Types of Alternative Medicine: Understand Your Options

Ayurveda alternative therapies

Types of Alternative Medicine (or AlternativeTherapies)

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Have you ever used alternative therapies? Do you know how many types of alternative therapies there are?

It is estimated that more than 30% of U.S. adults use health care that is outside of mainstream Western medicine. 

I have used alternative therapies,  and as explained throughout this post, they have done wonders for my health. 

So, what are alternative therapies?

Alternative Medicine definition

According to Oxford:

Any of a range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession, such as herbalism, naturopathy, and crystal healing.

To say it another way, alternative medicine or alternative therapies are therapeutic practices that are not part of conventional medicine.

There are more than 100 systems of alternative medicines in practice all over the world.

The First World Congress of Alternative Medicines was held in Italy in 1973, convened by the Medical Faculty of the University of Rome.

Within the USA, there are 50 institutions that use some form of alternative therapy, although they use the word integrative in their name; for example, Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and the Mayo Clinic.

Most of them offer treatments like acupuncture, massage, and nutrition counseling, along with conventional drugs and surgery.

Difference between alternative medicine and complementary therapies

conventional vs alternative medicine photo, ginger and lemon versus pills

The term Complementary is used when these alternative therapies are used along with conventional health care.

For example, if someone is receiving chemotherapy but they also receive acupuncture treatments to assist with nausea and other side effects, acupuncture, in this case, would be a complementary therapy.

In this same scenario, if you used acupuncture as your sole treatment, then it would be described as an alternative therapy.

For this post, I will use the term alternative therapies (or alternative medicine) regardless of whether they are used as a complementary therapy or not.

Have you ever wondered if alternative medicine really works? Is alternative medicine effective?

Alternative medical practices are generally not recognized by the medical community as a conventional approved medical approach. 

The reason I believe that so many people distrust alternative practices is because of some dishonest practitioners that are associated with them; some individuals and corporations have taken financial advantage of sick and vulnerable people looking for alternative hope outside of conventional medicine.

That has given the entire alternative medicine community a bad reputation and it is true that alternative therapies are not always the best way to achieve healing.

However, as I mentioned in the introduction of this post Alternative therapies are awesome.

I have written in this article The Truth About Conventional Medicine and Alternative Therapies the advantages and disadvantages of using alternative (and conventional) medicine. 

The opponents of homeopathy and other alternative treatments claim that the only reason why these therapies work is because of the placebo effect.

A placebo is a substance, such as a pill or a shot, that doesn’t contain any active medicine.

The placebo effect (or placebo response) occurs when this neutral treatment improves a person’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.

Dr holding placebo pills

It is true to some extent, the stronger our belief that a treatment method will work, the better the results.

Our mindset is crucial for healing to occur, but so are other genetic and spiritual factors. I don’t believe that all alternative therapies work purely because of the placebo effect.

In my case, I have received immense relief from conditions that conventional medicine was not able to treat (or, I was not able to find a conventional doctor that could help me).

If you are wondering, I tried acupuncture to treat exhaustion. A hard and painful C-section recovery and going back to work four months later proved to be very taxing for me.

Everybody said it was normal to feel tired when you have a small baby, but a year and a half after delivery I was still ridiculously tired and depressed.

My blood work was normal and I was sleeping well, so my doctor wasn’t sure what was causing the tiredness or how to treat it. 

I was talking about my tiredness one day with a relative who suggested I try acupuncture, as she was finding it very helpful with her condition.

I then remembered that one of my friends told me how she healed from chronic wrist pain by going to an acupuncturist.

acupuncture person inserting fine needles on someones back

So, I decided to try it, and I’m so glad I did. Although I didn’t feel cured after the first session, I did feel slightly better.

I went back for about another five or six sessions over the next two months and I totally picked up physically.

I’m sure I had some energy blockages and acupuncture restored the flow of energy in my body. The acupuncturist noted how I looked drained and pale in my first appointment and how I had pink checks in my last one.

