There are quite a few alternative medicines pros and cons to keep in mind as you dip your toes into these practices. And that’s precisely what we’re going to outline: the advantages and disadvantages of alternative medicine.

First things first, alternative medicines are mostly safe. That’s why about 38% of American adults and 12% of kids use them. So, if you’re using them (or planning to), then you’re not alone. In fact, about one-third of cancer patients and survivors rely on alternative therapies.

What exactly is alternative medicine? It’s a term that describes products and practices that are not used in standard, mainstream medical care. Doctors – including doctors of osteopathy – and allied health workers (like physical therapists and nurses) use standard medical practices and products to treat, cure and prevent diseases. Anything beyond that would qualify to be called an alternative form of medicine.

The truth is, alternative medicine is becoming harder and harder to define. That’s because doctors keep testing and moving some of those products and practices into the mainstream. A good example is acupuncture. Although it has traditionally been an alternative medicine, it’s also used in conventional medicine.

For that reason, acupuncture is more of a complementary medicine than alternative medicine. What’s the difference between the two? While alternative medicine is used as a substitute for conventional medicine, complementary medicine is used alongside the latter.

What Are Some Examples of Alternative Medicine?

A perfect example of alternative medicine is using chelation rather than conventional drugs to treat heart diseases. Chelation removes any excess metals from the body and therefore treats some heart diseases.

Similarly, if a physician prescribes you some detox drugs but you opt to use sauna visits, diet, essential oils and exercise to achieve the same results, then you have used alternative medicine.

What is the most popular alternative medicine?

Body and touch therapies are by far the most popular alternative medicines. They include a number of practices like massage, chiropractic, body movement therapies, yoga and tai chi.

Traditional medicinal practices like acupuncture, Ayurveda, naturopathy, and homeopathy are also popular. However, keep in mind that most of them are used alongside conventional medicine.

Next, we have dietary and herbal solutions that are just as popular as the first two. Here you get options like herbal medicines, dietary supplements, and nutrition regimens.

Brain-stimulating practices like meditation, hypnosis and biofeedback are also popular. They help people to build a better mind-body connection, which can often alleviate physical and emotional distress.

Other types of alternative medicine are external energy (reiki, electromagnetic therapy and qigong) and sense stimulants like music, art, dance and guided imagery. Needless to say, alternative medicines pros and cons vary depending on type. For example, some people don’t react well to herbs; which makes it a drawback. Below is a better low-down of the good and the (potentially) bad of alternative medicines.

What Are the Advantages of Alternative Medicine?

Prevention oriented: one of the biggest advantages of alternative medicines is that they focus on prevention. On the contrary, conventional medicine is mostly used to treat patients after they get sick. As the saying goes, prevention is better then cure. And that alone makes alternative medicines more attractive than mainstream treatments.

Encourage wholesome treatment: conventional medicine looks at a disease as a separate entity from the patient. Thus, if you have a respiratory disease, for example, your physician will focus entirely on treating only that and ignore other “healthy” parts of your body.

Alternative medicine, on the other hand addresses the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being of a patient. A good practitioner will give you a list of alternative medicine and follow it up with guided or DIY therapies that can boost your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.

Natural approach: alternative medicine uses natural products like herbs. It also employs therapeutic activities that don’t require drugs. In fact, any good doctor of alternative medicine will try to avoid prescribing medicines – including herbal medicines – as much as possible. This natural approach to healing is what draws many people to the practice.

Personal attention: granted, conventional doctors often see their patients face-to-face before they start treatment. Nonetheless, packed waiting rooms in hospitals usually mean that doctors lack the time to know their patients beyond their illnesses. It’s a sharp contrast to alternative medicine.

A doctor of alternative medicine will place a greater emphasis on the patient, get to know them properly before recommending any herbs or therapies. This personal attention gives the patient a warmer feeling than if they were in a hospital.

What Are the Risks of Alternative Medicine?

Limited research: we’re talking about scientific research. There’s barely enough material out there to prove that alternative medicine is as critical to societies as conventional medicine. It’s even hard to know which herbal medicines are 100% safe.

Nonetheless, there are currently multiple studies (some by big organizations like the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)) that might address some of these concerns.

Safety concerns: alternative medicines are mostly safe. However, some practices like Ayurveda use medicines that may contain harmful substances like lead. The same goes for herbs – some of them haven’t been tested to ensure that they are completely safe for human use. The biggest issue with alternative medicine is that the products used are neither regulated nor thoroughly tested.

The Bottomline

You may have noticed that the alternative medicines’ pros and cons don’t say definitively that it’s a good or a bad thing. It all boils down to the specific products that you use and whether you’re at risk of negative interactions.

Because of that, always start by researching what reputable agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have to say about the product you want to take. Additionally, keep a list of alternative medicine doctors who are certified. It means they know what’s safe for you and what’s not.