“Alternative medicine” is a somewhat pejorative term often applied to Eastern medicine, nature-based treatment options, and anything that doesn’t come from the Western medical-pharmaceutical complex. The view that only Western medicine is effective or safe is quite ethnocentric — and worse, it limits people from a more holistic approach to their health.
While there are certainly some snake-oil products that have zero benefit, the truth is that healthcare must draw upon all human knowledge. This new paradigm is called integrative care, and it’s emerging as a more sustainable and nourishing treatment plan.
Debunking the Myth of Alternative Medicine
By definition, “alternative” means outside the mainstream. Speaking literally, acupuncture yoga, and so on are “alternative” in that they are not conventional treatments in Western medical establishments. Many healthcare organizations refer to it as CAM, short for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, although definitions vary. The National Cancer Institute says that a treatment is “alternative” when a patient chooses it instead of “standard” treatment, and complementary when it’s used in addition to conventional methods. The Wikipedia entry is much blunter, plainly stating that CAM is pseudoscientific quackery with no biological plausibility.
There are two problems with this attitude: first, judging these “alternative” methods, many of which are derived from Eastern medicine, by Western standards is comparing apples to oranges. It’s also a bit bigoted. Second, much of the criticism of CAM stems from claims that it is “unscientific.” For example, because we cannot detect qi with scientific instruments, it must not exist and therefore acupuncture is not “real.”
But science is hardly infallible. Centuries ago, scientists believed that the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe. We must consider science as a means of inquiry, not a proxy for Western belief systems. More importantly, patient outcomes are what matter in the field of health. And in that regard, many “alternative” therapies have been proven beneficial.
For example, a meta-analysis of 39 clinical trials found that weekly acupuncture treatment helped relieve chronic pain. Other studies have shown promising results for osteoarthritis and repetitive-strain-injury pain. While it’s true that current research does not support acupuncture as an effective treatment for depression or nicotine addiction, that doesn’t mean acupuncture itself is “quackery.” By using science to study these methods, we can learn their best applications for modern patients!
Eastern and Naturopathic Medicine as Part of Integrative Care
To be fair, many major health organizations are exploring CAM as part of a patient’s healthcare option. Health professionals know that patients need mental, nutritional, and spiritual support, especially when facing severe or chronic illness That’s why the denigration of alternative medicine as “pseudoscience” can harm patients who have legitimate concerns about the side effects of pharmaceuticals. Rather than dismissing them, we should consider which treatment options would best support patient outcomes. If someone wants to try breathwork or tai chi as part of their health plan, why mock them? Indeed, we’re seeing possible relationships between chronic stress and cancer. Any stress-busting activity, then, may have a protective health benefit.
Many CAM providers understand that their treatments are not panaceas. Doing yoga will not necessarily prevent cancer. Chiropractic will not cure it. However, it helps stimulate your cells and boosts your mood, both of which are critical to your body’s defenses — not to mention your recovery from chemotherapy!
The Wikipedia editors had better catch up: many healthcare professionals are embracing multiple treatment types as part of integrative care. This approach combines Western medicine with psychotherapy, CAM, and/or lifestyle and dietary changes to treat a patient as a whole person rather than a clump of symptoms. While there is a long list of “alternative” practices, the ones with the greatest potential in medicine seem to be:
Acupuncture: As mentioned above, acupuncture appears to relieve chronic pain, as well as tension headaches and migraines.
Massage: Noted for its ability to loosen stuck fascia, relieve muscle tension, stimulate blood flow, and induce relaxing delta waves, massage has multiple proven health benefits.
Meditation and Breathwork: Arguably of benefit for its stress-relieving capabilities alone, any sort of deep breathing and meditative practice can reduce blood pressure and induce endorphins that can help with anxiety and depression. Meditation has also been shown to promote digestion and relieve symptoms of ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Tai Chi: This meditative martial art focuses on developing balance and body awareness while gently improving joint mobility. For those reasons, it can help those who suffer from chronic back and joint pain.
Yoga: Styles vary, but this ancient practice typically combines breathwork with sustained poses meant to stimulate blood flow and improve balance and joint strength. Health benefits include better mental health, improved sleep, and pain relief.
Naturopathy: Commonly misportrayed as the use of essential oils to treat ailments, naturopathy includes a broad range of treatments. The core idea is that our bodies already hold a lot of healing potential if we allow them to use it. Plus, the Earth has provided many herbs and medicinal plants to help us. There’s nothing pseudoscientific about the fact that plants ranging from milk thistle to cannabis have measurable health benefits.
Making Your Healthcare Integrative
Whether or not you’re taking pharmaceuticals, a solely conventional/Western approach can sometimes miss the point. When healthcare providers ignore patient concerns about conventional approaches, they may also be ignoring key factors in their ailment. (They’re also ignoring the fact that CAM simply has not been studied enough due to this prejudice.)
In short, it’s ultimately harmful to assume that CAM is “quackery” simply because it functions differently from Western techniques. Humans are more than their cellular functions. An integrative approach supports a sustainable healthcare plan. Unfortunately, It’s all too easy to prescribe a drug rather than examine the root causes.
For example, chronic depression and anxiety can have many different overlapping causes, including vitamin deficiencies and autoimmune disorders related to strep infection. Some antidepressants, such as the popular fluoxetine (Prozac) and sertraline (Zoloft), have been linked to weight gain, loss of appetite, insomnia, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Obviously, all those side effects can contribute to depression!
While each patient is different, treating the root cause (e.g. a vitamin B12 deficiency) and boosting the patient’s quality of life (such as with yoga and better nutrition) provides more sustainable relief for depression. An integrative healthcare provider would consider all factors to find the best health plan, rather than automatically assuming that only a Western treatment would suffice.
Our bodies are complex ecosystems shaped by our cognition, environment, and biological functions. To truly achieve wellness, we must do what best nourishes our bodies. There is no reason to assume that only one treatment paradigm is correct.
Of course, you should always consult with a qualified practitioner when developing your health plan — never cease treatment in favor of some miracle potion, because that certainly doesn’t exist! However, the right combination of self-care, Western and Eastern medicine, and Earth’s gifts can be so effective that it may be the perfect blend of science and magic.