I certainly felt way better.

So, why some alternative therapies don’t work, or don’t seem to work?

alternative and conventional medicine

No one method works for everybody, even if the initial diagnoses seem similar.

Each healing modality has a specific frequency, and each person is unique and carries a specific frequency too.

Understanding how we contracted the disease ultimately affects the treatment required.

There are various reasons some healing modalities work for some people and not for others:

1. Natural preferences

You are going to be naturally drawn to particular healing modalities and not at all to others.

For example, you might feel very comfortable seeing an acupuncturist, but not an energy healer.

If you are afraid of a particular form of treatment, such as chemotherapy or a past-life regression technique, the resulting tension will interfere with your ability to heal.

But if you are impressed with the statistical results of such a treatment, you know friends and family members who have seen positive results with it, and you are open to it, then you will significantly improve the chances of it working for you.

Healing will occur to the degree that the familiarity with the treatment makes your body feel secure and helps it to relax.

2. Using the wrong therapy

Aura layers in different colors

Some therapies reach up to heal only a specific level of the aura. (our energy field).

For example, chiropractic therapy reaches up through the physical body and first levels of the aura, as do herbs, drugs, and surgery.

Energy healing, Reiki, meditating, sound, and crystals all reach the upper levels of the auric field and have a better chance of healing emotional/spiritual problems.

3. The life lesson you came to master

The life lesson you came to master sometimes manifests as hereditary conditions.

This is the reason why some illnesses that “run in the family” are present in some members but not in others.

4. You need to get to the bottom of the issue

Sometimes no single therapy works because people need to get to the bottom of certain issues before they are ready to release them.

They are determined to hit bottom, and there is nothing anybody can say or do that will stop their determination to go there.

Hitting bottom is something they wish to do, consciously or unconsciously, because they know they will eventually re-emerge stronger than ever.

What is the most popular alternative medicine?

The most popular alternative therapy is probably acupuncture, followed closely by Ayurveda, Homeopathy, and Reiki.

What are alternative therapies in health and medicine?

alternative therapies in health and medicine

Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine is a bimonthly peer-reviewed medical journal covering alternative medical treatments.

Their mission is to promote the art and science of integrative medicine and a responsibility to improve public health. 

In their site you can find original, peer-reviewed scientific articles that provide health care providers with continuing education to promote health, prevent illness, and treat disease. 

Five major types of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)

One of the most widely used classification structures, developed by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCAM), divides CAM modalities into five categories:

  1. Alternative medical systems: Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Naturopathy, and Homeopathic.
  2. Mind-body interventions: These use the mind as a tool to alleviate the symptoms or disease. Includes meditation, prayer, and mental healing. I have included Hypnotherapy. 
  3. Biologically based treatments: Substances found in nature: herbs, and supplements. I included essential oils here.
  4. Manipulative and body-based methods: Chiropractic, osteopathic, reflexology, and massage.
  5. Energy therapies: Reiki, spiritual and distance healing.

1. Alternative Medical  Systems (or Traditional alternative medicine)

These therapies have been practiced for centuries worldwide and are the more mainstream forms of accepted therapies.

1.1. Traditional Chinese Medicine

traditional chinese medinine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a healing system of Eastern medicine developed in China more than 2,000 years ago.

TCM draws on the belief that qi (“vital energy” or “chi”) is essential for overall health.

TCM practitioners see disease as the result of disruptions in the circulation of qi.
The primary goal of TCM is to create wholeness and harmony within a person, allowing the mind/body/spirit to heal itself.

They assess three major items in a person:

  1. The patient’s external factors or environment (seasons, weather).
  2. The patient’s emotional state, and how they can help them manage stress in a healthy way.
  3. The patient’s lifestyle (exercise, diet).

In TCM, emotions and physical health are intimately connected.

