More than 30% of Americans adults report using health care approaches not typically associated with conventional medicine, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Doctors are also embracing evidence-based alternative therapies, often combining them with mainstream therapies to treat disease and maintain health — an approach called integrative (in-tuh-GRAY-tiv) medicine.
Exactly what's considered integrative medicine changes constantly as treatments are studied and move into everyday practice. To make sense of the many nonconventional therapies available, it helps to look at how they're classified by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH):
- Natural products
- Mind and body practices
- Other integrative approaches
Dietary supplements and herbal remedies are considered natural products because they contain ingredients found in nature. Examples of herbal remedies include ginseng, ginkgo and echinacea; examples of dietary supplements include glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin and SAMe. Herbal products and supplements come in many forms, such as teas, oils, syrups, powders, tablets and capsules.
Mind-body techniques strengthen how your mind and your body work together. Practitioners believe these must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body techniques include meditation, prayer, relaxation, yoga, music and animal-assisted therapy.
Manipulation and body-based practices use human touch to move or manipulate a specific part of your body. They include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation and massage.
Some traditions believe an invisible energy force flows through your body, and when this energy flow is blocked or out of balance, you can become sick. This energy has different names, such as chi, prana and life force. The goal of these therapies is to unblock or re-balance your energy force. Energy therapies include acupuncture, qi gong, healing touch and reiki.
Other approaches to integrative health focus on a system, rather than just a single practice or remedy. These systems center on a philosophy, such as the power of nature or the presence of energy in your body. Examples include:
- Ancient healing systems. These healing systems existed before conventional Western medicine. They include ayurveda from India and traditional Chinese medicine.
- Naturopathy. This approach focuses on noninvasive treatments to help your body do its own healing. It uses several practices, such as massage, acupuncture, herbal remedies, exercise and lifestyle counseling.
Research on integrative approaches continues to grow as the use of these treatments becomes more common. Researchers are looking to identify safe, effective therapies as well as those that offer no benefit and may even cause harm.
In general, there has been a lack of research because large, carefully controlled medical studies are costly. Trials for conventional therapies are often funded by big companies that develop and sell drugs. Fewer resources are available to support trials of integrative approaches.
That's why NCCIH was established — to foster research into therapies typically not associated with conventional medicine and make the findings available to the public.
Work with your conventional medical doctor to make informed decisions about integrative medicine. Even if your doctor can't recommend a specific practitioner, he or she can help you understand possible risks and benefits before you try a treatment.
It's especially important to consult your doctor if you are pregnant, have medical problems or take prescription medicine. And don't stop or change your conventional treatment — such as the dose of your prescription medications — without talking to your doctor first.