The Beginner's Guide to Alternative Medicine—and Exactly How It Works

holistic healing practices
The Chriselle Factor

Although many Americans once scoffed at untraditional healing practices, a good deal of people are now dipping their toes into this trend. Holistic healing practices—aka alternative medicine—are any form of healing or medicine that is not deemed "traditional" by Western standards. Some of these practices include hydrotherapy and Reiki. When used in tandem with Western medicine, they are called "complementary practices"—they are only considered "alternative" when used instead of Western medicine.

Every five years, the National Health Interview Survey assesses how Americans embrace complementary and holistic approaches. The most recent survey taken in 2012 indicates that similar to previous years, 33.2% of American adults use complementary health practices. However, this study did indicate a significant increase in out-of-pocket dollard spent on chiropractic and acupuncture, which suggests that Americans may be relying more and more on holistic practices than ever before.

This means that if you haven't gotten on the holistic bandwagon, it may be time to at least learn about your options. From treating anxiety to lower-back pain to tension headaches, these practices have been called natural cure-alls. Scroll through to find out more about nine of the top holistic healing practices and how they may help you.


Chances are you've had a co-worker or friend who has suffered from such terrible headaches that they've gone to get acupuncture—and now swear by it. The process of using needles to stimulate key areas of the body to release energy was actually founded in China many years ago. A 2005 study in the British Medical Journal found that the use of acupuncture was actually able to reduce the number of tension headaches in patients by almost one half. The treatment is also more generally thought to help ease chronic pain, especially in cancer patients when used in conjunction with other therapies.


In this treatment, an expert applies pressure from their fingertips on certain points on the body similar to that in acupuncture. A 2011 study's findings showed that along with other treatments, acupressure was effective in treating those with mild traumatic brain injury. In this particular study, a type of treatment called jin shin was used in which there are acupressure pressure points along the meridians through the body that are linked with energy pathways. It's believed that different meridians are attached to different organs and body parts, including the brain.

"When there is a traffic jam in Denver that causes adverse effects as far away as Boulder, clearing the energy blocks, or in this case traffic jams, helps improve flow and overall health," says Theresa Hernandez, the head author of the study. After studying 38 test subjects, Hernandez and the rest of the team found that those with a minor brain injury who were treated with acupressure did significantly better on memory-related tests.


Aromatherapy harnesses our sense of smell to calm the body. By breathing in different essential oils, our body can actually feel a sense of calm in both brain and body. One key study shows that lavender can be an effective sleep aid, even for those suffering from insomnia. The study looked at 70 Fitbit-wearing college students with self-reported insomnia and compared lavender oil patches plus sleep hygiene education versus sleep hygiene education alone. The group that used lavender plus sleep hygiene reported improvement in sleep quality and the feeling of waking up refreshed.

Lavender oil is also associated with treating both anxiety and depression. One clinical study of nurses found significant benefits of lavender reflexology for feelings of anxiety and depression.


Also called Ayurveda, this system of medical beliefs has been a traditional method of medicine in India for more than 3000 years, and most practices have actually been passed down by word of mouth. For this specific type of medicine, interconnectedness among people and their environment is stressed. It specifically utilizes herbs, metals and unique diets as treatment for health issues, but studies have not proven either its effectiveness or safety from a Western standpoint (for example, ingesting some metals improperly can get you sick). At this point, the Western POV is that Ayurvedic medicine can be helpful, but you should consult a trained practitioner for guidance.


This lesser-known practice involves soaking in hot and cold baths to heal ailments—it often involves salty water from places like the Dead Sea or from sulfur springs. The idea is that the absorption of the water or components of it (like sulfur) fight illness in the body. Although most studies are inconclusive as to its effectiveness, one study shows it may help those suffering from arthritis.


This practice revolves around how the body’s structure—usually the spine—affects the rest of your body’s functions. Often times, spinal adjustments or tweaks are made to alleviate pain in other areas. Researchers believe chiropractic may treat a variety of ailments including low-back pain, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome and headaches. A 2013 study found that chiropractic therapy decreased pain and improved function in patients 18 to 35 when used alongside standard medical care.


Naturopathic medicine is a combination of traditional methods and approaches from 19th-century Europe that "heal" with nature. This practice looks to dietary and lifestyle changes, taking herbs and dietary supplements, and using acupuncture and exercise to keep your body healthy. No specific studies prove the overall effectiveness of naturopathy, but it's believed to help with migraines, diabetes, asthma, and depression, among other things.


This is a Japanese method for relaxation that relies on the concept that a "life force energy" flows inside of us, which is why we are alive. The belief is that when the energy is low, we are weak and unhealthy, but when it is high, we have a larger probability of being healthy and finding happiness. Reiki is a form of healing—a practitioner places their hands on or near a person's body to eliminate the negative energy that causes us to feel sick. A study in Research in Gerontological Nursing found that Reiki was successful in improving symptoms of pain, depression and anxiety in older adults residing in community housing.


Reflexology revolves around applying pressure to certain points on the feet, hands or ears. These reflex points are thought to specifically connect to organs in our body. It's believed that pressing them helps to keep us healthy (for example, when a practitioner places their thumb on a certain part of the foot, it's thought to help bladder function). Reflexology is linked to treating cardiovascular problems, PMS and sinusitis, among other things. One study found that 55% of patients experienced relief for their headaches and migraines through the use of reflexology.

Be sure to read about the essential oils that will keep you healthy, and tell us which holistic healing practices you're most interested in trying.

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