They view our emotions as impacting our vital organs. Anger affects the liver. Worry and over-thinking affect the spleen and digestion. Sadness and grief harm the lungs. Fear damages the kidney. Shock disorients the qi of the heart, spleen, and kidney.
Every emotion that is not properly digested and dealt with is stored within the heart, muscles, and fibers within our body, which in turn causes various ailments to appear in our lives.

To restore the qi, TCM practitioners are trained to use a variety of ancient and modern therapeutic methods, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling.

1.2. Ayurveda


Ayurvedic medicine is a system of healing that originated in ancient India.

In Sanskrit, ayur means “life” or “living,” and veda means “knowledge,” so Ayurveda has been defined as the “knowledge of living” or the “science of longevity.”

According to Ayurvedic theory, everything in the universe is connected; therefore, anything that affects our physical, spiritual, or emotional well-being can cause us to be out of balance with the universe.

Good health is achieved when our mind, body, and spirit are in harmony with the universe.

Deepak Chopra, MD, a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, says that the two main guiding principles of Ayurveda are that (a) the mind and the body are connected, and (b) nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind.

Chopra explains that meditation is just one of the most powerful tools the ancient Ayurvedic physicians prescribed for balancing the mind and body.

Ayurveda also offers many other practices for expanding self-awareness and cultivating your innate state of balance, such as nutrition, counseling, massage, natural medications, and herbal remedies.

1.3. Naturopathy

naturopathy pills

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are physicians trained in the art and science of natural health care at accredited medical colleges.

ND’s prescribe natural treatments such as herbal medicine, acupuncture and other oriental remedies, hydrotherapy, and nutrition and diet.

The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) states that Naturopathic doctors treat all medical conditions and can provide both individual and family health care.

Among the most common ailments they treat are allergies, chronic pain, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, obesity, respiratory conditions, heart disease, fertility problems, menopause, adrenal fatigue, cancer, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

NDs can perform minor surgeries, such as removing cysts or stitching up superficial wounds. However, they do not practice major surgery.

NDs are trained to utilize prescription drugs, although the emphasis of naturopathic medicine is the use of natural healing agents.

1.4. Homeopathy

homeopathy pills and bottle

From the National Center for Homeopathy:

Homeopathy is a safe, gentle, and natural system of healing that works with your body to relieve symptoms, restore itself, and improve your overall health. It is extremely safe to use, even with very small children and pets, has none of the side effects of many traditional medications, is very affordable, is made from natural substances, and is FDA regulated. It is used to treat acute illnesses, like colds, ear infections, migraines, and sore throats, as well as chronic conditions, like asthma, depression, autism, and arthritis.

Homeopathy is prescribed according to three basic principles:

1. Like cures like.
2. The more a remedy is diluted, the greater the potency.
3. Illness is specific to the individual.

Homeopathy is based on the belief that symptoms are signs of the body’s effort to get rid of disease, and treatment is based on the whole person, rather than on the symptoms.

2. Mind-Body Interventions (Mind therapies)

Some healing modalities use the mind as a tool to understand the causes of disease and to treat stress and phobias. These include meditation and hypnotherapy.

2.1 Meditation

lady meditating

Meditation has been associated with a decrease in stress, depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia, along with an increase in quality of life.

When we meditate, we enter a state of expanded awareness and inner quiet that refreshes the mind and restores balance. When we are calm and peaceful our soul comes through our emotions to give us guidance.

Meditation also helps us to raise our vibration, which is essential for healing our bodies and to receive our desires.

Since the mind and body are inseparable, the body is naturally balanced through the practice of meditation.

Self-care and meditation are our greatest healers.

If you are feeling anxious for any reason this is a great free meditation to reduce stress and anxiety:

2.2. Hypnotherapy


Hypnotherapy is the use of a state of focused attention, achieved through guided relaxation, to access the subconscious mind. Hypnosis is used for memory recall, medical treatment, skill enhancement, or personal growth.

