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How to Use Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine to Improve Your Wellbeing

You accidentally cut your finger one day while doing household chores. We’ve all done it, right? And then, because you were too busy (or too lazy, or too tired...shall we go on?), you didn’t immediately march yourself to the medicine cabinet to disinfect, treat, and bandage your fresh wound. It’s just a little cut, you told yourself.

Until a couple days later when you noticed that “little cut” was red, swollen, and throbbing. Then you started to take it a little more seriously.

Now you need antibiotics. You probably can’t help but wish you’d taken the simple steps to disinfect and bandage the cut early on -- or even just avoided the cut in the first place!

If only life were so simple, right? Obviously avoiding every little cut, bruise, and scrape for the rest of our lives isn’t practical. However, thinking comprehensively about how we live our lives can provide us with wonderful tools for healthy living far beyond avoiding cuts and bruises.

The Differences Between Western, Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine

Oftentimes we think of medicine strictly in terms of mainstream medicine, which treats an illness and its symptoms -- just like your doctor might treat an infected cut. And while this has given us a substantial number of tools to improve our health and to fight illness, it does not provide us with all the tools available to us.

Mainstream medicine often overlooks the causes of illness and fails to identify methods for prevention. It simply doesn’t take into consideration the unique comprehensive nature of each person’s biology, environment, and mental make-up -- all of which play a huge role in our wellbeing.

But before you even begin to consider which different types of complementary and alternative medicine might be right for you, it’s important to first understand what the other options are and how they’re different.

The most all-encompassing of these terms is “alternative medicine,” which historically has been defined as health care that is outside of mainstream health care practices. However, the phrase “complementary and alternative medicine” has become used widely instead. So what’s the difference?

As defined by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, complementary medicine is when non-mainstream practices are used together with conventional medicine, and alternative medicine is when those non-mainstream practices are used instead of conventional medicine.1 The term “integrative medicine” involves combining both conventional and complementary approaches.

How Can Integrative and Alternative Medicine Help You?

You probably know intuitively that there are certain aspects of your personality, environment, history, and biology that play into your overall well-being. Oftentimes, we overlook these various aspects of our lives. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) can help us channel this intuitive knowledge to achieve optimal well-being in body and spirit.

Looking at our health through the lens of CAM provides us with many more resources to take a smarter look at wellness. But which of the many kinds of CAM are right for your lifestyle? Check out the list we’ve compiled to help you better understand each philosophy and practice.

Naturopathic medicine emphasizes prevention and treatment through therapeutic methods and substances that encourage individuals’ inherent self-healing process,2 according to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. The practitioners of naturopathy are trained as primary care providers who treat conditions much in the same way as conventional doctors, but also seek to treat patients by considering their mind, body, and spirit.3 Its treatment methods can include anything from counseling to homeopathy and acupuncture.

Functional medicine is a practice that is focused on identifying and addressing the root cause of a disease.4 It is guided by five basic principles:5

  • Everyone is different.
  • All parts of us are connected.
  • Bodies are intelligent and have the capacity for self-regulation.
  • The body can heal and prevent nearly all diseases of aging.
  • Health isn’t just an absence of illness but a state of immense vitality.

Ayurvedic medicine practitioners believe every person is made of five basic elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth.6 The main goal of treatment is to cleanse the body of undigested food, which can cause illness. It often involves the use of herbal compounds and special diets.7

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices such as acupuncture and tai chi to treat health problems.8

Many of these medical practices have commonalities, but if one philosophy stands out to you more than others, perhaps it’s worth exploring. If you’ve never looked into any of these practices, then it’s very likely you are doing yourself a disservice by failing to consider your health and wellness holistically. You’re a whole person, and it’s worth finding health and wellness practices that support every single part of you.

Do any of these methods of complementary and alternative medicine sound like they may be right for you? Check out some of the below resources to find out more!

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