Practically every culture has had a medicine system; some developed more than one system, tradition, or philosophy to explain the causes of disease and suggest therapies to relieve symptoms. This section considers two alternative medicine systems that had their origins in Western culture—homeopathy and naturopathic medicine—and three that developed in non-Western cultures—acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Homeopathic medicine (also called homeopathy) is based on the belief that "like cures like" and uses very diluted amounts of natural substances to encourage the body's own self-healing mechanisms. Taken in higher doses or stronger concentrations, the natural substances used by homeopathy to stimulate self-healing likely
would produce the symptoms the diluted substance aimed to relieve.
Homeopathy was developed by German physician Dr. Samuel Hahnemann in the 1790s. First experimenting on healthy subjects and himself, Dr. Hahnemann discovered that he could produce symptoms of particular diseases by injecting small doses of various herbal substances. This discovery inspired him to try another experiment—giving sick people extremely diluted formulations of substances that would produce the same symptoms they suffered from in an effort to evoke natural recovery and regeneration.
Dr. Hahnemann believed that homeopathic remedies—substances that caused symptoms similar to those caused by the disease but not diluted forms of the disease-causing agents—worked by activating the "vital force," the organizing energy system that governs health in a human being. There is no comparable belief in Western medicine, but the ideas of vital force bears some resemblance to the Ayurvedic concept of prana and to qi in Chinese medicine.
Homeopathy gained a foothold in the United States during the 1830s when it appeared able to stem some epidemics, such as cholera (a devastating infectious disease that produces severe diarrhea), but by the 1900s it fell out of favor as traditional medical practice experienced greater success treating the diseases of the day. During the 1970s there was renewed interest in homeopathy in the United States, and in 2004 believers credited homeopathy with gentle, effective, and nontoxic treatment of many infections, emotional problems, and learning disorders. Although proponents assert that homeopathic medicine speeds healing, it cannot treat traumatic injuries, such as broken bones, or genetic diseases.
According to an April 2003 Research Report by the NCCAM, research studies on homeopathy have yielded contradictory findings. Some have concluded that there is no strong evidence supporting homeopathy as being effective for any clinical condition. Others have found positive effects from homeopathy, but these effects are not readily explained in scientific terms.
According to Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, a clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and director of the NIH-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program at Stanford, homeopathy has proved effective for a variety of ailments. In his book The Best Alternative Medicine: What Works? What Does Not? (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000), Dr. Pelletier presents the findings of scientific research documenting the safety and efficacy of nearly every form of CAM. Dr. Pelletier reports that clinical trials of homeopathy find it effective for the treatment of disorders such as seasonal allergies, asthma, childhood diarrhea, fibromyalgia, influenza, and rheumatoid arthritis.
As its name suggests, naturopathic medicine, or naturopathy, uses naturally occurring substances to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. This alternative medicine system, one of the oldest, has its origins in Native American culture and also draws from Greek, Chinese, and Indian philosophies of health and illness.
Like homeopathy, naturopathy was introduced in the United States by a German physician, Dr. Benedict Lust, and its popularity rose, declined, and was rekindled in the same time period as homeopathy. Dr. Lust opened a school of naturopathic medicine in New York City, and with Dr. James Foster, a physician in Idaho using natural healing techniques, they christened their blend of herbal medicine, manipulative therapies, homeopathy, nutrition, and psychology, "naturopathy."
The overarching principles of modern naturopathic medicine are "first, do no harm" and "nature has the power to heal." Naturopathy seeks to treat the whole person because disease is seen as arising from many causes rather than a single cause. Naturopathic physicians are taught that "prevention is as important as cure" and to view creating and maintaining health as equally important as curing disease. They are instructed to identify and treat the causes of diseases rather than acting only to relieve symptoms. Naturopathy also requires practitioners to serve as teachers to encourage patients to assume personal responsibility for their health and actively participate in self-care.
Naturopathic physicians' treatment methods include nutritional counseling and the addition of dietary supplements, herbs, or vitamins to a patient's diet, hydrotherapy (water-based therapies, usually involving whirlpool or other baths), exercise, manipulation, massage, heat therapy, and electrical stimulation. They are trained to prescribe herbal medicines and homeopathic remedies, perform minor surgical procedures such as setting broken bones, and offer counseling services to help patients resolve emotional problems and modify their lifestyles to improve their health and wellness. Because naturopathy draws on Chinese and Indian medical techniques, naturopathic physicians often use Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic medicine to treat disease.
