Alternative Medicine

Last Updated: November 14, 2023

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Complementary and alternative medicine is the division of medical practice that differs from standard medical treatment. Complementary and alternative medicine is more common than most expect, with more than half of Americans reporting they use some form of complementary and alternative medicine.

What is Alternative Medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine is the term that includes medical practices and care that fall outside of the mainstream healthcare system. These alternative methods of medical practice are often used independently or combined with conventional treatments.

To truly understand alternative medicine, comparing it to conventional and standard medical systems is helpful. Alternative medical therapies have been used for many years to promote health and overall wellness and treat various conditions.

People may use alternative therapies on their own as an alternative to conventional treatments, or they may use these therapies as a complementary approach to standard treatment.

This healthcare domain is also widely researched today, with researchers discovering more benefits of these therapies every year.

Research can be more critical of the effectiveness of alternative therapies, although the basis of this division of medical treatment is often deeply rooted in religion, culture, and traditions.

Types of Alternative Medicine

Alternative therapies include a variety of practices, techniques, and alternative methods, all with different purposes and goals. Alternative medicine has strong links to various cultures and religions and has branched into many different types.

Mind-body Therapies

The mind and the body are infinitely connected and work together in homeostasis to maintain optimal health and well-being. When one is injured or ill, the other usually follows suit.

Although there has been a lot of progress in mental healthcare in modern medicine, there are still harmful stigmas surrounding mental health conditions.

Complementary and alternative medicine has many therapies founded on connecting and healing the mind and body. These therapies, although described as types of alternative medicine, are commonly practiced among many people and across multiple cultures today.


Biofeedback is a technique used to control body functions that typically go unnoticed and are not governed by an individual’s conscious mind.

This technique uses various machines that provide individuals with information about their body’s functions:

Generally, with biofeedback, the individual is hooked to a machine via electrodes placed on the skin, providing specific information. With this information, the person can modify body functions or reactions, such as muscle tension and breathing rate.

For example, a healthcare provider may perform breathing biofeedback. Breathing biofeedback involves placing electrodes on the chest and abdomen to measure respiration rates and depth. This enhances the individual's awareness of these bodily functions and helps them control them.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is when an individual focuses on positive images in the mind. These can include positive memories, thoughts, scenes, and experiences. By doing this, the mind relaxes, and the body follows suit.

This type of mind-body therapy used in alternative medicine helps with relaxation and improving the mind-body connection. Experts acknowledge its potential to promote healing and facilitate physical and mental restoration.


Hypnotherapy is another common mind-body technique used in complementary and alternative medicine.

Although there may be limited scientific research on this practice, it is known to help with the mind-body connection and increase awareness of physical and mental experiences.

Key characteristics of hypnotherapy include:

  • A trance-like state characterized by deep focus
  • A focus that helps one become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors.
  • Helping treat mental health conditions and become more aware of bodily functions.


Meditation is similar to hypnotherapy, as it can help facilitate a calm state of being.

Meditation is a complementary therapy and alternative medicine practice that aims to induce a focused and relaxed state. In meditation practices, the individual focuses on breathing while letting thoughts pass through, not giving them any specific attention.

Meditation aids in quieting stressful and unpleasant thoughts and feelings. One can also work on regulating negative feelings and emotions by practicing breathwork and focusing on breathing.


Breathwork is a mind-body therapy that has become increasingly common today. This type of mind-body therapy focuses on breathing patterns and alters these to calm the mind and the body.

By practicing different breathing patterns, the body becomes regulated, and the mind becomes relaxed. This great alternative medicine practice heals and strengthens the mind-body connection.

Biologically Based Practices

Biologically based practices are therapies that use materials and products found in nature to help with healing and promoting well-being. These products range from healing plants to specific foods that treat various conditions.

The type of biologically based practice that is right for each individual depends on their medical condition. Some conditions cause certain deficiencies and must be treated accordingly.

Botanical Medicine

Botanical medicine includes any therapies or homeopathic medicines derived from plants.

Botanical medicine aims to take a more natural approach to treating various health problems. Some examples of botanical medicines include cannabis, ginkgo biloba, turmeric, garlic, and many more.

There is much research on this type of alternative therapy, and researchers have discovered many specific benefits to each herbal medicine.

Many botanical medicines aim to reduce inflammation and pain or provide healthy bacteria to the body. This treatment assists the individual not only with healing but also with the management of the condition.


Diet is a lifestyle factor commonly discussed in today’s culture, although how much dietary choices can substantially benefit many health conditions is often overlooked. When used individually or in combination with other alternative methods, diets can relieve many problems.

Diets can be individualized to each person to meet specific goals and needs. Professionals can recommend eliminating, replacing, or adding certain food items to a diet to obtain results.

