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What Is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Updated on April 4, 2014

Complementary and Alternative Medicine Basics

Either alternative medicine or complementary medicine refers to a unique way of thinking about the human body, health, and health problems. It's a very loose category, because it can refer to almost any health care system besides the common medical model. However, many of these systems share common elements including a holistic view of the person, in which an individual's physical health problems are related to each other, as well as to the patient's mental, spiritual and energetic states, and also to his or her environment.

Balance: an Important Principle

Many alternative health systems teach that the human body is a delicately balanced organism, which can be thrown off course by many different things – from traumatic experiences to environmental toxins. Many alternative health therapies are homeostatic, meaning that they are designed to foster greater balance in the individual by strengthening weak characteristics and reducing those that are too strong.

Natural Therapies

Alternative health practitioners generally look to nature for gentle therapies to prescribe. These might range from a specially balanced diet and exercise program to a long fast, a course in yoga or meditation, or a treatment with energy healing, accupuncture or a special herbal tea blend. The type of natural therapy a patient is likely to receive depends largely on which natural health system he or she turns to.

However, most alternative health traditions focus on preventing disease at least as much as on curing it. There are lots of natural ways to strengthen you immune system, such as eating a healthy whole food diet.

Common Types of Complementary Medicine

There are too many types of alternative therapy to list here, but common modalities include herbalism, ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, naturopathy, homeopathy, massage, energy healing, shamanic or faith healing and natural healing practices that combine several different methods. There are also many different variations on most of these therapies.

Alternative or Complementary?

The words alternative and complementary medicine can be used interchangeably, but they do imply different attitudes toward these healing systems. Complementary medicine means that it can be used in combination with treatment by a doctor, as a way to complement traditional medicine. Alternative health or medicine suggests that while the patient may consult a doctor, they consider the medical system to be just one of many alternatives that are best evaluated by each individual to suit his or her own needs.

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