An Overview to Alternative Medicine


It seems that everywhere we turn someone is talking about the latest in alternative medicine. Medical and nursing students are learning about it in school. Christian radio stations are advertising the latest supplements. Hospitals are increasingly including aspects of alternative medicine in their wellness programs. Fliers for all sorts of therapies fill the notice boards of fitness centers, libraries, and some churches. Even faith and prayer are being included within the growing lists of popular "therapies."

However, all is not smooth sailing for advocates of alternative medicine. A news report on an alternative therapy often includes critical comments from someone unconvinced of the therapy's value. Also, although herbal remedies are said to be safer because they're more natural, we all know of natural substances (like tobacco or alcohol) that cause lots of harm when used frequently. Finally, disputes arise between pastors and their congregations over whether therapies based on human life energy are invoking the Holy Spirit, an evil spirit, or some non-spiritual energy that is poorly understood.

Difficulties in discussing alternative medicine begin with what we mean by the term. All sorts of different names describe this field: alternative, complementary, unorthodox, unconventional, unproven, holistic, fringe, integrative, natural, or New Age medicine. The other option-medicine which is not deemed "alternative"-is variously called conventional, modern, scientific, orthodox, allopathic, reductionistic, biochemical, or physicalistic medicine. Unfortunately, these labels often tell us little more than the person's overall evaluation of each respective approach to medicine.

Most commonly, alternative medicine is defined in one of three ways. One approach defines alternative medicine as encompassing those practices and medical theories which have not been taught in Western medical schools or provided by Western health care facilities. A second approach focuses on the different strategies taken by the two fields. Conventional medicine tends to look at increasingly specific aspects of the human body to discover the biochemical origins of health and disease. In contrast, alternative medicine tends to be based on a holistic philosophy, where broader factors related to the whole person are taken into account in analyses of human functioning. The third approach is to look at the amount and type of evidence available to support the efficacy of a particular therapy. Conventional therapies are expected and required to support their claims with experimental evidence from scientific and clinical trials. Alternative therapies tend largely to lack such evidence, but have been used for many years by many people who truly believe they work.

No definition is perfect, and all of the above have significant limitations. Perhaps the biggest problem is that all of these definitions are extremely broad. For example, the widely reported 1990 Eisenberg survey found that 34% of Americans use alternative therapies (a figure which had increased to 42% in 1997). However, the most popular therapies were relaxation techniques, chiropractic, massage, and various diets. Physicians have not traditionally provided these therapies, but not because they saw no benefit in them. Quite often, such therapies were seen as lying beyond the scope of conventional medicine, and therefore as being outside physicians' areas of expertise. This same survey found that some of the least popular alternative therapies included energy medicine, homeopathy, and acupuncture. Yet these are often the therapies people associate with alternative medicine. Broad definitions of alternative medicine may give the impression that many people are using "unusual" therapies. In reality, however, most people are simply seeking to understand how their lifestyles influence their health and are taking steps to make improvements which many in conventional healthcare would support.

Such limitations in terminology and definitions may have a dramatic impact on society's healthcare choices. Media reports which claim that almost half of all Americans are using alternative medicine may seem to give the whole field an increased credibility. People are much more inclined to try an "unusual" therapy if they believe many of their peers have already tried it and believe it to be helpful. However, if the media reports are based on a broad definition of alternative medicine, dubious and questionable therapies might gain credibility and acceptance on the coat-tails of more mainstream treatments like nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction.

Christians should be especially concerned with the way spirituality is often incorporated into alternative medicine. For example, spirituality may be reduced to the level of a "therapy." However, Christian faith and prayer are not therapies which guarantee physical and emotional health. The Bible, as well as Christian history, contains stories of many great men and women of faith who were sick, disabled, tortured, and killed. Jesus Christ came to restore people's relationship with God, a restoration which can bring peace and contentment in the midst of illness and death. C. S. Lewis reminded us that "Christianity is not a patent medicine. Christianity claims to give an account of facts--to tell you what the real universe is like." The most basic fact is that all people are born sinful and alienated from God and need the forgiveness available in Jesus Christ.

