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Alternative Medicine Explained

Perhaps you've sought acupuncture for your back pain or tried to meditate after feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. If you have — and you would not be alone — you already have an idea of what alternative medicine is.


What is Alternative Medicine?

"Alternative medicine" is a catch-all term that includes techniques outside the umbrella of traditional Western medicine. Growing numbers of Americans are seeking alternative remedies alone or in concert with their mainstream medical care.

How is Alternative Medicine Different?

Techniques deemed "alternative" have usually not been subjected to double-blind studies in the way that Western drugs can be. This is changing, however, with an increasing number of studies being performed on techniques like reiki and acupuncture (even if results are sometimes mixed). But many techniques considered "alternative" in the West have been employed for hundreds of years in their countries of origin like Japan, Korea, and India.

Alternative Medicine and the Mainstream

Many respected universities and hospitals now have programs in alternative or "complementary" medicine (when alternative methods are blended with traditional ones in ways that enhance their effectiveness or help with their side effects). The increasingly mainstream sense among Western doctors is that if a modality works (to relieve pain, for example), it's worth investigating — particularly since patients are exploring these approaches anyway.

The terms "alternative" and "complementary" are broad and difficult to define. Here, we are going to break down 9 of the common alternative practices.

The Most Popular Alternative Medicines Defined


Naturopathic Medicene


Naturopathic remedies aim to treat the underlying cause of illness, not just symptoms. Naturopathic medicine uses natural remedies to help the body heal itself. Its practitioners, known as Naturopathic Doctors (ND's), are typically trained in four-year programs. Examples of naturopathic remedies include:




  • The use of herbal remedies, taken internally (like teas) or externally as ointments;

  • Lifestyle changes to reduce and control stress;

  • The use of therapeutic touch and physical therapy, like massage and manipulation, to restore balance in the body.


Functional Medicene


Functional medicine is similar to naturopathic medicine in that it looks at the underlying source and root cause of a disease. However, it is more closely allied to Western medicine and focuses on using a combination of science-based techniques. When considering a patient's ailment, it looks at the individual's overall picture, including genes, environment, and lifestyle (not just the techniques of naturopathy).


According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, a functional medicine approach to depression might involve looking at its several possible causes, which could vary for every individual but might include:

  • Nutritional problems, like an omega-3 or Vitamin D deficiency

  • Biological issues, like an underactive thyroid

  • Medicinal causes, like antibiotic use (affecting the microbiome)

Finding and treating a root cause, rather than just treating symptoms, gives a better chance of preventing recurrences of an ailment or syndrome. In the case of depression, functional medicine might recommend scientifically-backed interventions like increasing movement and exercise, switching to a Mediterranean diet, and taking supplements like fatty acids and magnesium. It can also include typical treatments like therapy and medication.



Holistic Medicene


According to WebMD, holistic medicine "considers the whole person — body, mind, spirit and emotions" in the quest to bring healing. It is similar to functional medicine in that it also looks for root causes for any particular ailment. It insists on a practitioner's emotional and psychological support while patients look to heal themselves. In holistic medicine, patients are ultimately responsible for their own healing, but a practitioner's wholehearted support can aid the process.