What’s the deal with Alternative Medicine?

by Christine M. Dionese L.Ac MSTOM, Integrative Health Care Specialist

It’s all over the news, made popular by celebrities in the pursuit of healthier lifestyles and alternative treatments for their seasonal flu or back pain.  Alternative medicine, or Integrative medicine as the health care community has come to know it, is becoming increasingly popular, both in the world of Western medicine and society as a whole.  By this point you must be asking yourself, “What is all this alternative medicine nonsense?”  Is it worth your time?  Is there any evidence that it works?  Our Integrative medicine expert weighs in on the subject with responses to a series of frequently asked questions about the specialty and its growing popularity.

Q: What is Integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine, also known as integrative health care, is the combination of alternative and conventional western medical modalities. Proponents find integrative medicine appealing because of its solution-oriented focus in contrast to the common problem-centered “fix-it” health care we see in Western medicine.  In the US, integrative medicine offers patients comprehensive clinical care by combining traditional medicine with evidenced-based complementary therapies.

Q: What are the primary defining principles of integrative medicine?

Integrative medicine focuses on all aspects of human health, seeing the person as a whole, not simply a sum of their parts. The primary principles of integrative medicine include:

  • A focus on whole body medicine to prevent, heal and treat illness
  • Use of the least invasive procedures possible
  • Accessing of lifestyle and natural support whenever possible
  • Treatments proven by evidence-based, peer reviewed research

Q: What types of alternative medicine is used to complement conventional Western medicine?

Evidence-based complementary therapies such as Naturopathy, Chinese medicine, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Osteopathic medicine, Chiropractic, Nutritional, Ayurvedic medicine, Functional and Environmental medicine encompass the most widely accessed modalities of alternative medicine. You can learn more about each one by visiting the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division within the National Institute of Health.

Q: What does integrative medicine treat and who is it good for?

As a rule, integrative medicine is designed to prevent, heal and treat illness concurrently. Almost any health concern, whether acute or chronic can be addressed with integrative health care thus making it suitable for people of all ages. The Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine conducted a prospective study eliciting biologically favorable affects on adults who accessed integrative care (1). Nationwide surveys indicate that not only are older adults benefiting from integrative care, but that children and parents of young children are beginning to make up a higher percentage of those accessing integrative health care in the US.

Q: Can kids can access integrative medicine as well?

A survey conducted by the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, the longest running pediatric integrative medicine program in the US, reported that 90% of parents were interested in learning more about integrative approaches for their children.

To see a discussion about this survey, explore their site here.

In the US, many pediatric oncology centers have expanded their medical scope to include on-site integrative care. Surveys, like the one conducted above suggest the need to continually review the research conducted on combining complementary and conventional medicine to measure treatment outcome. Continued review of treatment outcomes will lead to a better understanding of how to make the most precise use of each treatment in practice in addition to improving communication between health care providers and patients (2).

Q: Is there a specific example of a condition that is treated well with integrative medicine?

Let’s look at cancer as an example. Cancer is a serious multi-systemic condition that can affect many aspects of a person’s well-being.  Integrative medicine in conjunction with Western medicine is an excellent way to offer the most comprehensive care for this type of potentially life-threatening illness. Conventional care utilizes surgery, chemotherapy or radiation to eradicate malignancy while alternative care focuses on counteracting potential side affects of these treatments by providing immune, nutritional and emotional support. The two treatment approaches complement one another to eradicate disease and improve quality of life.

This is an excellent example of how different types of health care providers work collaboratively to provide comprehensive care for a patient. Some health care providers have titled their practice integrative care because they offer several modalities within their practice (which yield a more total body approach). Integrative health care also refers to a practice where both conventional and alternative providers working together as a team.

Q: Are there any medical journals that health care providers can reference with regards to integrative medicine?

Yes! Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal was launched as a peer reviewed journal in 2002. Editor-in-Chief and well-known naturopathic medical expert, Dr. Joseph Pizzorno is the co-founder of this bi-monthly publication. IMCJ boasts a truly integrative editorial review board consisting of nine physicians (MD), eight naturopathic doctors (ND), three PhDs, three chiropractors (DC), one doctor of Oriental medicine (OMD), one combined masters of business (MBA) and jurist doctorate (JD) and one masters of public health (MPH).

The US National Library of Medicine maintained by the National Institute of Health also lists the journal’s abstracts on PubMed. This medical research database is commonly used by a wide range of medical practitioners to access the latest research.

If you are interested in learning more about applying integrative medicine in your personal life or medical practice, contact our resident Integrative medicine expert, Christine Dionese at Reaching Beyond Now.


1. Grzywacz JG, Lang W, Nguyen HT, et al. Effects of complementary on health in a national US sample of older adults. Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2010; 16(7): 701-706.

2. Lin J, Kim M, Roth M, et al. Pediatric oncologists’ views toward the use of complementary and alternative medicine in children with cancer. Journal of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology. 2009 Mar; 31(3):177-82.


10 2010

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