Understanding Natural, Complementary and Alternative (NCAM) Treatments
Herbal therapies and other natural remedies are beginning to gain widespread use for a variety of mental and physical health conditions, both as primary and complementary treatments. In fact, according to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), around 38 percent of American adults and 12 percent of children use one or more complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments.
What’s the difference between Natural, Complementary and Alternative?
Complementary medicine is a treatment used in combination with standard medical care; for example, taking an herbal medicine or nutritional supplement in addition to antidepressant medication for depression, or using acupuncture or meditation to help mitigate the side effects of cancer treatment.
Alternative medicine is generally viewed as any treatment that’s used in place of what’s widely viewed by physicians to be standard medical care; for example, treating depression with the herb St. John’s wort instead of an antidepressant, or treating heart disease with chelation therapy (which removes excess metals from the blood) instead of standard cardiac bypass surgery.
A related treatment approach, integrative or holistic medicine, is a general term that describes a total approach to healthcare that focuses on the patient’s mind, body, and spirit. A holistic approach combines standard medical treatments with CAM; for example, taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement in addition to a prescription antidepressant medication to treat depression.
Natural treatments can include a wide variety of therapies — from herbal remedies (herbalism) and dietary supplements (e.g., minerals, vitamins or whole foods) to techniques such as meditation, massage, acupuncture, acupressure, hypnotherapy, chiropractic or aromatherapy. In general, the phrase natural treatments is used to distinguish a treatment from pharmaceutical medications or drugs.
Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are often also natural treatments, such as those mentioned above, but CAM is an eclectic term that may include any treatment that’s not considered by the medical community to be “conventional” or “standard” treatment.
What treatments does CAM include?
While the array of CAM therapies is diverse, they share several common themes:
- They focus on the whole person, including physical, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects
- Prevention of illness is a primary focus
- Treatments are highly individualized
- Treatments target the causes of illness rather than symptoms
- Treatments are designed to support the natural healing processes of the body
The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) groups CAM therapies into 5 general categories, which often overlap:
- Alternative medical systems. Complete systems of theory and practice that have evolved over time in different cultures and parts of the world; for example, homeopathy, naturopathy, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and Ayurveda.
- Biological medicine. Uses substances found in nature, such as herbs, foods, vitamins and minerals.
- Energy medicine. Involves influencing energy fields to promote health. Some kinds of energy medicine, such as biofield therapies, aim to influence energy fields believed to surround and penetrate the human body. Examples include Sahaja meditation, qi gong, Reiki. Bioelectromagnetic-based energy medicine, such as electroacupuncture or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), stimulates electromagnetic fields.
- Manual medicine (manipulative and body-based practices). Manipulation and movement of one or more parts of the body; for example, osteopathy, chiropractic, physical therapy, massage, and reflexology.
- Mind-body medicine. Includes a range of techniques that help boost the mind’s ability to influence bodily functions; for example, biofeedback, meditation, yoga (in America, often refers to stretching and breathing exercises), deep relaxation therapies, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, prayer, support groups.
What is naturopathy?
Naturopathic medicine revolves around the belief that the human body has an innate ability to heal itself. A doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND) earns a four-year degree at a naturopathic medical school. They show patients how to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and natural therapies to enhance the body’s ability to heal. NDs develop comprehensive treatment plans that blend the best of modern medical science and traditional natural medical approaches to treat disease and promote wellness. Treatment plans factor in genetic factors and individual differences and generally tend to use low-risk procedures and healing compounds, such as dietary supplements, herbal extracts and homeopathy, that have few or no side effects.
What is homeopathy?
The term homeopathy comes from the Greek words homeo, meaning similar, and pathos, meaning suffering or disease. Developed in the late 18th century, homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is a complete medical system that seeks to stimulate the body’s ability to heal itself through very small doses of highly diluted substances. Homeopathy is based on the principle of similars — “like cures like.” The idea is that a disease or disorder can be cured by a substance that would produce similar symptoms in healthy people. Homeopathic remedies are natural substances derived from plants, minerals, or animals. Common remedies include: red onion (allium cepa), St. John’s wort, arnica (mountain herb), and stinging nettle plant.
All About “Natural” Medicines
Herbal therapies are generally used for chronic — rather than life-threatening — conditions, and most clinical studies have suggested that they’re most effective for mild to moderate symptoms, rather than severe symptoms. Many herbal preparations require 4 to 8 weeks of consistent use to achieve significant results, although most cause some degree of improvement within a matter of days.
The effectiveness of herbal medicines is always dependent on:
- An accurate diagnosis
- The quality level of the medicine’s ingredients and manufacturing process
- Individual bodily chemistry
Many people have the impression that natural remedies are a kinder, gentler form of medicine — medicine without the side effects. And for the most part, this is true. But there are a few issues to consider…
First, “natural” does not automatically equate to “safe,” just as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are not necessarily always safe for all of us. While it’s true that herbal remedies and dietary supplements (such as vitamins, minerals and whole food supplements) tend to have fewer and less severe side effects, some may not interact safely with prescription medicines or even other dietary supplements in some cases. Some can, in fact, have harmful effects on organs such as the heart, liver or kidneys, especially when taken for prolonged periods in high dosages, or when taken by someone with a contraindicated medical condition. High-quality herbal medicines and certain vitamin or mineral supplements can be pretty potent, especially when taken in large doses and/or over a long period of time.
It’s important to remember that herbs are medicine. A kinder, gentler form of medicine perhaps, but medicine nonetheless. As with all medicines, the effect on the body is cumulative. That’s one reason they’re ultimately effective, but also why the wrong medicine can become toxic, or the right medicine can become toxic if abused or overused, or taken in conjunction with another medicine that it doesn’t interact well with. Taking a vitamin or mineral supplement that your body doesn’t need, for example, can create an excess of that vitamin or mineral in your body, which upsets normal metabolism and can create new health problems.
Second, natural medicines are virtually unregulated by the U.S. government; they’re effectively classified and regulated as over-the-counter drugs. However, because natural products contain little or no pharmacologically active ingredients, they don’t have to meet the same safety and efficacy standards as prescription and OTC drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does require that natural medicines meet certain legal standards in terms of strength, purity, and packaging. For example, labels must include at least one major indication (i.e., medical problem to be treated), a list of ingredients, the dilution, and safety instructions.
All natural product manufacturers are not created equal. Manufacturing standards have been proposed by the FDA, but are not yet enforced, thus consumers who buy products without personal knowledge of a manufacturer’s product quality or the advice of a physician have little assurance of safety or effectiveness.
The quality and effectiveness of natural remedies depends on many factors; for example:
- Genetic strength of the seed
- Use of the correct species
- Part of the plant used (e.g., leaves, stem, roots) and concentration
- Maturity of the plant at harvest
- Soil and air quality
- Elimination of bacterial contamination
- Climate and organoleptic factors (sensory properties of a particular chemical: taste, color, odor and feel)
- Storage and collection; post-harvest processing
- The compound bonding process used in manufacturing
Now, these warnings are certainly not meant to discourage you from seeking natural remedies; rather, they’re designed to help dispel some of the misinformation floating around out there and encourage you to investigate your sources before wasting money on remedies that don’t work and might lead you to falsely conclude that a particular remedy won’t help you when a higher quality supply might have.
Here are three quality manufacturers to consider and discuss with a naturopath or other qualified physician: MediHerb (MediHerb.com) and StandardProcess.com, Biotics (BioticsResearch.com), and Nature’s Sunshine (NaturesSunshine.com). These sites can also provide helpful product education.