Not only do diets involve changing the actual content of meals consumed, but they can also involve changing textures and consistencies to suit the individual better.

Eliminating certain trigger foods can be helpful to people suffering from gastrointestinal problems and relieve the associated symptoms. Certain foods like green leafy vegetables can help provide specific vitamins and nutrients for those deficient.

Talking to a healthcare professional or an alternative medicine doctor is a great way to find what dietary choices suit each individual best.


Supplementation provides people with vitamins or nutrients that they may lack due to inadequate intake or certain medical conditions.

Dietary supplements are an alternative treatment that people commonly combine with conventional treatments.

The body relies on homeostasis, or a balanced state, to function correctly. When missing certain nutrients or vitamins, one may experience many physical and mental symptoms. By supplementing these nutrients, the body can maintain homeostasis and function properly.

Whole Medical Systems

Whole medical systems encompass a diverse range of healthcare treatments often categorized by countries or cultures; these include practices deeply rooted in each culture’s values and belief systems. Many of these treatments date back many years but are often continually evolving.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on Chinese culture and uses a variety of psychological, physical, and herbal medicine to treat various health problems and illnesses.

These techniques date back many centuries and have been thoroughly researched and evaluated. Common examples of traditional Chinese medicine include acupuncture, tai chi, and Chinese herbal products.

Practices like tai chi and herbal therapies are based on the belief that qi (the body’s vital energy fields) flows along channels in the body and keeps an individual’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health balanced.

When one of these channels is unbalanced, the body shows signs of illness. The therapies above aim to restore the balance between two forces, commonly known as “yin and yang.”


Ayurveda is a medical system originating in India over 3000 years ago that aims to cleanse the body.

This system believes that illnesses are caused by stress or imbalance in a person's physical or mental processes. Ayurveda proposes many therapies to restore mind, body, and environment balance.

Treatment in this medical system typically begins with an internal purification process, followed by special diets, herbal medicine, massage therapy, yoga, and meditations. Ayurveda professionals believe that this approach restores the balance that helps facilitate the healing of illnesses.


Naturopathy, also known as naturopathic medicine, is a medical system that uses natural remedies. Naturopaths attempt to treat illnesses and help the body heal itself naturally. These types of therapies are sometimes complementary to conventional medicine.

Naturopaths use the natural elements of the earth, such as air, water, heat, and massage, to help the body heal and recover from illness or injury. This practice has also used herbal medicine, nutrition, acupuncture, and other natural treatments.


Homeopathy is another type of alternative medicine system created in the 1700s, based on the idea that a substance that causes specific disease symptoms in healthy individuals can cure similar symptoms in ill people.

Although not as thoroughly researched and often misunderstood, homeopathy is still frequently used today, with a certain process:

  1. Initial consultation: People who seek homeopathic care will usually begin by obtaining a consultation from a homeopath.
  2. Symptoms: The individual then describes the symptoms they are experiencing and any relevant factors.
  3. Matching: Homeopaths use this description to match their symptoms to a repertoire of coinciding remedies specific to each illness profile. By doing this, they believe they can treat “like with like.”
  4. Resulting relief: Many people have found relief in homeopathy and rely solely on this medical system to treat illnesses and injuries.

Manipulative and body-based practices

Contrary to mind-body practices, manipulative and body-based practices focus on altering or treating the physical aspect of an illness or injury.

The professionals practicing these alternative methods focus their treatment on the physical exterior of the body rather than the internal systems.


Chiropractic therapy is a practice that manipulates the spine, joints, and skeletal body to relieve physical stress and pain and promote good skeletal structure. This type of alternative medicine stems from the belief that the body can heal itself if given the proper support.

Chiropractors believe they can offer alternative methods to surgery and invasive contemporary therapies by performing osteopathic manipulation of the skeletal system and encouraging patients to continue certain therapeutic exercises at home, such as gentle exercise.


Massage therapy is used by many and often not recognized as an alternative therapy, although it can be considered an alternative treatment.

Massage is the manipulation of soft tissues. Massage therapists manipulate muscles to relieve tension, physical stress, and soreness. Massage can be a very effective method for recovery from muscular injuries.


Reflexology is similar to massage therapy but is more specific to pressure points.

Reflexologists apply pressure to specific areas of the hands and feet linked to specific body parts and organs. Reflexology can provide various health benefits by applying this pressure to these pressure points.


Cupping therapy is an alternative practice that dates back many years in any ancient system, such as the Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. It uses heat to suction cups to specific body areas, most commonly on the back. It helps with:

It is also considered a type of deep tissue massage, as the suction creates relief to a deeper level. Although limited studies focus on cupping, studies have shown that cupping is most effective when paired with other therapies, such as acupuncture and various medications.

