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What Is Integrative Medicine?

Experts explore new ways to treat the mind, body, and spirit -- all at the same time.

Finding the Evidence

The search for solid evidence is key: which therapies help and which don't? "There's a clamoring for understanding the biology of this," Sternberg says. Many proponents of integrative care say that it's crucial to hold alternative therapies up to scientific scrutiny, rather than dismissing them outright, because doctors and patients alike need answers. For example, a patient may be taking an herb that is harmful or may interfere with prescription drugs.

As a result, researchers across the country are studying complementary and alternative therapies for safety and effectiveness. Duke is studying whether stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation and writing in a journal, can help prevent preterm labor, which can be precipitated by stress-related hormones. In other clinical trials, researchers are trying to determine, among other things, how acupuncture affects brain activity, how biofeedback can better treat incontinence, and whether the medicinal herb valerian improves sleep in patients with Parkinson's disease.

With the large numbers of people using nontraditional therapies, even finding out what doesn't work can be valuable. For example, researchers affiliated with the Osher Center at the University of California, San Francisco, completed a study that showed that saw palmetto did not improve benign prostate hyperplasia, a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. More than 2 million men in the U.S. take saw palmetto as an alternative to drugs. The results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Tracy Gaudet, MD, director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine, says she encounters little resistance once fellow doctors understand that integrative medicine doesn't entail "blindly advocating for alternative approaches and rejecting conventional ones."

"That's not what we're about," she says. "There's a lot of quackery out there and a lot of dangerous therapies. Our first priority is to guide people away from them."

"We all want the same thing: the best care for patients," Gaudet says.

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Reviewed on April 16, 2009
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