As the name suggests, 'alternative' medicine refers to treatments or therapies that are not practiced or prescribed by conventional doctors with medical degrees - your general practitioner for instance.
Although they often fall outside the arena of conventional medical care, alternative medical systems are usually built upon complex systems of theories and approaches that evolved much earlier than conventional practices. In many cases alternative medicine is based on cultural and historical traditions rather than on scientific evidence and clinical studies.
More recently, alternative medicines and therapies are being used in conjunction with mainstream techniques and known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
How does alternative medicine differ from conventional medicine?
Many forms of alternative medicine focus on customized and holistic treatments and tend to look at the person as a whole rather than just the ailment. Some alternative practices also place a great emphasis on a person's emotional well being or spirituality as well as nutrition. It is important when considering alternative medicine to treat illness that you speak with your medical doctor first. It is dangerous to only rely on alternative medical treatments to treat or cure illness.
Types and Kinds of Alternative Remedies
Established forms of alternative treatments include:
Ayurveda is a form of traditional medicine native to India. Translated as "the knowledge for long life", Ayurvedic practice is focused on balancing three essential energies in a person - wind, bile and phlegm - to achieve equilibrium and wellness. These elements also need to be balanced with the unique elements in every individual - the elements of ether (space), fire, water, air and earth. In Ayurveda, the food you eat, the water you drink and even the weather has an impact on the internal constitution.
Apart from herbal remedies to balance the body, Ayurvedic therapies include cleansing or purgation - sweating and massaging - to detoxify the body. Yoga, exercise and meditation are also recognised and incorporated into daily life to achieve mental and spiritual balance.
Uniquely, Ayurvedic medications also include the practice of adding metals, minerals or gems to herbs and plants. This has led to concerns about heavy metal poisoning and there are some regulatory measures in India and that metallic content must be specified in Ayurvedic products.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Although long associated with bitter brews and pungent herbs, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is actually a philosophy of life and achieving balance.
Stressing the concepts of yin and yang, TCM consists of several practices to achieve wellness. Apart from herbal medicine, massage and dietary therapy is also included. In TCM, the focus is placed not on the anatomical (physical) parts of the body but bodily functions such as temperature regulation, breathing or digestion. Another key belief in TCM is that everyone has a Qi or Life Force that flows through key channels known as meridians. TCM believes that harmony of the Qi achieves health, but an imbalance can cause sickness. Herbs, food and exercises such as Taichi are used to bring about balance in Qi and boost the body's functions.
Modern medicine has yet to find clear evidence from Chinese herbs, which are not as established, to objectively study the impact of TCM on the treatment of illness but some early research has indicated that herbs such as cordyceps and astragalus may have some use in modern medicine.
The ancient art of acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate critical pressure points in the body. Ironic though it seems, this form of needle treatment is used in many forms of pain relief such as back pain, migraines and arthritis. Acupuncture practitioners believe that by placing needles into specific meridian points (key nodes or channels through which Qi or Life Force flows) can help improve the flow of Qi.
Acupuncture is one of the most studied forms of alternative treatments and it is becoming increasingly common to find acupuncture used in conjunction with a limited number of Western medical treatments. These include treating hay fever, inflamed sinuses, alleviating post-chemotherapy nausea and dry mouth.
Scientifically, it is known that acupuncture can raise the level of endorphins (a happy hormone) and bring about a sense of well-being and relaxation.
Although acupuncture is generally safe, it is still an invasive procedure. The use of unsterilised needles carries the risk of viral and bacterial infections along with other blood borne diseases.
Part physical exercise, part mental focus and part spiritual regime, yoga is an ancient healing theory and practice from India. It combines breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation.
Modern yoga practice has also taken a on a more physical aspect and lost much of its spiritual links. Yoga is believed to be beneficial in building mental and emotional wellness.
Yoga now comes in countless styles and yoga techniques have been explored and studied for its psychological impact. Apart from building flexibility and strength, early research shows that yoga can increase mental clarity and concentration.
Classical approaches, such as Iyengar Yoga, emphasise slow movements, alignment and execution. Other approaches, such as Ashtanga or Power Yoga, shift between asanas (yoga postures) quickly and energetically to improve flexibility and strength. Nearly all types of yoga practices include asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), and savasanas (relaxation techniques).
Before you start finding your inner yogi, be mindful that some yoga positions, if not executed correctly, can cause injury. As with all physical activity, it is important to do warm up exercises and be aware of your limits when attempting poses.
Less is more in homeopathy, an alternative therapy that involves a concept of the 'law of the similars' or 'like cures like'. The idea is that the symptoms of illness caused by large amounts of a chemical, plant or herb can cure if these are given in very small doses. This means practitioners use highly diluted tinctures (or extracts) made of plants, herbs or minerals for treatment.
The more diluted a tincture, the more potent it is believed to be. In fact, the levels of dilution are so high that the homeopathic remedy derived at the end has almost none of the original ingredients left. The idea is that introducing very low levels of these otherwise toxic or symptom-inducing substances into the body will stimulate the body to heal itself.
Homeopathy is also concerned with mental and emotional factors and will customise a remedy based on a person's physical symptom, emotional state and even character traits and constitution.
Current clinical examination does not support the effectiveness of homeopathy, and scientific evidence generally regards homeopathic remedies to be little more than a placebo.
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