Alternative Medicine: Knowing Your Terms

Alternative medicine is often loosely defined. It can be a set of products, a set of practices, or a set of theories believed to have the same healing effects of Western medicine. However, there are differing types of alternative healing practices. Before embarking on your own alternative medicine journey, read up on the necessary terminology to get set on the right path.

 

Complementary Medicine—Also known as integrative medicine, this is when alternative medicine is used in conjunction with functional medical treatment with the believe that it improves the practice.

 

Allopathic Medicine—This is commonly used by homeopaths. It was used to describe traditional European practice based on the four “humours”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Allopathy refers to the use of pharmacologically active agents to treat or suppress symptoms of diseases or conditions.

 

CAM—Known professional as Complementary and Alternative Medicine, this practice often utilizes the terms “balance,” “whole,” and “holistic.” This is an umbrella term for alternative medicine.

 

Traditional Medicine—This refers to pre-scientific practices of certain cultures. It is used as both a healing tool and a as a strategy for understanding and acknowledging cultural heritage.

 

These definitions were generated by the writers of the Alternative Medicine Channel. Definitions vary from organization to organization. For further reading on the difficulties in defining these medicinal practices, we recommend sifting through the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

 

 

The Relationship between Yoga and Alternative Medicine

Stripped down to its bare essentials, yoga is an unobtrusive exercise that can deliver an array of health benefits and preventative buffers against many types of ailments. This fact is heralded by pretty much every health professional you’ll meet. Yoga, as a primary treatment for medical conditions, is a more controversial topic that almost always depends on the individual context.

 

Yoga is a great complementary therapy with any number of other health treatments. Got anxiety, for example? Talk to a therapist AND sign up for a yoga class. Have gastro-intestinal distress? Start a probiotic regimen AND sign up for a yoga class. Just don’t expect two or three beginner level classes to cure your Crohn’s. It doesn’t *usually* work that way. Indeed, when yoga is prescribed as a primary treatment, it’s almost always because more widely used methods have failed, and yoga is all that’s left. Even then, it’s often more about managing the symptoms of a disease more than curing it.

 

The Complicated Place Yoga has in Our Culture

Yoga sometimes finds itself in a certain amount of conflict with people of faith who see yoga’s secular meditation as a threat to the power of prayer and communion with their Creator. There is a spiritual element that many people bring to yoga, but you can really bring any number of religious beliefs to the practice. There is nothing that says you can’t pray—either with a short mantra or an open dialogue—at the end of a yoga practice, for example.

 

There’s also a lingering tension within the yoga community itself between those who believe Americanized yoga is ruining the original art form and those who believe that these yoga purists are hoity-toity nincompoops. There are those who swear by a specific sequence of poses and those who prefer to dabble in as many different forms of yoga they can find.

 

There are those who find yoga to be a slightly more effective form of exercise than other types of weight resistance training, and there are those who see yoga as a crucial component to their overall health plan and ability to get through the day and week without losing it altogether.

 

Here’s the thing, though. No matter what place you belong to within the greater culture and general practice of yoga, there are few stories of people who practiced yoga for any real length of time without improving their health in some substantial measure.

 

Practical Tips for Alternative Medicine: Fish Oil Supplements

Fish oil is the third most commonly taken supplement in the U.S., but is it worthy of such popularity and widespread use? We do think there’s enough evidence to use fish oil—and other omega-3 supplements—as a dietary supplement for targeted results, but to simply say that fish oil is good for your heart and good for weight loss isn’t good enough. And depending on how it’s presented, it can be downright misleading.

 

While there is some evidence to suggest that fish oil can be good for overall heart health, the big thing it can do for you is to lower your triglyceride levels. (Triglycerides are a kind of fat cell in the blood that the body can use to store energy.) This alone should have some benefit in promoting a healthy heart and metabolic system. Still, it’s a long way to go from showing lower triglyceride levels to showing better health outcomes overall.

 

Take weight loss, for example. Studies show that fish oil may not help you lose weight so much as prevent and mitigate abdominal weight gain in particular. In other words, if you struggle with weight in your midsection, fish oil may be a smart supplement to take in combination with a leaner diet and healthier exercise routine. (For men and women alike, abdominal obesity is the most dangerous kind in terms of health outcomes and mortality rates.)

 

The studies and claims made surrounding cancer, mental health, and other health conditions are mixed and inconclusive. For cancer, in particular, you can find studies that suggest fish oil increases your risk of some cancers and decreases your risk in others. Looking for a roundup of various studies on fish oil? Check out this news resource.

