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Have you ever scoffed at grandma’s time-honoured recipe for a common cold or a stomach pain? Well, it may just surprise you to know that her traditional home-made remedies are being increasingly getting attention from practitioners of conventional medicine. More and more allopathic doctors are today combining alternative systems of medicine such as naturopathy, ayurveda, homeopathy, meditation, etc. along with conventional medicine in order to maximize the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being of their patients.


What is CAM?

The term Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is used to refer to a spectrum of age-old, traditional healing practices such as Ayurveda, Unani, Yoga, Meditation, Reiki, Chinese Traditional Medicine, etc., which are today treated with reservation by mainstream science, especially in the western world. Most remedies that are now termed ‘alternative’ have been in existence for long periods of time. For example, Ayurveda- literally meaning ‘life knowledge’- can be traced back to Indian texts from 1500 BC to 400 AD, while Acupuncture finds mention in Chinese texts dating 90 BC! It is interesting to see that most human cultures in history have had some or the other form of curative practice. If India is the birthplace of ayurveda and yoga, China can stake claim to Chinese Traditional Medicine (Chi Kung and Qigong), martial arts, tai chi and acupuncture. The principles of Unani developed in Greece 5000 years ago, and were widely adopted by peoples in the Islamic world and the Indian sub-continent. Moreover, every culture had curative uses for various indigenous herbs.

Principles underlying alternative therapies

There is a common underlying thread running through all traditional practices- they seek to maintain the balance between an individual’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual states. Thus, the basic philosophy behind alternative medicine differs significantly from that of conventional treatment techniques. While modern medicine seeks to target the source of the problem and remove the manifest physical symptoms, alternative medicine targets the cause of the illness itself. It sees the body as part of a unified network of the mind, soul and the natural world. Traditional Chinese therapy, for example, views the body as a part of the energy, or chi. Any deficiency in the physical body is hence treated keeping all these factors in mind. The aim is to return the body back to its natural state within this network. Moreover, treatment is individualized. Homeopathy, for example, works to fortify the built-in healing mechanisms in the body.

Alternative therapies today

It is indeed paradoxical that a range of treatments which were the only available forms of healing (and remain so for many even today) for most of human history are today categorized as alternative or complementary. Here as nowhere else can one see the disparity between tradition and modern science, and between the philosophies of the eastern and western worlds. Modern medicine places emphasis on demonstrable proof. Because alternative practices are difficult to test in a laboratory for efficacy, they are viewed with skepticism by doctors practicing conventional medicine.

The United States and Britain, for example, do not license alternative therapies. There is also no health insurance for patients who wish to opt for them. In contrast, practitioners in most Eastern countries do not need a license to practice. In fact, many countries, including India, offer university-level courses in ayurveda, unani and naturopathy!

In the past decade or so, the scientific establishment has begun taking an increasing interest in alternative treatments. More and more, doctors are including complementary treatments in addition to conventional remedies. For example, a cancer patient is recommended homeopathy, meditation and visualization therapy along with chemotherapy in order to help him emotionally and spiritually, and hence facilitate healing. Equally important, a larger number of patients in the western world are seeking complementary or alternative therapies.

In the end, the use of alternative or complementary medicine remains a matter of faith. In absence of ‘scientific’ proof, history becomes the sole witness to its efficacy. Thousands of years of practice must indeed hold weight in order to have stood the test of time. Till satisfactory evidence is got, then, complementing conventional medicine with one or more alternative remedies seems the best way forward.


  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  • Alternative Medicine: The Evidence
  • An introduction to CAM


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