Alternative medicine

National healing service: 52% of the UK public believe that acupuncture should be free on the NHS (YouGov).

In 2019, the World Health Organisation reported that 170 countries used traditional or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). That is over 85% of all the countries in the world.

  • What is “alternative medicine”?

    Alternative medicine is a holistic approach to healing outside conventional, scientific medicine. This means it avoids man-made compounds found in modern medicine and can involve many different branches, such as acupuncture, hypnosis, or homeopathy.

  • Where did it come from?

    Everywhere. Influenced by indigenous traditional healing from all over the world, the term “alternative medicine” actually only applies to countries that favour science-based medicine. It is literally an alternative to this.

    In some countries, traditional healing has survived as the popular approach.

    For instance, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is thriving, endorsed by President Xi Jinping himself in the coronavirus crisis. In fact, TCM is now a $60 billion (£46.5 bn) industry. That is the gross national product of Costa Rica.

  • When did it become so popular?

    In Western culture, the popularity of alternative medicine increased with the hippie era of the 1960s and 70s. In keeping with their “stick it to The Man” mantra, alternative medicine went against the legitimate, scientific medicine endorsed by the government. Before this, it was often dismissed as quackery.

  • Can you use it with modern medicine?

    Most of the time, yes. Scientists in the medical community are becoming much more open to “complementary medicine”, combining the scientific with the natural.

    Although most treatments can be taken alongside conventional medicine, it can be dangerous. St John’s Wort, for example, is used to combat depression. But it can also hinder the effect of some anticancer drugs.

  • Is it only plants that are used?

    No. In fact, sometimes it uses nothing at all. A modern practice called laugh therapy shows that laughter actually could be the best medicine.

    On the other side, an animal rights debate is in play. Traditional medicine has often used animal parts for healing, such as the Japanese belief that the cartilage in shark fins can cure cancer. Or China’s breeding of bears under the belief that their bile can sustain human organs. This is seen by many as unethical.

  • Does it even work?

    There is little evidence to suggest that it doesn’t. But there is also little evidence to suggest that it does. Because of this, many sceptics view CAM practitioners as con artists. It has been proven to work on occasion, like Tu Youyou’s groundbreaking discovery of the antimalarial drug, artemisinin. However, many still have their doubts.

  • How does it keep getting more popular?

    Wellness is trending. People are becoming much more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, this can be seen in the rise of veganism and yoga. Also, man-made medicine can be expensive. Especially in poorer countries with no public health system, it is cheaper to buy a natural remedy than to visit a doctor or buy medicine.

  • What does it do for mental health?

    With over 264 million people in the world affected by depression in 2017, scientists are determined to find a solution.

    And there might just be one in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Studies suggest that by administering the active ingredient, psilocybin, and combining that with therapy, conditions such as anxiety, OCD, or depression may be relieved. The Amazonian drug ayahuasca has been used by shamans for centuries, and is now attracting attention in modern mental health practice.

You Decide

  1. Is alternative medicine more about making money than doing people any good?


  1. Research a traditional healing practice from around the world. Fill one side of paper with your findings.

Word Watch

In medicine, it is a rounded approach to healing that considers mental, social, and physical factors as interconnected.
Native to a particular place.
President Xi Jinping
Voted president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013.
Hippie era
Also known as the counterculture movement, it involved the rejection of established authority such as the government.
Stick it to The Man
A phrase meaning “fight the system”. “The Man” is often used in times of rebellion to refer to the oppressive power of authority.
In this context, the dishonest claim of expertise to practice medicine. Usually for personal profit.
St John’s Wort
A flowering plant in the family Hypericaceae. Used as an alternative treatment for depression.
Laugh therapy
A practice of making a patient laugh so that their body releases endorphins. As well as making them happier, it is also though to help with circulation.
Not morally right.
Tu Youyou
A Chinese chemist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2015. Her discovery of artemisinin to treat malaria saved millions of lives worldwide.
A diet that avoids meat and any food produced by animals.
A drug that causes hallucinations.
Individuals connected to the spiritual world that practises divination and healing.

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