Alternative medicine, as the name suggests, refers to alternative treatments that are not considered conventional. These alternative methods or products are often considered to be the “sidekicks” of conventional medicine, hence they are usually referred to as “complementary and alternative medicine”.

For something that is supposed to be a second choice, a surprising number of people actually know about and practice these alternative therapies. A survey done in 2016 revealed that 50% of adults in America have tried alternative medicine before, and a large portion belong to those suffering from chronic conditions.

Based on various similar surveys conducted, the main reason for people to use alternative medicines is to complement conventional medicine, either to boost its effects or to fill the gaps the conventional medicine can not. Other reasons include recommendation by their doctors, the inability to afford standard treatments, disbelief in conventional medicine, and of course, novelty.

As new scientific knowledge is constantly being discovered and published, policies and regulations related to health need to be upgraded as well. Regular, quick and safe updates are an important aspect in the people’s rights to healthcare.

Imposing laws on alternative medicine is crucial especially because these are things that can affect your body physically. Obviously, too little regulation could be dangerous. For example an unregulated supplement could have incorrect labelling, and result in further health problems when taken incorrectly.

However, too much regulation or complete bans might restrict access to the benefits of some effective forms of therapy. Also, having laws that are officially in the book but not enforced could lead to under-the-table, unregulated and unsafe practices to fulfill increasing demands.

Since the rules and information the government can issue immediately are limited by the current scientific knowledge, most regulations of alternative medicine tend to focus on the safety of the product, and not its efficacy. Thus, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, certified supplements are not promised to work, but are not likely to inflict any harm beyond those stated on their labels.

On the Federal Level

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies alternative medicine into four domains: biologically-based practices, energy therapies, manipulative and body-based methods, and mind-body medicine.

The image that comes to mind when we hear the words “alternative medicine” are probably herbs and supplements. These fall under the first domain of biologically-based practices where a substance is taken or applied to induce biological changes in the body. These also include non-oral medications like ointments and lotions.

Energy therapies consist of both energies that can be measured and energies that currently can not be detected by any machine. Examples of measurable energies are radiation, light rays, magnetism and sound. Non-measurable energies are usually manipulated in the body through practices such as Qigong, Reiki and yoga.

Manipulative and body-based practices can be understood to be what we know as physiotherapy, where movement of the physical body whether by the healer or the patient is the main focus. Popular examples are chiropractic and massage therapies.

The last domain, mind-body medicine, uses different approaches to promote a healthy mind which in turn can help to boost overall health or cure a physical disease. You have probably heard about the benefits of meditation and hypnotherapy, as this is also a favourite amongst alternative therapies.

The last two domains are more action-based and are mostly not controlled by the FDA unless equipment or other products are required in the process. The clinics, practitioners, and methods that fall under these domains are usually regulated by individual committees that have been approved by the government.

For the first two domains, products are regulated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act under the FDA. These regulations can be imposed anywhere from the production methods, labeling, and exact components and amounts used in the product.

Rules are Always Evolving

Nowadays, acupuncture is pretty recognized in our healthcare system and it is not uncommon for conventional doctors to recommend it. This mysterious therapy is still not fully explainable by science, yet it is very effective especially for pain relief.

However, it only became legal in America in the recent 1970s. After that, strict regulations for the acupuncture process were established and specific qualifications needed to be met to be a licensed acupuncturist.

In some cases, individual state regulations can shift faster than federal laws. As more and more states are decriminalizing medical marijuana, regulatory systems also have to be designed and set up.

This should apply to all the stakeholders involved in the production of the product up to the point when it reaches the consumer. For example, the New Jersey cannabis cultivation application requires that applicants submit a detailed proposal regarding everything from their exact farming process to their marketing plan.

The government’s role in regulating alternative medicines is important not only for the health and safety of the people, but also for the economy. As of 2020, the alternative medicine market is priced at 82.27 billion US dollars, and is predicted to continue rising until 2028. Proper regulations would definitely boost both demand and supply and is a key factor in this market.