Dr. Pelletier's research found studies demonstrating that naturopathy was effective for a variety of conditions including asthma, atherosclerosis, back pain, some cancers, depression, diabetes, eczema (a skin condition), middle ear infections, migraine headaches, natural childbirth, and osteoarthritis. Dr. Pelletier observed that licensed naturopathic physicians are among the best-trained CAM practitioners, and he predicted that research would continue to confirm the benefits and efficacy of the
safe, inexpensive, and low-risk therapies provided by naturopathic physicians.
Acupuncture is a Chinese practice that dates back more than 5,000 years. Although Sir William Osler called acupuncture the best available treatment for low back pain in the late 1800s, it was not widely used to treat pain in the United States until the 1970s. Chinese medicine describes acupuncture—the insertion of extremely thin, sterile needles into any of 360 specific points on the body—as a way to balance qi (also called chi), the body's vital life force that flows over the surface of the body and through internal organs. Traditional Western medicine explains the acknowledged effectiveness of acupuncture as the result of triggering the release of pain-relieving substances called endorphins, which occur naturally in the body, and neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, which influence brain chemistry.
In addition to providing lasting pain relief, acupuncture has demonstrated success in helping people with substance abuse problems, relieving nausea, heightening immunity by increasing total white blood cells and T-cell production, and assisting patients to recover from stroke and other neurologic impairments. Imaging techniques have confirmed that acupuncture acts to alter brain chemistry and function.
Ayurvedic medicine (also called Ayurveda, which means "science of life") is believed to be the oldest medical tradition and has been practiced in India and Asia for more than five thousand years. With an emphasis on preventing disease and promoting wellness, its practitioners view emotional health and spiritual balance as vital for physical health and disease prevention. Ayurveda also considers diet, hygiene, sleep, lifestyle, and healthy relationships as powerful influences on health.
Practitioners aim to balance the three doshas—fundamental human qualities that they believe reside in varying concentrations in different parts of the human body. The doshas are thought to be disturbed by improper diet, sleep deprivation, travel, coffee, alcohol, or excessive exposure to the sun and are balanced with diet, exercise, detoxification (ritual cleansing of toxins), yoga, spiritual counseling, herbal medicine, breathing exercises, and chanting.
Dr. Pelletier's research found evidence that Ayurveda was used successfully to treat many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, neurologic disorders, arthritis, musculoskeletal pain, gastrointestinal disorders (such as irritable bowel syndrome), diabetes, and mental health problems. Like other CAM, Ayurveda encourages patients to assume responsibility for their health and promotes self-care.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) combines nutrition, acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, and Qi Gong (exercises to improve the flow of vital energy through the body) to help people achieve balance and unity of their minds, bodies, and spirits. TCM has been used for more than three thousand years by about one-fourth of the world's population, and in the United States it has been embraced by naturopathic physicians, chiropractors, and other CAM practitioners.
One diagnostic technique that is noticeably different from Western medicine is the TCM approach to taking pulses. TCM practitioners take pulses at six different locations, including three points on each wrist, and pulses are described using twenty-eight distinct qualities. Reading the pulses enables practitioners to evaluate qi.
TCM views balancing qi as central to health, wellness, and disease prevention and treatment. TCM also seeks to balance the feminine and masculine qualities of yin and yang using other techniques such as "moxibustion"—stimulating acupuncture points with heat—and "cupping"—increasing circulation by putting a heated jar on the skin of a body part.
Herbal medicine is the most commonly prescribed treatment; herbal preparations may be consumed as teas made from boiled fresh herbs or dried powders or in combined formulations known as patent medicines. More than two hundred herbal preparations are used in TCM, and several, such as ginseng, ma huang, and ginger, have become popular in the United States. Ginseng is supposed to improve immunity and prevent illness; ma huang is a stimulant used to promote weight loss and relieve lung congestion; and ginger is prescribed to aid digestion, relieve nausea, reduce osteoarthritic knee pain, and improve circulation.
Many modern pharmaceutical drugs are derived from TCM herbal medicines. For example, ma huang components are used to make ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. GBE, made from ginkgo biloba, is used to treat cerebral insufficiency (lack of blood flow to the brain). During 2000, ginkgo biloba was shown to improve memory and slow the progression of dementia in some patients.