When spirituality is treated as a therapy, its truthfulness becomes less important than its pragmatic usefulness. The effects which faith and belief have in people's lives become more important to them than whether their faith and beliefs are in fact true. In our postmodern society, the content of our faith and beliefs has become irrelevant. All forms of faith and spirituality are regarded as acceptable if they are believed to enhance our health. It is important to recognize that such was not the view of Jesus, as evidenced in his statement: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me" (John 14:6). Such is the bold claim of Christianity. Jesus does not call on people to believe in Him because that will make them healthy; He calls people to believe in Him based on the truth of His claims.

Christians must therefore evaluate spiritual "therapies" very carefully. To take the extreme case, if you had cancer and were promised a cure if you renounced Jesus Christ, would you choose the cure? Surely a true Christian would not. However, there are numerous religious practices being promoted which draw people away from Jesus Christ, and some of these are disguised as alternative therapies. Even if such therapies may bring benefit, Christians should be willing to avoid all therapies based on a spiritual source other than Jesus Christ. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).

In summary, alternative medicine includes many different types of therapies. Some raise scientific questions, while others prompt theological concerns. Decisions about using therapies in this class should be approached with discernment, prudence, and prayer. Some therapies classified as "alternative" can be welcomed, while others should be rejected outright. In the middle of these two extremes lie therapies for which we have so little concrete information that we cannot reach any clear conclusions about their use. For this reason, it is helpful to group the different therapies into five categories. Admittedly, the lines between each category are arbitrary since the same therapy is often practiced in different ways and could therefore fit into a couple of categories. However, this categorization should nevertheless be helpful in providing a framework to evaluate and better understand how we as Christians should respond to each therapy. Each category raises different sorts of questions, thus helping to shape the direction of further inquiries. The categories are summarized below and are also described in detail in some of the Center's publications:

  • Gary P. Stewart, William R. Cutrer, Timothy J. Demy, Dónal P. O'Mathúna, Paige C. Cunningham, John F. Kilner, & Linda K. Bevington, Basic Questions on Alternative Medicine. The BioBasics Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1998.
  • Dónal P. O'Mathúna, "Emerging Alternative Therapies," in The Changing Face of Health Care: A Christian Appraisal. Edited by John F. Kilner, Robert D. Orr, and Judith Allen Shelly, pp. 258-279. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.


Categorization of Alternative Therapies


Focus on general lifestyle issues which may impact health and healing. Given the extent that these reflect the care of mind, emotions, and spirit in addition to the physical body, Christians may welcome many of these approaches.

nutrition counseling
stress-reduction techniques

Scientifically Unproven

Little controlled clinical research, but may be significant numbers of case reports. Proposed mechanisms of action in keeping with well-established scientific principles. Many show promise, but caution is needed.

acupuncturea, b
chiropractica, c
herbal medicined

Scientifically Questionable Therapies

Little or no controlled clinical research. May be significant numbers of case reports. Proposed mechanisms of action contradict well-established scientific principles. Seems most likely these act via placebo effects.

chelation therapy

'Life-Energy' Therapies

Based on the existence of a non-physical, universal life-energy. Intimately connected to Eastern and esoteric religions and theories of medicine. Christians should be willing to avoid these religious practices.

Therapeutic Touch
New Age-type meditation

Quackery & Fraud

Promotion of therapies based either on purposeful deception, or well-intended misinformation. Some multi-level marketing schemes selling alternative therapies based on unsubstantiated claims could easily fall into this category. Beware the lure of 'easy money' and carefully evaluate the product.

not therapy-specific

aSome describe these as 'life energy' therapies and others as physically-based therapies.

bAn NIH panel concluded that acupuncture relieves post-operative and chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, and dental pain. Evidence for other effects is less clear, or only anecdotal.

cChiropractic manipulation effectively relieves some musculoskeletal problems. However, some chiropractors treat many other conditions without the support of research studies.

dSome herbs have shown efficacy for specific disorders, some are toxic, and many have not been scientifically tested. Lack of regulation leaves uncertainty about the contents of herbal products.