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Frequently Asked Questions About Alternative Medicine

  • What is holistic medicine?
  • Answer:

    The basis of holistic medical practice is a belief in the intimate links between the brain, the body, and behavior. It takes into account not just your physical health, but how emotional, spiritual, social, and behavioral factors in your life can affect your body. 

    In some cases, holistic medicine works in a preventive sense, trying to disrupt the ill effects of outside forces on our health -- such as stress or other environmental factors. Some of these approaches can also be effective treatments for symptoms of many different medical conditions, such as headaches. Mind-body interventions include yoga, relaxation response therapy, hypnosis, visual imagery, meditation, biofeedback, tai chi, behavioral therapy, and prayer.

  • How popular is faith healing?
  • Answer:

    If by ''faith healing'' you mean the power of prayer in health crises, studies show it is extremely popular. Researchers found that 49% of Americans say they turned to prayer within the past year during a health crisis.

    One possible link, say experts, is that our spiritual beliefs help us cope with stress, which in turn has a positive impact on our health.

  • What is homeopathy, and how is it different from holistic medicine or alternative medicine?
  • Answer:

    The phrase "alternative medicine" means any healing or preventive health practice that falls outside the mainstream of Western medicine -- including homeopathy.

    But the term "alternative medicine" has generally been replaced by the phrase "integrative medicine" to illustrate that many "alternative" treatments are in fact used simultaneously, or integrated, with conventional medicine. Holistic medicine is another commonly used phrase to represent the collection of unconventional therapies.

    But what sets homeopathy apart from some other alternative treatments is that it is based upon a complete system of beliefs and practices. Homeopathy relies on the tenet that "like treats like," meaning that in order to cure something, you have to expose the body to small but controlled amounts of the offending substance. The idea is to stimulate the immune system and help the body build its own defenses -- in much the way a vaccine does.

    But what makes homeopathy unique is that it takes into account a patient's body, mind, and spirit when seeking both the cause and cure of a health problem -- and no two people are treated exactly alike, even if they have similar symptoms. Holistic medicine as well as integrative medicine work on a similar mind-body-spirit principal, but draw from conventional, or Western, medicine, as well.

    The results of individual, controlled clinical trials of homeopathy have been contradictory. In some trials, homeopathy appeared to be no more helpful than a placebo; in other studies, some benefits were seen that were greater than one would expect from a placebo. Systematic reviews have not found homeopathy to be a proven treatment for any particular medical condition. A common theme in the reviews of homeopathy trials is that it is difficult or impossible to draw firm conclusions about whether homeopathy is effective for any single condition.

  • What is meant by the term ''healthy home"?'
  • Answer:

    In general terms, it means a home that is environmentally "friendly" and promotes good health. This often means a reduction in chemical exposures, particularly in regard to cleaning chemicals, and "off-gassing" of toxins emanating from items such as pressed wood furniture, carpet padding, or stain-resistant fabrics. It also includes concerns about mold, which grows in wet or damp places and can cause respiratory problems and neurotoxic effects. Another concern is radon, a colorless, odorless gas that comes from the earth and can get into a home via cracks in the foundation. Exposure has been linked to various health concerns. Also important is making sure your home is lead-free -- it's still found in some water pipes and on older painted surfaces -- since it remains particularly harmful to growing children and pregnant women. The most important way to keep the environment in your home healthy is to not smoke.

  • What is ''living green'' all about?
  • Answer:

    The color green has become synonymous with saving our earth’s resources -- and to stopping chemical pollution and other practices damaging the earth’s surface as well as the environment. Going "green" means doing whatever you can, on a personal level, to foster the care of the earth, including reducing local pollution by using your car less or switching to a "hybrid" model. It also means conserving energy by switching to fluorescent light bulbs in areas like hallways, garages, and closets, and reducing the amount of landfills contributing to ground and water pollution by recycling everything from newspapers to used furniture. Another good "green" action is switching to organic lawn care products -- instead of harmful, air-polluting chemicals -- and working to keep your homes as free of chemical pollution as possible. These are just a few examples.    

