What is alternative medicine? It is a phrase that is used more and more in the media, in bookstores and increasingly in doctors’ practices, but how often does someone say what alternative medicine is?

Theoretically, alternative medicine is any form of medicine that does not fit into the scientific framework of Western medicine. Once a form of medicine has been scientifically proven and a theory has been determined that explains why it is effective in the language of Western medicine, it should no longer be considered an alternative.

Unfortunately, after theory comes politics. In reality, alternative medicine in the United States is any form of medicine that has not been recognized as scientifically valid by the American Medical Association and the United States Government. In other countries, various official bodies determine what alternative medicine is and what is not. In the United States, massage is an alternative medicine. In Canada, massage is conventional medicine and as such strongly regulated.

Would you believe that according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the U.S. government, vitamins are a complementary or alternative medicine (depending on how they are used) that has not yet been proven to have a greater effect on the human body than a placebo? Personally, I would like to know if you would like to be treated for scurvy with a placebo. I stick with vitamin C. There are theoretical applications for vitamins that have not yet been fully proven, but that does not make the proven effects any less scientifically valid.

At the same time, just because someone claims what he offers is medicine, does not make it true. Herbal nutritional supplements are not regulated and may not fully reveal their ingredients. They certainly won’t tell you anything about a dangerous interaction with your heart medicines!

Of course you can ask an expert, but remember that there are many types of alternative medicine, an acupuncturist is not necessarily trained in herbs, and your family doctor will probably not be trained in any of them.

If you are interested in using alternative medicine, either for a specific problem, or simply to improve your overall health, it is probably best to first research what types of alternative medicine you are interested in, and talk to your doctor about whether or not she will be willing to work with an alternative practitioner. Then you will find a practitioner who has completed training in this particular area of alternative medicine. Most forms of alternative medicine are not approved in the United States, so ask where they went to school and how long they have been practicing. Then they can work with your doctor to make sure that you get the care you need without unexpected side effects.

Some forms of alternative medicine that might be worth exploring are:

Oriental Medicine: Oriental medicine is the only form of alternative medicine that is truly comparable to Western medicine as a complete system of medicine. Oriental medicine is based on several theories developed thousands of years ago and first treated in the Yellow Emperor Classic, three to five thousand years ago. Oriental medicine includes the practices of massage, acupuncture, herbal therapy, Qi Gong and many others. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a variant of oriental medicine developed specifically for China. It is the only variant of oriental medicine that is relatively easy to find in the United States. In many parts of Asia, oriental medicine is still considered the standard of medical care and western medicine the “alternative”.

Herbal Therapy: Herbal therapy is probably the most common form of alternative medicine in the United States, and probably one of the riskiest. While most of the conventional medications prescribed by doctors today are derived from herbs, commercially available herbal supplements have no common dosages, mats contain fillers and will rarely warn of side effects. While herbs can be used to treat anything that medications can do, and possibly many more, make sure you talk to a trained herbalist before taking any. They can tell you which dosage is safe, which suppliers are worth using, and which may be the best.