as reliable as information about conventional medicine (which is scientifically based).
- Alternative medical treatments and procedures may not be covered by insurance.
To know whether a treatment procedure derived from alternative medicine is safe for you, you should do your research from reliable sources. Researching from multiple sources is better than just reading one source, because information about alternative medicine can be conflicting. You can also consult your doctor for information, although you may very well receive the conservative recommendation not to try it. If your goal is to attain holistic health, and you have done your research, you can safely try it.