5 Common Questions About Complementary and Alternative Medicine

December 2020

When it comes to managing health, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults choose approaches outside of mainstream medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). You might have family or friends who’ve shared their medical success stories on natural treatments or mind–body practices.

But what does complementary and alternative medicine really mean? And which one is right for you? The answers to these five common questions can help you decide how these non-traditional approaches fit into your overall health and wellness plan.

What is alternative and complementary medicine?

The NCCIH defines alternative medicine as any healthcare approach that’s used in place of mainstream or conventional medicine. When alternative or natural medicine is used in conjunction with mainstream or conventional medicine, it’s considered complementary.

Complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, is the umbrella term for any healthcare approach outside of mainstream or conventional medical care.

CAM includes five categories, according to NCCIH:

  • Alternative medical systems, including Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy and naturopathy.
  • Mind–body interventions, including meditation, Tai Chi, yoga and prayer.
  • Biological treatments, including special diets and dietary supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, hormones, herbs and prebiotics and probiotics.
  • Manipulative and body-based methods, including chiropractic and massage therapy.
  • Energy therapies, such as qi gong and reiki.

What’s the difference between CAM and conventional medicine?

Conventional medicine focuses on evidence-based solutions. It’s care practiced by a licensed medical doctor (MD), doctor of osteopathy (DO) or other degreed health professionals, such as psychiatrists, nurses and physical therapists. It also includes prescription and over-the-counter drugs. These are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety and efficacy.

Conventional medicine goes by other names, including:

  • Standard medical care.
  • Western medicine.
  • Allopathic medicine.
  • Biomedicine.

Many hospitals, healthcare systems and cancer centers now offer CAM. This combined approach is known as integrative health. In general, integrative health uses CAM practices and products for which there is some evidence of benefit for specific health issues.

For example, acupuncture has been shown to alleviate nausea during pregnancy and chemotherapy.

Who can benefit from complementary and alternative medicine?

Many people turn to CAM to manage the side effects of their disease. If you’re facing cancer, CAM mind body practices, such as acupuncture and yoga, may help you manage treatment side effects. The National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer and Complementary Medicine provides evidence-based resources and information for cancer patients.

Some people incorporate CAM into their lifestyle to address mental and physical health issues. Natural supplements are one of the most popular ways people add CAM to their wellness plan. Some 77% of Americans report taking dietary supplements.

When traditional treatment options aren’t effective or stop working, people may begin exploring CAM options. Pain management is a common reason people turn to CAM, according to the NCCIH.

How do you know if a CAM practice or product is safe or effective?

Some CAM products and practices have evidence of benefit. Some don’t. And not all alternative medicine and natural products are harm free.

To evaluate the safety and efficacy of a CAM approach, you can read the latest evidence-based information on NCCIH’s Health Topics A-Z. This comprehensive databases covers CAM practices and products. It also covers specific conditions (such as Alzheimer’s, depression and heart disease) and which CAM approaches may help.

Unlike prescription and OTC drugs, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to review dietary supplements for safety and efficacy. That means manufacturers can’t claim their supplements prevent, diagnose, treat or cure diseases.

The National Institutes of Health has detailed consumer information for vitamin and mineral supplements. Each fact sheet covers:

  • What each supplement is and does.
  • How much you need each day, by age group.
  • What foods provide that vitamin or mineral.
  • What kinds of supplements are available.
  • Any interactions with the supplement.
  • Ongoing research on how the supplement may affect health.

It’s worth noting that some natural products may interact with medications you’re currently taking. For example, calcium supplements can interfere with the absorption of thyroid replacement hormone, making it less effective. Other supplements, such as St. John’s Wort, can interfere with heart medications.

That’s why it’s so important to tell your doctor or pharmacist about any CAM products you’re currently taking and to ask your pharmacist before starting any new ones. That way, you can avoid any unintended risks or side effects.

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