Psychology Today writes that it can be used to treat anxiety, phobias, substance abuse including tobacco, sexual dysfunction, undesirable spontaneous behaviors, and bad habits. It can also be used to help improve sleep, learning disorders, communication, and relationship issues.

Hypnotherapy is a means of bypassing the conscious mind and accessing the subconscious, where suppressed memories, repressed emotions, and forgotten events are recorded.

Hypnosis may facilitate behavioral, emotional, or attitudinal changes such as weight loss or smoking cessation. It is also used to treat phobias and stress.

Sometimes we have deep-rooted fears coming from previous lives, such as an irrational fear of heights, losing a loved one, or being unsuccessful.

For example, death by drowning may lead to fear of being immersed in water, and a child who remembers a life that ended in shooting may show a phobia of guns and loud noises.

You will know if hypnotherapy feels right for you or not. You might want to try it if you have tried other therapies to treat phobias, stress, or other issues, without success.

3. Biologically based treatments: Substances found in nature: herbs, supplements.


3.1 Herbal therapy

Herbal therapy is an ancient form of healing still widely used in much of the world.

Herbalism uses natural plants or plant-based substances to treat a range of illnesses and to enhance the functioning of the body’s systems.

Though herbalism is not a licensed professional modality in the United States, herbs are prescribed by a range of practitioners. There is a body of knowledge about the herbal treatments used by various Native Americans, and much of the information has been tested and incorporated into our present herbal therapies.

Some ND’s are also trained in homeopathy.

Please note, you could be putting your health at risk if you take unprescribed dietary supplements. Please ensure you know what you are taking in your body. 

Related: 5 Ways you could be self-sabotaging your mind, body, and soul healing (#4, taking unprescribed dietary supplements)

3.2 Essential oils

Essential oils bottles

Essential oils are the botanical extracts of plant leaves, the life force of plants.

Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy. They can be used on their own and also for example with a massage treatment. 

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) defines aromatherapy as “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing.”

Essential oils are wonderful to treat many ailments, a full explanation of what essential oils are, their pros and cons, and how to use them is too long to explain in this post. 

I have talked about essential oils in this post: 11 Powerful Self-Healing Practices for Your Mind, Body, and Soul, and you can also find a lot of free content on the internet. This guide from Dr. Axe is very thorough.

4. Manipulative and body-based methods: Chiropractic, osteopathic, reflexology, massage

Physical therapies are based on the premise that an illness or injury in one part of the body affects all parts, and that manual manipulation will create and speed recovery.

Touch has been used in medicine since the early days of medical care.

The most commonly used types of physical therapies are osteopathy, chiropractic, and massage.
Chiropractic is the best therapy known in this category, and chiropractors are licensed to practice in every U.S. state

4.1 Osteopathy


Osteopathic medicine is a system of medicine based on the theory that disturbances in the musculoskeletal system affect other body parts, causing many disorders that can be corrected by various manipulative techniques in conjunction with conventional medical, surgical, pharmacological, and other therapeutic procedures.

Osteopathic physicians provide comprehensive medical care, including preventive medicine, diagnosis, surgery, prescription medications, and hospital referrals.

Osteopathic Doctors (DOs) are complete physicians. That means they are fully trained and licensed to prescribe medication and to perform surgery.

In diagnosis and treatment, they pay particular attention to the joints, bones, muscles, and nerves, and are specially trained in osteopathic manipulative treatment – using their hands to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness.

According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) DOs are fully trained medical doctors (MDs) who receive additional extensive training in the body’s structure and function.

4.2 Doctors of Chiropractic (DC)

The chiropractor views the spine as the backbone of human health; misalignments of the vertebrae caused by poor posture or trauma can cause pressure on the spinal nerve roots, leading to diminished function and illness.

Through manipulation or adjustment of the spine, treatment seeks to analyze and correct these misalignments. Adjustments involve the manipulation of the spine and joints to re-establish and maintain normal nervous system functioning.

