Alternative Medicine: Definition, Types & Examples

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
There seems to be an alternative to everything nowadays. Alternative rock, alternative facts and, of course, alternative medicine. We'll stick to discussing the latter in this lesson.

What Is Alternative Medicine?

Thousands of years ago, a man was moving through the mountains of Europe with what were, at the time, advanced technologies. He had a copper axe, which probably meant he was a high-status individual. He also had numerous herbs with him, which may have been used as state of the art medications at the time.

Nowadays, we don't consider herbs to be state of the art medicine. Instead we consider them to be a part of alternative medicine, medicine and therapies that are used instead of mainstream medicine, such as prescription medication and surgery. Other terms for alternative medicine are integrative or complementary medicine.

What must be made clear, however, is that while stated as alternative, that doesn't mean the alternative practice is truly as effective as traditional medicine. So it's alternative only in the sense that is different, not in the sense that it is different and just as effective. The same goes for the term complementary medicine. The use of complementary techniques doesn't imply that mainstream (scientific) medicine will become more effective.

Keeping that in mind, this lesson goes over some types and examples of alternative medicine.

Herbs, Acupuncture & Acupressure

The man mentioned in the introduction is now known as Otzi. He is named for the Otztal Alps where he was discovered in 1991. He appears to have died sometimes around 3200 B.C. but was found in a miraculously well-preserved state. It is because of this that we know he carried various herbs with him the day he was, what most believe, murdered by someone else.

Herbal medicine is thus one types of alternative medicine. Herbal medicine relies on all sorts of roots, bark, flowers, berries and leaves of various plants or fungi to either prevent, cure or minimize a medical condition's effect on the body. For example, Valerian root is believed by many to help relax a person and might thus be used by some to help treat insomnia. Otzi himself carried the woody fruit of a fungus known as Piptoporus betulinus. Piptoporus betulinus contains compounds that might be effective against diarrhea cause by parasites or bacteria.

Otzi relied on another kind of state of the art therapy at the time, one that is considered alternative nowadays. He has tattoos on his body that many believe were used as markers and points for acupressure or acupuncture stimulation for various conditions he may have had, such as abdominal pain stemming from intestinal parasites. This means Otzi used these two alternative therapies thousands of years before the Chinese, who made these therapies famous, ever did.

Aromatherapy, Meditation & Homeopathy

It is possible although not proven, that some of the substances Otzi carried may have been used as a part of aromatherapy, another kind of alternative medicine. This form of alternative medicine uses various plant material and plant oils in order to improve a person's mental and physical state. Aromatherapy practitioners believe that by smelling one kind of odor or another, various benefits could be reaped. As an example, some believe the chamomile essential oil could help with everything from stress and pain relief to urinary infections.

Stress may be relieved with yet another type of alternative therapy, meditation, although we don't know if Otzi had any time for this. Meditation uses any number of combinations of breathing, posture, thought, sound and visualization techniques to help a person relax. This is actually important because science is well aware of the fact that stress can suppress the immune system, which can leave a person vulnerable to infection by viruses, bacteria and the like.

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