Now more than ever, people are taking their health into their own hands. With the profusion of information online, gone are the days when the doctor was the only expert in the room. Now patients are able to research symptoms and treatments before their appointments. While self-diagnosis can be a dangerous thing, an informed, educated patient is the goal for most healthcare providers.

In recent years, this education has extended beyond the traditional methods of treatment into more alternative health products and treatment options. But what are they, what does the research say, and how can you select the alternative product or treatment that is right for you?

What are alternative products and treatments?

Alternative health products are also often referred to as complementary medicine. In many cases, these types of products or treatments complement or work alongside of the first-line, traditional treatment. Some alternative health products and treatments include acupuncture, acupressure, supplements, yoga, Ayurveda, biofeedback, and chiropractic.

Other less common types of alternative treatments and products include medicinal herbs from Chinese medicine, gua sha, and other energy work like qi gong.

What does the research say?

A recent study by the NIH/National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health found that overall use of alternative health products has risen in the U.S. Every five years a survey on complementary medicine is administered through the NIH as part of its annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS).

The latest survey from 2012 found that some products saw an increase in use, while others decreased. Some of the findings include:

  • Fish oil supplementation as the top choice for both kids and adults
  • Probiotics, prebiotics, and fish oil consumption increased in the five years between surveys
  • Echinacea, glucosamine/chondroitin, and garlic fell out of favor between 2007 and 2012
  • Melatonin, a natural sleep aid, rose to second place for children

The good news? These shifts seem to be based on solid research. Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., Director of NCCIH, pointed out that the survey does not extrapolate causes for changes in terms of use trends but that the reasons for the increases and decreases seem clear, saying:

“While NHIS does not assess why shifts in use occur, some of the trends are in line with published research on the efficacy of natural products. For example, the use of melatonin, shown in studies to have some benefits for sleep issues, has risen dramatically. Conversely, the use of echinacea has fallen, which may reflect conflicting results from studies on whether it’s helpful for colds. This reaffirms why it is important for NIH to study these products and to provide that information to the public.”

The above research looks at the trends in alternative products, but it is important to take a look at research on the products and treatments themselves. Taking the time to look at research on supplements, chiropractic, yoga, acupuncture, and other alternative treatments can help you to choose the treatment that might be best for you. A great place to start is the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

How to safely use alternative health products


The first and most important rule to follow when incorporating alternative health products into your wellness plan is to talk with your doctor. Supplements can have side effects or cause drug interactions with prescription medications, and it is vital that your doctor be aware of everything you are taking, from the vitamin E capsule with breakfast to the melatonin at bedtime.

Choose a quality supplement with good bioavailability. This means that they are formulated in such a way that the body can make the best possible use of the supplement. Cheaper supplements may be healthy for your wallet, but they may require more to do the same job as a more expensive supplement.

Next, follow dosing guidelines. Sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad for your health. Don’t exceed recommended dosing guidelines, and take supplements as directed.

It may help to keep a journal to track the efficacy of the supplement, noting any changes, positive or negative. If, after a period of time, it doesn’t seem like you are reaping any benefit, it may be best to discontinue the supplement and try something new.

Other alternative treatments

The good news about other alternative treatments such as acupuncture, acupressure, energy work, and biofeedback is that there are very few, if any, side effects or drug interactions to worry about. The most challenging part of these treatments is finding a qualified, skilled practitioner with whom you are comfortable. To do that, follow some simple guidelines.

  • Start your search with that treatment’s licensing body: The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has strict licensing standards and is a good place to start your search for an acupuncturist or Chinese medical doctor. Chiropractors are licensed by each state, and a quick search on your state’s licensing board can help find someone who is qualified.
  • Ask for referrals: Many doctors are beginning to work closely with alternative healthcare providers and may have recommendations. Some insurance plans even cover these services and may have suggestions. Family and friends can also be an invaluable source for suggestions.
  • Go with your gut: When you choose a provider, ask for a brief meeting before treatment. If during this time you feel uncomfortable with the provider or their plan for treatment, keep looking. Just as with your regular doctor, you want an alternative healthcare provider with whom you feel comfortable and safe.

Alternative treatments and products are becoming more popular as people learn more about them. It is important to continue to spread awareness about these options for all people to ensure that everyone has equal access to all kinds of care.

Have you tried any forms of alternative medicine? Which ones, and what was the result?

Photo by pbkwee via Flickr


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