Alternative Medicine Treatments

An introduction to some complementary and alternative approaches that can help heal the body, mind and soul.

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For generations, people have been exploring a variety of approaches to treat the physical, emotional, nutritional and biological effects of illness. In Western societies the practice of medicine mostly relies on therapies that typically undergo rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness before they are accepted into mainstream use. But there are many practices and products that are used around the world that while unproven by Western standards, have provided reassurances and relief of discomfort and distress for centuries.

In many cultures these are considered traditional medicine. In the West, we call these approaches complementary and alternative (CAM) treatments. They can be used in combination with conventional Western medical therapies such as medications, surgery and other standard procedures (complementary medicine) or alone (alternative medicine).

Recently, the practice of integrative medicine is gaining popularity and many mainstream medical practitioners now fully embrace and trust some of the better-studied alternative approaches, such as acupuncture, as a highly effective treatment.

Why CAM?

People who use CAM treatments do so for a variety of reasons. Mostly they are used to accompany conventional care to improve general health and wellbeing. They are also used when conventional therapies for illnesses fall short or have failed. Still, others forgo conventional therapies altogether because they do not want to experience their potential side effects. And some prefer alternative therapies because conventional treatments do not align with their personal or spiritual philosophies.

Whatever the reasons, CAM therapies can bring comfort, control and calm to the people who use them. Nearly 40% of adults have used CAM therapies at some point in their life, mostly for back and neck problems, headaches, insomnia, colds, joint pain, anxiety, depression and cancer relief.

Types of CAM therapies

  • Practitioner-based body manipulation - acupuncture, Reiki, massage, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation
  • Natural products (nonvitamin, nonmineral) - herbs, fish oil/omega 3, glucosamine, St. John's wort, echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, garlic, flaxseed, chondroitin, coenzyme Q-10, ginger
  • Breath work - deep breathing exercises, meditation
  • Relaxation Techniques - guided imagery, progressive relation
  • Body movement - yoga, Qi gong and Tai chi
  • Diet-based therapies - macrobiotic, vegetarian

Here are some of Dr. Oz's favorite CAM therapies that energize, sooth and support the body, mind and spirit.

Muddy Waters

Therapeutic mud baths have been a staple at many health spas around the world, some dating back centuries. A homemade bath made of clay, peat moss and sulfur-dense mineral water can have anti-inflammatory effects that might provide comfort for people with damaged joints or arthritis. You can enjoy this comforting slurry at home or dash off to a mud bath spa. You can also try a bath containing Dead Sea or Epsom salts, which provides a high concentration of magnesium that acts to relax muscles.

Aromatic Oils

Aromatherapy uses the power of distinctive-smelling essential oils derived from fragrant plants. These wonderful smelling oils hijack stress and promote relaxation by affecting parts of the brain that control mood and emotion. They can be inhaled directly, used in a diffuser that atomizes droplets into the air, or diluted in a solution that is applied on the skin. Essential oils are also used during Shirodhara, a form of Ayurveda medicine developed by Hindus now practiced in the West.

Essential oils can be used to promote general wellbeing and as a supportive therapy to help ease side effects of treatment, particularly helpful during cancer chemotherapy. Certain essential oils are thought to have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties and can help to reduce muscular aches and pains caused by inflammation.

Popular Aromatherapy Oils

  • Lavender - A few dabs of lavender oil at the base of your thumb and neck, between the eyebrows, or along pressure points in the wrist and can ease the stress of the day and is helpful during migraine attacks.
  • Eucalyptus - Used to help clear nasal passages and airways in people with colds, flu and allergies. Add a few drops while taking a hot shower or add it to the medicine well of a humidifier.
  • Lemongrass - Dilute this essential oil in a spray bottle and use it as a natural insect repellent
  • Tea tree - This oil is a popular for it's antimicrobial activities. Look for it in skin products soaps and shampoos.

[Note: Lavender and tea tree oils can behave like certain hormones such as estrogen and block the male hormone testosterone, so use them sparingly on children.]

Healing Herbs

Plants have been a part of the human medical armamentarium since the dawn of time. Our ancestors who foraged for healing herbs passed the knowledge down through the ages and years of trial and error produced some powerful remedies. Plants contain bioactive compounds that have many therapeutic uses. In fact, many active ingredients in Western medicine pharmaceuticals were first discovered in plants, following the lead of traditional medicine men and shamans of indigenous and Asian cultures.

One complaint that has found refuge in herbal medicine is the hot flashes and night sweats (vasomotor symptoms) of menopause. Hot flashes are experienced when estrogen naturally wanes during menopause or when estrogen is intentionally disabled as a part of treatment. Popular herbal remedies to temper hot flashes are black cohosh and sage tea, both thought to work on receptors that affect vasomotor symptoms.

Body Works

Body manipulation is a CAM approach that teams the body and mind to promote health. Yoga is a part of ancient meditative practices of Hinduism and Buddhism. But the benefits of yoga extend far beyond spiritual wellbeing. Yoga movements combined with conscious breathing techniques not only bring fitness, flexibility and relaxation to those who practice it regularly, but it can also counteract depression, insomnia, anxiety, stress and high blood pressure. Breathing with intention and humming through the process is thought to increase nitric oxide, a potent gas that keeps blood vessels wide open, a great help to people with hypertension.

If you are new to yoga take a beginner's lesson from Dr. Oz.

Sauna

Your great-grandmother might have suggested that when you have a cold or flu, cover your head with a towel and sit over a pot of hot water, and she may have been on to something. Spending time in a hot sauna may be a CAM remedy that actually has some steam. High temperatures of a sauna probably provide comfort because it promotes nasal drainage, but it also may make the environment so inhospitable for viruses that they just surrender (maybe chicken soup does this too?). So if you don't have heart disease or another circulatory medical condition, head to the sauna a couple of times a week to keep viruses away during cold and flu season.

Cupping

In traditional Chinese medicine stimulating acupuncture points is a commonly used to restore balance to the flow of energy along invisible meridians of Qi, the vital life force. The cupping technique combines this energy fine-tuning with body manipulation. When heated glass cups are strategically placed on top of the skin, suction pulls in skin inside the cup to increase of circulation and stimulate the flow of energy in that area. It produces temporary mild bruise-like marks from the suction cups.

Reiki

Reiki is another popular energy healing therapy, which is typically performed by a trained Reiki master. Here the practitioner's light touch on, or slightly above, specific areas of the body is used to balance the flow of energy throughout the body. The laying on of hands on the head, face, neck, chest, abdomen and back delivers varying degrees of natural vibrational "heated" energy as needed, to strengthen the body to heal itself. Reiki can also be self-administered.

Special note: Because a CAM therapy is natural it doesn't mean it is necessarily safe, or safer than conventional treatments. Beware of unrealistic advertising claims that sometime accompany CAM products and always select an experienced practitioner to perform body manipulations. Let all the practitioners - CAM and Western - involved with your care to know about each of the therapies you are taking or undergoing as some may interfere with the effectiveness of other treatments.