The terms “alternative,” “complementary,” and “integrative health” are often conflated, but they have different meanings. “Alternative therapies are used to describe health and medical treatments that rely on the body’s innate healing power,” says Tabatha Parker, ND, the director of education at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine in La Jolla, California. “Such therapies, which are rooted in global healing traditions, are designed to promote health, prevent illness, and raise awareness of disease conditions without the use of conventional medications and interventions.” Though there are many therapies that fit into this category when used in isolation from conventional medicine, a few examples are acupuncture with a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, traditionally and culturally used herbs and supplements, and energy practices like reiki.
Previously, the common terminology was “complementary and alternative medicine,” and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other academic groups have shifted toward the use of “integrative” and “complementary health” approaches and therapies instead.
That said, there is a difference in safety depending on what therapy you’re using, says Susan Gaylord, PhD, a research associate professor and the director of the Program on Integrative Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. For instance, it’s unlikely you can harm yourself by practicing mindfulness, but other approaches, such as taking supplements or herbs, could be harmful if not done under the guidance of a licensed practitioner. Some, like trying a detox or cleanse, can be dangerous.
“To be safe, it’s best if you can coordinate your care with a doctor who is trained in conventional medicine techniques and is also very knowledgeable about other therapies, or works with someone who is,” Dr. Gaylord says. It’s important to have a primary care provider or internal medicine doctor who can aid in diagnosis and watch for things like side effects and medication interactions. Remember that “natural” doesn’t always equal safe or free of harm, which is why it’s so important to see someone who carries the required certifications or licenses in your state.
There are also alternative medicine or healing systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathic medicine, which are “systems and beliefs that evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world,” notes the National Cancer Institute. These approaches use various therapies that can fall under and are used in both conventional and complementary and alternative ways.
Each therapy has its own set of potential benefits versus risks, like every conventional therapy and medicine. For example, according to Parker, “meditation or acupuncture can help patients better manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life by reducing fatigue, pain, and anxiety.” By using therapies that “support the body’s healing,” she says, people may have fewer side effects.
If you’re interested in complementary and alternative health approaches, speak with your primary care physician about your goals for treatment or general well-being, and the therapies that you’d like to incorporate into your care. They can talk to you about the benefits (or help you research these) or refer you to someone who can (like a board-certified integrative medicine practitioner).
To ensure the safety of whatever therapy you choose to pursue, make sure to consult your primary care physician first. Then find certified and licensed practitioners in the treatment you choose.
You may find that an integrative approach tailored to your health needs and challenges can help you stay well and help treat existing conditions. “Integrative health brings together conventional and complementary medicine. It’s the best of both worlds,” says Dr. Guerrera.
The word to remember with integrative health approaches is “inclusive,” says Guerrera. Traditionally, we may have thought about medicine as only the practice of seeing your doctor. However, an integrative approach brings together doctors, nurses, pharmacists, as well as complementary and alternative medicine practitioners in their various specialties to collaborate on the approaches to health and healing that might be right for an individual patient, she says.
Thanks to a growing interest in CAM and integrative health, led first by The Bravewell Collaborative in the early 2000s, more hospitals have opened up integrative or complementary medicine centers. That’s great news for you: “This means the hospital has done the work of vetting the credentials of the practitioners who are there,” says Guerrera. Another option is asking your primary care provider for a referral, though they may not be able to confidently recommend someone if it’s an area in which they have limited knowledge or experience. Sometimes, your health insurance may cover some of these providers and services, so be sure to check.
Parker notes that a good resource is the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine’s Find a Provider tool.
The University of Arizona’s Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine also has a directory to find trained integrative healthcare practitioners who have gone through its programs, as well as another directory to find a certified integrative health or wellness coach.
“Having a dialogue with your doctor about this is key,” says Guerrera. “Research shows that patients want their doctor to talk to them about this, but it’s not easy to move this movement of holistic, integrative, whole-person care into mainstream medicine.” All that is to say: You may have to bring it up on your own. Guerrera suggests opening the conversation with something like “I’m curious: What do you think about XYZ treatment?” Or “I’m interested in XYZ because of this reason. What can you tell me about it or do you know anyone who practices it?”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Interested in learning more about chiropractic care, evening primrose oil, massage, omega 3 fatty acids, and a whole lot more? Check out this A to Z guide, which covers a range of health conditions and alternative treatments.
National Center for Integrative Primary Healthcare
Download free patient education materials — available in English and Spanish — on a number of conditions, including diabetes, constipation, back pain, menopause, and more, and learn about the lifestyle changes and integrative therapies that may be appropriate. This site also includes patient handouts on some of the more common complementary therapies, such as acupuncture and aromatherapy, and their potential benefits and side effects.
Body of Wonder
Hosts Andrew Weil and Victoria Maizes, both from the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, do deep dives into the latest evidence behind a variety of integrative therapies with experts in their field, including the use of psychedelics in mental health, mind-body approaches to chronic pain, a low FODMAP diet, medical cannabis, and more.
Author David Rakel, MD, is the chair of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. His book is a go-to for physicians who are interested in learning about the safety and efficacy of specific integrative medicine approaches, says Guerrera. While it gets into the nitty-gritty and is designed for clinicians, the good news is that you can use it, too.
For a more consumer-friendly and less clinical book, The Integrative Guide to Good Health published by the Mayo Clinic features home remedies and alternative therapies that you can safely use at home to manage and prevent illness.
Parker recommends this monthly publication, which is fully focused on alternative medicine news, so you can stay up to date on the latest. Digital and print subscriptions are available.
My Wellness Coach
Another resource from the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, this app uses an integrative whole-health model that encompasses mind, body, and spirit; helps you set health goals; gives you actionable steps to get there; and incorporates integrative health information into your care.
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