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Written by | James McKenzie.
Over the last few decades modern science has made great strides in treating numerous diseases that have plagued humans. Most of these treatments come in the form of synthetic drugs or surgery, and they are often not without side effects. Sometimes the relief is only temporary, or in some cases they may not be effective at all, hence the reason why “alternative medicine” had risen in popularity lately. It is not unusual nowadays to hear of someone going for acupuncture treatment, or visiting a chiropractor, or taking natural herbs as opposed to prescription drugs. These have all labelled under the umbrella of “alternative medicine” as opposed to science based conventional medicine. This article will only look at a few of the more common types of alternative medicines.
Acupuncture is based on the idea that the body’s overall state is dependent on the balanced and free flow of energy or “chi” as they call it. Disease and pain are signs that the free flow of energy is being blocked. The practise of placing fine needles through the surface of the skin is meant to remove blockages to this flow of energy. Once the flow of energy is restored, the body will be able to heal itself. Although the actual science behind acupuncture is still being examined, many studies have concluded that acupuncture has a positive effect on people.
Chiropractic is a physical therapy referred to as bodywork. In bodywork treatment the practitioner uses their hands to treat a patient’s ailment. Drugs and surgery are usually not used. Chiropractic medicine was founded on the belief that the health of the spine was critical to one’s overall health. Many disorders have been linked to misalignment of the spine, the most common one being back pain. But skilled chiropractors have been able to treat headaches, diseases, and muscular injuries.
Homeopathy is a form of medicine that treats the “whole” person. Rather than prescribing a drug for a specific part of the body, homeopathic medicine takes into account the person’s overall state, including their psychological state as well as their habits and personality. Therefore people can be categorised according to their “constitutional type” and given medicines that are suited to those types.
Although studies have been done to test the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine, the results have been inconclusive. However, the drugs utilized are perfectly safe for children and adults alike and many people have reported positive results.
Naturopathy is a holistic form of medicine that encompasses other forms of medicine such as those prescribed above. Naturopathic medicine holds the view that if the body was looked after properly, it would not only be free of ailments most of the time, but it will easily cure itself when sickness does occur. According to naturopathy, there are four basic components to good health: clean air, clean water, clean food from good earth and exercise along with “right living.” When medicine is prescribed, three main principles are followed: the ability of the body to heal itself, symptoms of illness being a sign that the body is trying to rid itself of toxins and return to a balanced state, any treatment should take into account the physical, mental and emotional aspects of the person. Fasting is a common method of fighting infections.
Herbalism is the most common type of alternative medicine and is the oldest. In fact, modern synthetic drugs have their basis in herbal medicine. Herbalism is present in some form or fashion in almost every culture. Even animals make use of certain herbs, and it was partly by observing them that humans were able to develop a medicinal system based on herbs. Herbal medicine offers the same treatment offered by synthetic drugs without the side effects, and it is once again growing in popularity. Herbal medicine is based on one central principle: “synergism,” which advocates that the whole is greater than the individual parts. When applied to the preparation and use of plants, this is where herbalism and the pharmaceutical industry differ. Rather than isolating the relevant chemical properties of plants (as conventional medicine does) herbalists use the entire plant, as they believe that the individual part of the plant is ineffective when cut off from the whole. When plants are used in their entirety, side effects are also reduced.
So is alternative or natural medicine a better choice than science based medicine? Not necessarily. Both forms of medicine have their place. Modern medicine is perhaps ideal for life threatening or acute conditions that need immediate medical attention, while alternative medicine offers an effective, long term solution for the patient. That said, not all forms of alternative medicine are necessarily going to be effective. Research is still being conducted on many of these therapies and it is up to you (in consultation with your doctor) to see if alternative medicine is right path for you.
- C. Norman Shealy, MD. PhD (Consultant Editor), and Richard Thomas (General Editor). Alternative Medicine: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Natural Healing. Dorcet; Boston;Victoria: Time Life Books, 1996.
- Mel Borins, MD. A Doctor’s Guide to Alternative Medicine. Guilford: Lyons Press, 2014.