    Overall, ''living green'' puts the focus on not only saving the earth’s resources, but in living a simpler, more natural life.

  • Does the mind control the body or the other way around?
  • Answer:

    Experts say the brain is not separate from the body -- it’s just another part of your physiology that uses hormones and other chemicals to interact with the areas from your neck down. At the same time, there are many who believe that it is the "thinking" area of our brain -- and the thoughts it processes -- that can affect some of that chemistry. One example is the role of stress in infertility. One study shows that when women are stressed, those emotions can affect the brain chemistry that influences reproductive hormones. The reverse can be seen in the healing powers of mind-body treatments such as medical hypnosis and meditation. They work to reduce stress by countering negative thoughts and emotions.

  • How does meditation work, and what does it do to the body?
  • Answer:

    An ancient spiritual tradition that is very much at home in the modern world, meditation seeks to relax the body by relaxing the mind. The most popular -- and medically studied -- types of meditation are transcendental meditation, kundalini, and mindfulness meditation. The first two involve focusing the mind by repeating a word or phrase (known as a "mantra") continuously for 10 to 20 minutes. The idea is to block all thoughts, so the brain is essentially "quiet." It is this peace, say practitioners, that produces a deep relaxation that in turn can affect systems body-wide, including heart rate, blood pressure, and even our response to pain. Indeed, some studies have shown that regular meditation can help reduce blood pressure, decrease  stress and improve the quality of life for some cancer patients.

  • What is meant by the term "mind-body exercises," and how do they improve your health beyond the normal benefits of working out?
  • Answer:

    Some people consider mind-body exercises to include anything from meditation to biofeedback to yoga, tai chi, and Pilates. 

    Tai chi was originally conceived as a martial art, a type of self-defense training that keeps the body in a constant state of fluid motion. The goal of yoga is to concentrate on establishing inner peace rather than preparing for war, and it’s based on achieving and holding "poses" while focusing breathing and incorporating centuries-old spirituality. Pilates helps strengthen your "core" muscles of the midsection and aims to improve posture, among other things.

    What all three have in common, however, is that they focus the mind while moving the body. Counted among the benefits is a deep sense of relaxation, which in turn increases blood flow and revs energy levels. All three activities also can improve balance and reduce stress, which in turn may affect blood pressure, heart rate, or even help control pain. All three also help build muscle tone, improve balance, and increase flexibility.

  • How do doctors really feel about alternative medicine? Do they view it as ''hocus pocus"?'
  • Answer:

    Because the field of alternative medicine is so broad and encompasses so many different types of treatment, it’s difficult to find any medical doctors who, across the board, endorse them all. That said, as more and more medical researchers are attracted to this field, and more studies are done, doctors are increasingly welcoming many forms of alternative medicine into their practice.

    Among the most popular endorsed by doctors are biofeedback, massage, acupuncture, and other relaxation techniques, according to a 2002 survey of 700 Denver-area doctors. Almost half said they'd recommend an alternative therapy.

    Meanwhile, more than 80% of the doctors surveyed said they felt they needed to learn more about alternative medicine in order to discuss it with their patients. So, expect that in the future more will be incorporating various forms of this treatment into their mainstream medical practices.

    The findings were reported in the May 27, 2002, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

     

  • How do I find a reliable alternative medicine practitioner?
  • Answer:

    Most doctors are not routinely familiar with every alternative medicine treatment. However, most know a little something about the ones backed by scientific evidence. As such, the best place to start is by asking your primary care doctor for a recommendation.

    Additionally, most medical schools and major teaching hospitals have centers devoted to alternative or integrative medicine -- or at the very least, retain a list of local practitioners they can recommend. If your insurance company covers alternative medicine treatments -- for example, biofeedback or acupuncture -- they would also be a good source of information. You can also contact professional organizations that represent the type of practitioner you are seeking. And universities that offer relevant degrees may also be able to provide a list of certified, licensed practitioners.

    Visit the web site for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) for guidance on selecting a practitioner.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 19, 2013

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