Alternative Medicine: an overview


An important part of humans’ lives is health. Health and its problems have been afflicting mankind from ages. And while we have found cures to (and even completely eradicated) most of the problems and diseases our ancestors faced, healthcare is one aspect of humanity where we will always be playing catch-up. Primarily because cures can only be synthesized after the problems are understood.

The issue is that healthcare as a ‘component’ of our lives is in constant flux – newer health problems and diseases are manifesting. This even carries into health administration, including medical and healthcare recruitment. As time has progressed, we are living different lifestyles than our ancestors – we are getting lesser sleep (longer working hours, spending time on the Internet etc.) and lesser nutrients (due to increased consumption of processed foods, lower nutritional value in crops), to mention a few changes. This results in different healthcare issues than what our ancestors faced.

While doctors and healthcare experts are better understanding our problems and designing better cures the ailments, there is a new trend in healthcare people are turning to. Instead of relying on established medicines and treatments, people are exploring the ‘alternative’. In medicine, people often classify treatments as conventional/modern vs. alternative/natural, based on the source of cures – pharmaceutical (conventional medicine) or naturally eg. herbs (alternative medicine).

However, since most pharmaceutical drugs come from the natural world, it is a false dichotomy to simply label medicine as “conventional” or “alternative”; the reality is that the medicine is far more nuanced. From a scientific perspective, alternative medicine refers to treatments – and not just medicines which are ingested – which do not have enough scientific evidence to yield insights into how it works, or the evidence shows that the treatment actually does not has its proclaimed benefit(s).

Currently, ‘alternative’ medicines are those which are substitutes for conventional ones. While some (such as Yoga) have become part of conventional medicine, most are not. There are several alternative ‘medicines’ (including treatments) which claim to ‘cure’ incurable diseases, such as cancer and AIDS, based on a diet of special nutrients or a special “therapeutic procedures”. Other ‘medicines’ are touted to help people with addictions (such as smoking) to quit naturally.

Types of Alternative medicine

There are several types of alternative ‘medicine’ (including treatments), which can be broadly classified into the 3 categories based on how they are administered: consumable, body, and mind. Consumable refers to anything which is ingested, whether that is in the form of a herb, or their concoctions – as a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda – or even homeopathy. Some studies [1, 2] do show that there are benefits to consuming TCM and Ayurvedic medicines, while there are other studies which found TCM are actually harmful. Ayurveda, however, is increasingly prescribed by practitioners of ‘conventional’ medicine, and could soon be considered ‘conventional’. As for homeopathy, there is no evidence that it works, yet it is still a popular form of ‘drug/medicine’.

Then comes the ‘body’ –where there is physical interaction with the body, similar to massages and exercising. The most common treatments include chiropractic and yoga. Chiropractic treatments are often recommended for musculoskeletal (relating to the muscles and bones) ailments. However, there are studies which show that it can actually harm the body more than do good – even to muscles and bones. Then there is Yoga. While some medical professionals consider Yoga as a form of alternative medicine, there is enough scientific evidence to show that Yoga does help. It cures certain ailments, as well as improving the functioning of certain parts of the body; some doctors even recommend these as a form of physical exercise – and it is on the verge of becoming a part of conventional medicine.

Lastly, there is the medicine by ‘mind’. This refers to procedures which claim to work on the mind, by transference of energy. The most popular type of treatments are meditation and reiki. While there is enough evidence to suggest that meditation does work, some doctors contend that meditation alone cannot cure ailments, but it merely aids the healing process and wellness of the body – hence it is often characterized as ‘complementary’ medicine (to be ‘taken’ with other i.e. conventional medicines). Then there is reiki, which is administered by laying the practitioners hands on the patient’s hand. The practitioner then transfers a flow of “life force energy” into the patient. Practitioners do not claim that reiki helps in curing ailments, but it merely helps in maintaining wellness. It has even been administered to cancer patients, with the intention of helping them fight through the condition (but not treating the cancer directly). Yet no solid evidence exists that it revitalizes or benefits the body in any way.

The popularity

Most accredited physicians and researchers suggest that alternative medicine often work – if at all – due to the placebo effect, and not due to the body actually responding to the treatment. In addition, some of the benefits of the treatment come solely from the practitioner-patient interaction, which provides a psychological boost and aiding the recovery, but the treatment itself does not help physiologically. Nonetheless, people often turn to ‘alternative’ medicine because of the belief it will work (and a ‘conventional’ cure does not exist – as is the case for cancer or AIDS), or after ‘conventional’ medicines they tried did not yield any results. In addition, many people use ‘alternative’ medicine simply because the ‘conventional’ treatment was too expensive.

The industry

Despite the lack of sufficient evidence in most treatments, the entire global alternative medicine industry was valued at over US$40billion in 2015. The highest demand for alternative medicine came from Europe (primarily demand was for consumables) and Asia Pacific (consumables, as well as medical tourism for the ‘body’ and ‘mind’ treatments – as discussed above). The value is expected to grow four-folds, and be approximately US$200billion by 2025 – an astonishing growth rate for just a decade. While Asia Pacific and Europe are expected to continue being the key markets, Latin America is expected to see an increased demand due to the costs associated to – and the lack of availability of – conventional medicine.

As science has progressed, our understanding of and ability to solve problems in various areas, has improved as well. One such area is healthcare. While conventional healthcare and medicine have made strides, there is an increasing number of people turning to alternative medicine for treatments. Most of these treatments’ claims of helping the patients to cure diseases (or even help beat an addiction like smoking or drugs) are strongly contested by doctors, who cite the lack of (or insufficient) proper scientific evidence. Nonetheless, the entire industry is gaining prominence; it was last valued at US$40 billion in 2015 and is expected to grow by 4 times, in the span of a decade.

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