According to the government’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, “more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children — use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine.”
The center’s website clarifies the terminology associated with these practices – alternative meaning something used in place of conventional medicine; complementary, an approach used in conjunction with conventional medicine, and integrative medicine, an approach that combines conventional and complementary in a coordinated way.
Complementary health approaches generally involve natural products and/or mind and body practices. Natural products are sometimes referred to as dietary supplements and include herbs, vitamins and minerals and probiotics. Mind and body practices include such therapies as acupuncture, spinal manipulation, and guided imagery.
The benefits of some of these therapies are backed by scientific evidence; others are being studied and some are based on age-old healing practices.
One government study, for example, aimed at helping veterans with chronic pain looks at the benefit of adding mindfulness meditation or self-hypnosis to help with pain management.
It is important to be an informed consumer in taking charge of one’s health in any circumstances. Some recommendations from the NCCIH are to do research before using a natural health product or seeing a complementary health practitioner. Know the side effects and interactions of any product that you take, and inform all your health care providers about what health therapies you use.
One tip from the NCCHI site advises against the use of “a product or practice that has not been proven to be effective to postpone seeing your health care provider for your condition.” The site also notes that it is not to be used as a substitute for advice from a healthcare provider.
A digital dietary supplement fact sheet from federal government resources allows consumers to check on a natural product’s history and whether medical reasons for its uses have been scientifically documented.
For example, checking cinnamon on the data base, the site notes its use as a spice as well as having “a long history as a traditional medicine, including for bronchitis.” It also notes, “Today, some people use cinnamon as a dietary supplement for gastrointestinal problems, loss of appetite, and diabetes, among other conditions.”
The site states that while many studies have been done on cinnamon, none to date “support using cinnamon for any health condition.”
Ginger, which comes from a tropical plant, has been used for medical purposes in a number of cultures dating back to ancient times, including dried ginger in Asian medicine to treat stomach aches, diarrhea and nausea.
According to the site, there is some evidence that “ginger may help relieve pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting” as well as help “control nausea related to cancer chemotherapy when used in addition to conventional anti-nausea medication.”
The site notes that yoga is the sixth most commonly used complementary health practice among adults, and studies suggest a number of health benefits, including possible reduction in lower back pain and improved function.
Other resources include the “Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine: Integrating the Best of Natural Therapies with Conventional Medicine,” a 2010 updated and expanded edition of its 2007 book.
The clinic has its own complementary and integrative medicine program.
There are also a number of related associations including the American Academy of Osteopathy, the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture and the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health, whose early members included medical representatives from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts.