Alternative medicine: natural products and mind-body practices

Alternative medicine, also called integrative medicine or complementary medicine, is used by a growing number of people. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) estimates 40% of Americans use health care outside of the mainstream conventional or Western medicine. What was once considered outside mainstream medicine is slowly working its way into acceptable mainstream practices. Meditation, guided imagery, and acupuncture are examples of tools now considered acceptable medical practices. How do integrative and complementary medical practices differ from conventional Western allopathic practices?

When an alternative type of treatment is used in combination with a conventional medical practice or medication, it is referred to as complementary. Meditation and guided imagery are both used as part of pain management treatment by doctors and dentists alike. Alternative medicine uses techniques and tools outside the guidelines for conventional allopathic medicine. For example, an alternative medication to HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) might be the use of Black Cohosh or Evening Primrose–both herbs used for the treatment of peri-menopausal symptoms.

Two characteristics distinguish complementary/integrative medicine from conventional medicine: the use of natural products and the use of mind-body practices. Natural products include: herbs/botanicals, vitamins, minerals, amino-acids, homeopathic medicines, and probiotics. The NCCAM estimates indicate that 17.7 percent of Americans used a non-vitamin/non-mineral natural supplement in 2008. Growing popularity in several products over the last 20 years including fish oil or other Omega 3 oils (37% of Americans use them regularly). Parents are using more natural supplements with children as well. At least 37.2 % of children have been given Echinacea and 30.5% have been given fish oil or Omega 3 oils. More studies need to be done to determine the effectiveness of natural products, though use of such products continues to increase just the same. Doctors routinely recommend fish oil for patients, even those who adhere to conventional methods.

The area that seems to be growing the most is in the area of mind-body practices. Mind-body practices include: massage, acupuncture, meditation, movement therapies (Pilates, Feldenkrais, Rolfing), Osteopathic/Chiropractic spinal manipulation, relaxation techniques (guided meditation, breathing exercise, full body relaxation, or guided imagery), yoga, tai chi, qi gong, healing touch, hypnotherapy, Reiki, and 12-step programs for addictions and drug/alcohol-related issues.

Other medical approaches including, Aryuvedic medicine, Chinese traditional medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy are being used more and more. However these approaches do not fit neatly into a definition of complementary medicine. Nevertheless, they are increasing in popularity. More and more people are seeking, and using, alternative types of medicine.