Small white meadow flowers. Photo credit: Michel Paz @mrmichelpaz on

The Evolution of Complementary Medicine and Alternative Healing

Observing the health trends taking place over the past few decades in the United States, it's becoming evident we have been making significant progress toward creating a safer, more open environment for effective, accessible, and viable alternatives to expensive and sometimes dangerous practices of conventional medicine.

This reality coming into existence is emerging out of urgent necessity. As we witness some of the frightening failures of our current medical system, we can see why this has been taking place. Reasons for this sea change include:

  • The high number of medical errors, which is the third leading cause of death in the United States;
  • This report that states 1 out of every 15 children who enter the hospital – approximately 540,000 – suffered from a medical dosage mishap, such as overdosage, adverse chemical reactions, or improper administration;
  • The staggering cost of healthcare that isn't covered by insurance;
  • The dangers of prescriptions drugs, especially opioids, and unwanted side effects such as weight gain, dizziness, headaches, blood clots, immune system suppression, decreased liver function, even death.

Desperate for relief when conventional medicine fails in cases such as the above examples, people turn to alternative healing as a last hope. Much of the desperation comes mainly from the inability to obtain any long-lasting relief from their chronic, debilitating illnesses. Instead of being cured of their disease – because modern medicine is incapable of curing diseases and ailments such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, neuropathy, and asthma – patients are prescribed controlled drugs to only manage symptoms. Because so many people seek relief from their suffering, pharmaceutical companies have been blessed with the promise of steady revenue from lifelong prescriptions. If you notice the ads on television and in print media, you'll notice time and again these symptom-managing drugs make up the bulk of their marketing.

Not only are people's chronic diseases just being managed with pharmaceuticals, but patients also have to deal with a multitude of side effects. Then it becomes a question of which is worse - the disease or the side effects? And what about the safety of those drugs? History shows FDA testing is an unreliable factor in determining the long-term safety of many prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Alarms are continually going off over the safety of ingredients, especially opioids. Here are just a few of the drugs pulled since 1997: infant cold medicine, Vioxx, Bextra, Darvocet, ergotamine, Rezulin, Lotronex, Prepulsid, Redux, Pondimin, Duract, Seldane, Hismanal, Posicor, and Raxar. How many others are there that should be pulled but are still being prescribed?

Although not every form of healing is 100 percent safe, the wisdom from herbalism, Oriental medicine, Yoga, Ayurveda, massage, naturopathy, Tai Chi, and even energy healing, has been handed down for centuries for good reason. Our collective knowledge about the safety of the chemicals put in most of today's medicine has only been around for a few decades, if that long.

With the associated risks being comparatively much smaller, interest in alternative healing has steadily grown. According to the NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health's latest research from 2012, 33.2% of U.S. adults and 11.6% of U.S. children age 4 to 17 used complementary health approaches. The most commonly used complementary approach was natural products, aside from nutrient supplementation (fish oil was the #1 natural product). The mind and body approaches most commonly used by adults included yoga, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, meditation, and massage therapy. Interest in yoga especially has steadily grown over the years, being practiced by almost 10% of the U.S. population in 2012, and I wouldn't be surprised if that number has skyrocketed since the last study by NIH. Their research on yoga also showed most people who practiced it typically enjoyed reduced stress, felt motivated to exercise more, and experienced improved emotional well-being.

People are spending more on complementary health approaches, too, because inevitably we have come to realize it saves money in the long term from having to fork over jaw-dropping out-of-pocket costs for conventional medical care. At the time of the last NIH survey, Americans spent $14.7 billion out-of-pocket on visits to complementary practitioners and $12.8 billion on natural products. The report also stated, "Between 2002 and 2012, use rates for chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage among people who had no insurance coverage for these types of care increased, suggesting an increased willingness to pay out-of-pocket."

In the state of Colorado, more than 1.5 million people (out of a population of 5 million) receive a considerable degree of their healthcare from alternative practitioners, which is probably why Colorado lawmakers passed the Colorado Natural Health Consumer Protection Act in 2013 to provide an exemption from the regulation of those practitioners. This is heartening to know that awareness exists among at least some higher-up officials of alternative healing's growing popularity, and that especially practitioners who have been handed down healing wisdom, rather than obtain it scholastically from textbooks, have the freedom to practice ancient and time-tested modalities without fear of stifling government control. 

The tide has been slowly but steadily turning on our approach to improving our well-being. Instead of reacting to illness, we are being proactive in maintaining health by seeking a holistic balance of mind, body, and spirit. We are becoming empowered and more aware of how to take care of our whole selves and embracing more affordable proactive self-care. In this regard, we are waking up to the irony of modern medicine's fundamental precept, primum non nocere, or "do no harm," and taking it upon ourselves to control our own health outcomes. 

As we expand our understanding of true healing and the mechanisms of our own wellness practices, what we may ultimately realize is that the power of our minds, such as that demonstrated by the placebo effect, is a potent and consistent form of healing, and that it is likely the primary ingredient in every form of healing. When our collective humanity arrives at this juncture of realization, we will finally experience true freedom and expanded awareness of our inherent powerful abilities to shape our lives.