Some chiropractors employ additional therapies, such as massage, nutrition, and applied kinesiology.

The American Chiropractic Association states that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands officially recognize chiropractic as a health care profession. Many other countries also recognize and regulate chiropractic, including Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, and Switzerland.

4.3 Reflexology

reflexology getting foot massage

Reflexology is based on the idea that there are reflex points on the feet that correspond to every organ, gland, and part of the body. For example, the head is reflected in our big toe.

With fingers and thumbs, the practitioner applies pressure to these points to treat a wide range of stress-related illnesses.

The alternating pressure has a stimulating effect on the body. Reflexology improves nerve and blood supply.

Some people use essential oils and rub them on their feet to aid healing, based on reflexology. I do that often with many types of essential oils.

Reflexology helps the body to restore its balance naturally, and when done by a professional reflexologist it is one of my favorite alternative treatments.

Please note. Many spas offer reflexology treatments but the therapist just provides a foot massage. That is not reflexology.

If you wish to try it you might want to check first the credentials of the reflexologist or visit The International Institute of Reflexology website for professional practitioners near you.

5. Energy Therapies

Energy work is beginning to be acknowledged by mainstream medicine although healing and working with energy and the Light Body is nothing new. Shamanic practitioners all over the world used Light Body healing techniques a long time ago.

Energy medicine is based on the premise that everything is energy and that changes in the life force of the body affect human health and can promote healing.

Healers work by balancing the auric field.

5.1 Reiki

REIKI energy healing lady giving healing

Reiki is an ancient Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing.
It’s administered by “laying on hands” and can easily be learned by anyone.

Reiki is commonly used to treat emotional and mental distress as well as chronic and acute physical problems. It can also assist the recipient in achieving spiritual focus and clarity.

The following is an explanation of how Reiki works from The International Center for Reiki Training:

Reiki heals by flowing through the affected parts of the energy field and charging them with positive energy. It raises the vibratory level of the energy field in and around the physical body where the negative thoughts and feelings are attached. This causes the negative energy to break apart and fall away. In so doing, Reiki clears, straightens and heals the energy pathways, thus allowing the life force to flow in a healthy and natural way.

I have received Reiki sessions and I have learned to use it for my family and myself.
It is wonderful!

I have read blogs and articles that report Reiki (and energy healing in general) to be a fraud, but from my perspective, the reasons they might view Reiki as a fraud are threefold:

  1. A closed mind to any therapy outside of conventional medicine. (Ironically, many people who totally dismiss and trash Reiki have never had a session.)
  2. Not every therapy works for everybody, so it could be that the people receiving Reiki didn’t experience healing or the relief they were expecting.
  3. The problem is the alleged practitioner and/or teacher, not Reiki. Some practitioners are better and more experienced than others, although that happens with all practitioners in both conventional and alternative medicine.

One of the best ways to find a qualified Reiki Master is to go to the International Center for Reiki Training, go to its membership listing, pick the state you live in, and then find a practitioner near you. Call them or go to see the practitioner you selected.

Many professional experienced Reiki practitioners are not listed with the International Center for Reiki Training (ICRT). This is because there are other ways to obtain the Reiki qualification and students don’t have to go through ICRT.

However, ICRT is the only Reiki organization I’m aware of that keeps a public online listing of all its practitioners.

A lot of Reiki practitioners also use essential oils, crystals, and other alternative therapies to aid healing.

Closing thoughts

This Hindu proverb summarizes this post perfectly (which can also apply to religion and to many other facets of life):

Hindu Proverb

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong. —Hindu Proverb

There are many types of alternative practitioners. Always check their credentials and patient reviews. There is excellent alternative education available for every viable modality.

Most importantly, pay attention to how you feel about the treatment itself.

I believe we would be at optimal health if we used both, conventional and alternative therapies.

You might find useful the following related healing posts:

Related healing posts

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