Gua Sha

Gua sha is a traditional medicine practice in the Chinese culture in which a trained professional uses a smooth-edged tool to stroke the skin while pressing down on it simultaneously. Gua sha reduces inflammation and can help reduce pain in the face, arms, legs, and back.

Gua sha is also often practiced alongside traditional acupuncture and heat therapy. Studies have shown that it can reduce liver inflammation in individuals with hepatitis B, ease migraine pain, help with Tourette’s symptoms, and relieve neck pain when combined with other effective therapies.

Energy Healing

Energy therapies are another alternative therapy based on the belief that vital energy flows through the human body. The goal of this practice is to maintain balance in the energy flow in the body.

Although there are limited results from studies demonstrating the effectiveness of this method, it comes with minimal risk and can be practiced in combination with other therapies. Some examples of energy therapies:

  • Reiki: A practice that involves placing hands on or lightly above the person to guide energy to help the individual’s healing process.
  • Therapeutic touch: A practice that involves moving hands over the body's energy fields or gently touching the body to promote movement and healing energy fields and restore their balance.

Integrative Therapy

Integrative medicine is an approach to medical care that combines conventional and mainstream medicine with complementary and alternative medicine practices, which are safe and effective.

An integrative medicine approach often focuses on the person’s personal preferences and attempts to address health's mental, physical, and spiritual effects. Integrative medicine uses a more global approach than some other modern medicine practices.

Difference Between Complementary And Alternative Medicine

Many people need clarification on the difference between complementary and alternative medicine. These terms, often used interchangeably, are very similar concepts but have a distinct difference that sets them apart.

Both medical practices are similar as they use alternative treatments to modern conventional medicine and are not necessarily biologically or scientifically based.

The key difference is that complementary medicine combines alternative treatments with modern medical approaches. They complement each other and are used in conjunction.

Alternative medicine treatments are used as a stand-alone treatment instead of a conventional treatment. Occasionally, people may seek alternative treatments when conventional treatments have not effectively treated their condition.

For example, there have been reports that some people turn to alternative medicine when traditional cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, have been exhausted and ineffective.

Health Benefits of Alternative Medicine

Alternative and integrative medicine practices can have many similar benefits to contemporary medicine. Alternative medicine, like modern approaches, can:

  • Relieve pain
  • Improve well-being
  • Relieve symptoms of many diseases
  • Can give hope to those suffering from painful and challenging health conditions
  • Help promote relaxation
  • Positively affect a person’s mental health

Safety of Alternative Medicine

With the increasing prevalence of alternative medicine and more than half of Americans utilizing alternative therapies, research has also increased in this area.

The goal of researching alternative therapies is to prove and validate their effectiveness and verify the safety of these measures for the public.

For many approaches and techniques, such as massage and diets, safety and effectiveness have been proven in countless studies. For others, such as energy therapies, no evidence has proven their effectiveness, but they are also not unsafe to practice and therefore pose no harm.

Many practices are not inherently dangerous, and no safety risks are of concern; however, one should consider many factors of their current health status before starting these complementary and alternative medicines.

Medications or treatments, allergies or sensitivities, and reactions that may occur due to pre-existing health conditions are just a few factors to consider and consult with a healthcare provider before beginning a new treatment.

Talking to a healthcare professional or a professional in alternative therapies is essential to ensure that a particular alternative treatment will be safe and effective.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alternative Medicine

What is the most common form of alternative medicine?

Based on data collected in America, herbal supplements and remedies are often considered the most common form of complementary and alternative medicine.

Supplements like green tea, garlic, and ginger are common in many cultures. Manual healing methods such as massage and acupuncture are also widespread alternative medicine therapies.

Is alternative medicine safe?

Many complementary and alternative medicine practices are backed by research that supports their safety and effectiveness.

However, it is essential to consult a healthcare provider when considering complementary and alternative medicine, as some can interact with other medical therapies or standard treatments.

Is alternative medicine the same as integrative health?

No, alternative medicine and integrative health are not the same.

Alternative medicine refers to non-conventional treatments to treat illnesses, such as herbal medicines, homeopathy, acupuncture, and massage therapy.

Complementary and integrative health focuses on a holistic approach to wellness and healing by combining conventional medical treatments with various complementary therapies to achieve optimal health.

Can alternative medicine be used for cancer treatment?

While some alternative therapies may offer relief from cancer symptoms or side effects of treatment, they are generally not considered effective as a standalone treatment for cancer itself.

Individuals with cancer must approach alternative medicine cautiously and consult with their healthcare team, including alternative medicine doctors, before incorporating alternative therapies into their treatment plans.


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The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.