 

Still, alternative medicine isn’t isolationist medicine. We do think taking a fish oil supplement can be right for a lot of people. On the other hand, many people also have limited resources. It might make more sense, for example, to spend your disposable income on higher-quality foods that are rich in omega-3. But maybe you can’t stand fish and aren’t all that crazy about other sources of omega-3 (walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and soy). The best use of a fish oil may not be as a diet “supplement” so much as a diet “substitute.”

 

The Chemistry of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This article does a good job of explaining the different health benefits between the two acids. Although EPA is better for many of fish oil’s purported health benefits, especially as an anti-inflammatory, it’s the less well known DHA that’s likely better for stroke prevention and brain health, as it’s believed the longer DHA chain does a better job in maintaining a healthy brain. The article also reminded us that both EPA and DHA are shown to reduce triglyceride levels, which may help explain why this effect is so widely observed.

 

Don’t Overdo It

There aren’t a lot of acute dangers with taking in a bunch of omega-3 fatty acids, but you still don’t want to overdo it. Excessive amounts can lead to heavy bleeding and anticoagulant properties. Rash and nosebleeds are another potential side effect. Daily consumption of up to 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids is generally recognized as safe. But again, it’s also important to account for the omega-3 that’s already in your diet.

 

  • Practical Tip—Burping, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, and diarrhea are also potential side effects with fish oil. Look to eliminate these side effects by freezing and/or taking the supplements with a meal. If you still experience negative side effects, you might try krill oil or isolated EPA or DHA supplements. You may also want to talk to your doctor about the trade-offs and alternative supplements and medications that can help you achieve comparable health benefits.

 

Cannabis—The Ultimate Alternative Medicine

To us, cannabis is something of a singular case when it comes to alternative medicine. In a lot of ways, it’s the ultimate alternative medicine. Due to antiquated laws, information, and attitudes about the drug, the DEA continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. For this reason alone, it can’t be considered a mainstream medical treatment. On the other hand, in many states, it’s possible to find a doctor and have an honest conversation based on the latest medical evidence and a personal health evaluation about whether cannabis is a medically appropriate treatment, as well as the potential hazards and benefits associated with its recreational use. It’s culturally accepted in a growing number of contexts and yet outside of the law in many jurisdictions.

 

Cannabis is also like a lot of alternative medicine in that, even outside of a traditional healthcare provider, it’s widely available to a lot of people who must make a personal choice about whether or not to use it. And, unfortunately, this choice has to be made with limited information and an incomplete understanding of the potential consequences. Of course, this can also be said about a lot of widely accepted medical treatments, too. It’s not like you or your doctor can know for sure how you’ll react to a painkiller, especially if you’ve never taken an opiate before.

 

One of the things we consistently advocate for at Alternative Medicine Channel is more research. Not just in the number of studies but also in the replication and honest inquiry into the basic questions of health policy and medical practice. In other words, when, how, and at what cost can cannabis be used as an effective medical treatment? Surely, this is another thread that ties cannabis to the larger history and movement of alternative medicine: What would we know and where would be now if we had invested in more research and development of alternative medicine?

 

How is Alternative Medicine Different than Holistic Medicine?

We see alternative medicine as different than holistic medicine in that alternative medicine is always outside the mainstream. Holistic medicine, by definition, takes an inclusive approach that includes “western medicine” and health protocols that are widely accepted by the medical community. Alternative medicine, in contrast, focuses on these treatments, practices, and lifestyle choices beyond the mainstream. It’s like a syllogism for subsets: Alternative medicine is holistic, but holistic medicine isn’t necessarily alternative.

 

Put another way, we have nothing against holistic medicine and mainstream healthcare. If we break a bone, hit our head, or have a sharp abdominal pain, we go to the ER or at least make an appointment with our doctor. But there’s also a long list of preventative steps and experimental treatments that can be utilized outside of acute care services. There are yet undiscovered and underutilized alternative medicines that are destined to become the mainstream.

 

Moreover, many chronic medical conditions resist first- and second-line treatment protocols. Many medical conditions aren’t cured only managed. And when it comes to not feeling like crap, when you’re experiencing a host of intermittent symptoms of indeterminate cause, it’s tough to know what parts of your diet, exercise, and daily habits are contributing to or mitigating your symptoms. Krohn’s. Asthma. Arthritis. Obesity. Fibromyalgia. Orthopedic pain. Nausea and vomiting. Migraines. The list goes on and on.

 

Let’s get back to the original question: How is alternative medicine different than holistic medicine? Alternative medicine picks up where mainstream medicine leaves off. It seeks attention, further study, and legitimacy when it’s due. Or at least that’s how the Alternative Medicine Channel sees it. Do you see it a different way? Tell us your views. Send us an email with a note about your organization or personal expertise, and we’ll share it with our audience.