How to Assess Alternative Medicine Options

Three Parts:Considering Types of Alternative MedicinesResearching Alternative MedicinesLooking For a Qualified Alternative Medicine Provider

You're probably familiar with some type of alternative medicine. Maybe your friend uses acupuncture to relieve migraines. Or, you know someone who relies on herbal medicines and massage to deal with chronic pain. Alternative medicine is any form of medicine used instead of the standard (conventional) medicine. It might include Traditional Chinese Medicine, homeopathy, or naturopathy, for example. Don't confuse alternative medicine with complementary medicine. Complementary medicine is any form of medicine used in addition to standard medicine. If you choose to try an alternative medicine, just be sure to do your research to find a qualified practitioner.

Part 1
Considering Types of Alternative Medicines

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    Try ayurveda. This ancient Indian alternative medicine relies on herbs and dietary practices. The goal of ayurveda is to balance the body and mind to prevent disease. Ayurveda practitioners believe there are three main body energies (vata, pitta, and kapha) that cause disease when they become unbalanced. To balance the energies and treat illness, ayurveda uses:[1]
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    Consider Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is another ancient alternative medicine that uses a variety of treatments to balance the life force or energy of the body. TCM practitioners believe illness is caused by major energy points becoming blocked. Specifically, disease is thought to be caused by your emotions, your environment, and your lifestyle (like your diet). To open energy points, restore balance, and treat illness, TCM uses:[2]
    • Herbal medicines
    • Acupuncture and acupressure
    • Nutrition
    • Moxibustion (burning herbs)
    • Massage
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    Learn about homeopathy. This system of medicine is over 200 years old and its goal is to help the body heal itself. Homeopathy uses tiny doses of various substances like herbs, minerals, or animal products to help the body balance itself and cure disease.[3] For example, studies have shown that taking small doses of local bee pollen can reduce allergy symptoms.[4] Since the doses of substances are small, there are no side effects, making homeopathy a safe alternative medicine.[5]
    • In addition to trying to treat physical symptoms, homeopathy also tries to balance a person's emotional state and constitution.
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    Try naturopathy. This alternative medicine relies on nature to treat illness. Naturopathic approaches try to support your body in healing itself and try to support you in making important lifestyle changes to improve your health. Education is main component of naturopathy. Other aspects of treatment include:[6]
    • Herbal medicines
    • Acupuncture and acupressure
    • Exercise
    • Lifestyle changes
    • Counseling
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    Consider mind-body medicine. This alternative medicine focuses on the power of the mind to heal the body. While there are several varieties and forms of mind-body medicine, they all strive to focus concentration on balancing health. Some forms of mind-body medicine include:[7][8]
    • Meditation, including mindfulness meditation
    • Prayer or spiritual development
    • Relaxation techniques, including deep breathing
    • Therapies, like art or music therapy
    • Energy medicine like reiki, qigong, and therapeutic touch
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    Learn about body-based (physical therapies). Body-based alternative medicines focus on treating the structures of the body, like the skeletal system, muscles, and soft tissues. Most body-based therapies try to improve circulation and prevent disease. Types of body-based therapies include:[9]
    • Chiropractic medicine
    • Massage therapy
    • Alternative forms of body work
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    Learn more about alternative exercise programs. Exercise programs such as tai chi are gaining popularity, especially among baby boomers, due to the fact that it combines body movements while minimizing stresses on the joints. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise and martial art. However, the art form combines breathing exercises and meditation along with the physical movements.[10]

Part 2
Researching Alternative Medicines

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    Avoid relying on anecdotal evidence. While anecdotal evidence may interest you in alternative medicines, you shouldn't rely on it as a trusted form of evidence. There are many variables that might be contributing to what works for one person but not for another. For example, some treatments may work better on someone who's young and healthy. Or, treatment may be less effective for someone with a certain genetic background.
    • For example, you might hear someone say, "My friend tried this and it worked for her." This anecdotal statement is not backed up by actual evidence.
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    Look for scientific or clinical studies. Clinical or scientific evidence follows the “scientific method” and controls for as many variables as possible. The goal with these studies is to determine what medicines work and under what conditions. Realize that sometimes it's difficult to control all variables, especially in clinical (human research) studies.
    • A placebo controlled double-blinded study is considered to be the best form of clinical evidence.[11] With this type of study, some of the subjects get sugar pills (placebos) while other subjects get the treatment being studied. Neither the doctors nor the patients know which treatment they're getting.
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    Try to find high quality studies. Most approaches to alternative medicine aren't tested by good scientific research. This can make it difficult to find good studies, especially since not much funding is available for alternative medicine research. This is largely because many scientific studies are funded by drug companies who wouldn't support alternative medicines. Also, some alternative medicines aren't easily tested using the scientific method. For example, there's no way to deliver placebo acupuncture. Other reasons why research is limited include:[12][13]
    • Different perspectives: For example, TCM has significantly different perspectives on how organs function and diseases are caused. These often don't match Western models of disease.
    • Difficulty patenting substances: Herbs and other natural substances often used in alternative medicine can't be patented, so it doesn't offer a financial incentive to study them.
    • Interest: Many scientists aren't committed to researching alternative medicines.
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    Read peer-reviewed journals. Ask your doctor, nurse, or healthcare professional to recommend high-quality journals. The articles about alternative medicine should be peer-reviewed. This means that they were sent to independent experts for comment and criticism. You should also look for "Impact Factor" (IF). This shows how widely read, cited, and respected a journal is.[14]
    • Try to look for evidence from larger studies that have been repeated. You might read meta-analyses. These are papers that look at a group of studies on the same topic and analyse the data as a larger group than could be done for a single study.
    • Go to the NCCIH website at This page provides information on what science is saying about current complementary practices, in addition to providing resources to current objective sources of information.
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    Watch for signs of misleading information. It's easy to misinterpret studies because you want to believe their claims. Or, maybe misinformation is all you can find because websites have copied and pasted inaccurate information. To check for misinformation or misinterpretation:[15]
    • Check the date: if the information is older, it may have changed. For example, there may be more evidence or older evidence may no longer be true.
    • Check for validation: see if the website has been checked for reliability by an organization like the Health on the Net (HON) Foundation.
    • Check the original references if you can: you can use PubNet to look for abstracts (article summaries) of the information in the articles. You can usually find a straightforward conclusion at the end of the abstract to summarize the main findings.
    • Double-check findings: look at a number of different websites. Make sure the content isn't word-for-word which could mean the information was copied and pasted from one site.
    • Check with your physician or another health care professional
    • Call alternative practitioners: ask what they think about one therapy or another. The practitioner is ethically obligated to be honest and truthful about any therapy.
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    Be skeptical. Question everything, especially when a practitioner claims to have a cure, revolutionary discovery, or ancient secrets. The practitioner should not give you a guarantee or limited offer. This should warn you not to trust the practitioner. You should also remember that because something is seen as natural, it doesn't make it safe.
    • Many plants contain poison or cause unwanted effects. Consider talking with several alternative practitioners like medical herbalists, naturopaths, and others to gauge the safety of natural products.
    • Understand that sometimes physicians and scientists try to use simplistic terms to educate, inform, and empower people since it's difficult to explain complex medical terms. These simple terms shouldn't be confused with with sales attempts.
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    Research side effects of dietary supplements or herbal products. Many herbal products or supplements can interact with current diet or medication use. Just because something is described as being "alternative" or "natural" this does not mean it’s safe. If you are prescribed alternative dietary or herbal products, get a list of all the ingredients that are in it. You may want to consult with your physician or pharmacist regarding the ingredients and how they may interact with your current medication use.

Part 3
Looking For a Qualified Alternative Medicine Provider

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    Ask about the practitioner's training. Since alternative medicine practitioners aren't required to complete standardized training and because laws and regulations can vary greatly from place to place, you should ask about the practitioner's training and experience. For example, you might ask:
    • Where did you train and how much training did you receive?
    • How much hands-on experience do you have?
    • Do you have formal training or certification?
    • Was your training done online or at a physical campus?
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    Find out about the practitioner's formal education. Ask what education the practitioner has. Most naturopaths and chiropractors have doctorates awarded from a brick-and-mortar school of medicine. While this doesn't guarantee competence, it does show that the individual completed requirements and trained with licensed professionals.[16]
    • The level of education and certification may vary depending on the alternative medicine. For example, some require doctoral degrees in alternative medicine or a master's degree in nutrition.
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    Talk with the practitioner about your health concerns. If you have a chronic condition or specific health concern, ask the practitioner what experience the practitioner has with it.[17] You might find out what approaches were taken and how successful the patient found the treatment.
    • Be wary if a practitioner promises to cure your condition, especially if the practitioner can't give you any solid evidence to support this claim. Instead, look for someone who can heal or treat your health condition.
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    Choose an alternative medicine provider. Ask your doctor or local medical school to refer reputable alternative medicine practitioners. Once you've determined which alternative medicine you'd like to use, find a provider who is willing to work with your current healthcare team. You should also inform your other healthcare providers that you're working with an alternative medicine provider.[18]
    • You may want to check if your health insurance covers the alternative medicine provider. While it's not necessary, you will need to know what form of payment the practitioner accepts so that you're prepared for appointments.


  • Scientific studies often rely on easily controlled animal studies, "in vitro", or test tube studies as a starting point for research. But, these may not have the same responses as humans.
  • Avoid any professional who demands up-front payment.
  • Just because there is a slick ad on TV or the Internet does not make its claims true.
  • Most alternative medicine practitioners today are more involved in a complementary role. This means that they are seen more as a compliment to conventional treatments. That’s why it’s important to find a practitioner that is willing to work with your other health care professionals to provide the best care possible that is in your best interest.

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Categories: Alternative Health