Alternative and Complementary Therapies

Many Americans seek health options outside of the traditional western scientific model. They do this for a variety of reasons:

Culture: relying on a more natural healing process may be part of their cultural heritage

Cost: the cost of alternative or complementary medicines is often less than seeing a mainstream medical professional

Holistic approach: wanting a treatment plan that addresses the whole person, and doesn’t focus on just medicating one symptom

Distrust: while western medicine has had many successes, it also presents side effects and complications that can be concerning

Wellness: many alternative and integrative therapies are focused on building on existing health and maximizing that health into the future. It provides a guided approach to long term wellbeing

Types of Treatments

Let’s define some terms first:

Alternative: A treatment is alternative when it is used entirely in place of conventional western medical approaches. No mainstream medications are taken for the condition
Complementary: When an alternative treatment is used together with conventional treatment, it is called complementary, because both treatments aim to balance or enhance each other
Integrative Medicine: This is another way of say complementary, but it follows a more structured approach. For example, single care providers prescribe medications, together with herbs and a stress relief plan which includes yoga and meditation. These types of practitioners are becoming more popular.
Natural Products: These include supplements such as herbal remedies, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, teas, infusions.


Mind-Body Therapies: These therapies cover everything from personal reflection and development, to movement therapies, and healing touch. They focus on balancing the whole person into a healthy, balanced human being.
Dietary: The saying “you are what you eat” applies to whole body wellness. Much alternative and complementary medicine focuses on changing the diet from one that is processed, greasy, full of sugar and chemicals to healthy meal choices. Fruits and leafy greens have been repeatedly proven to provide nutrients and compounds that fight cancer and promote cellular health. This is part of any holistic health practice.



When seeking an alternative or complementary health care provider it is important to know where they were educated and where to obtain any herbal medications. Unfortunately, the herbal industry is not regulated in the same way as prescribed medications. This has led to abuse by some manufacturers who do not include the herbs that are written on the label, in the actual product.

When manufacturers do this, it undermines the trust and benefit of these alternative therapies, because the herbal remedy won’t work if it’s not actually in the product.

There are many new research studies that show alternative treatments can work, and are based on a long history of use. In fact, the National Institutes of Health has an entire branch dedicated to understanding complementary treatments. The well-respected Georgetown Medical School in Washington DC has a program on Complementary and Alternative Medicine for medical providers to be trained.

In addition to natural treatment such as herbs, probiotics and supplements, mind-body medicine constitutes a large part of complementary medicine. Here are a few of these practices

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Visualization
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Yoga
  • Tai-chi
  • Qi-gong
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Shiatsu
  • Healing touch
  • Reiki

How to Find a Practitioner

Many primary care providers such as Nurse Practitioners and Physicians are becoming more receptive to the idea of complementary therapies. You can start by finding an integrative specialist in your area. An integrative care provider often has mainstream medical training and licensing, but has also received training in complementary and alternative medicines. This way you know you are seeing a practitioner with a proven history of medical training, that offers you a wider variety of services.

There are cultural practitioners with a long history of training in alternative therapies. For example, traditional Chinese medicine uses a variety of herbs, acupuncture and mind-body techniques to restore balance between the yin and yang forces in the body.


Ayurvedic practitioners also go through a structured training program based on thousands of years of practice that originated in the area we now know as India.

Communication is key when exploring alternative and complementary health options. The best scenario is when your primary care provider and your alternative care provider are willing to communicate about your treatment plan.


It is extremely important to tell your alternative provider every medication you take and your entire medical history. It is also extremely important to tell your primary care provider all herbal remedies you take and any other compounds or treatment that you consume.

Herbal remedies directly affect body systems. Herbs and medicines interact so it’s important that everyone knows what you are taking, and in which amounts.

Finally, find out what your insurance company will cover. Many of them do not cover complementary therapies, although some insurance plans do cover some massage, physical therapy, and may have a benefit for exercising.

The Future

As more research is completed, complementary therapies are becoming more mainstream. This is great because it provides access to a broader range of consumers who want more options than traditional, interventional medicine only.

The topics covered in this section are all supported by peer review studies, or personal case studies. They are a guide to medical options and not a replacement for receiving a full assessment of your health needs from your primary care provider.

The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed medical professional. It is essential that you discuss with your primary care provider any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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