When referring to ‘alternative’ health approaches, we are often confused about what it refers to. Does alternative health mean strange herbs or foreign health practices? Or is it simply a term we use to describe anything beyond what we consider to be general health practices? 

Maybe, because we are part of a nation where alternative health approaches are well-known and practised – we do not find this so strange, however, we might find other practices strange because we are not used to them. But, let us set the record straight – what is defined as ‘alternative’ health practices and why should we consider these?

Before we answer the latter part of the question stated above let us have a ‘clinical’ look at the meaning of ‘alternative’ health approaches. Now, this is not as straightforward as we wish to think, but we shall discuss it as such. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) distinguishes ‘alternative’ health approaches into three categories: traditional medicine, complementary medicine and herbal medicines. Traditional medicine is described as passing on knowledge, skills and practices based on indigenous cultures. Complementary medicine is health care practices beyond what is described as traditional or conventional medicine. Herbal medicines are natural alternatives (herbal materials) to conventional medicine. 

Johns Hopkins Medicine further breaks these into different areas to add to the explanation.

Traditional alternative medicine

Traditional alternative medicine refers to more mainstream practices adapted from the Orient. These include practices like acupuncture, homoeopathy, naturopathy, Chinese medicine and Ayurveda (practices that include the idea to regain balance between body, mind, spirit and the environment).


This refers to practices through touch therapies. The idea is based on the principle that one area of the body can affect another and when one area is released of pain, the other will follow. Practices include Chiropractic medicine, massage and body movement therapies (like Yoga and Tai chi).

Diet and herbs

These practices are linked to nutritional choices. It includes supplements, herbal medicine and organic food choices. 

External energy

External energy practices rely on the belief that energies on objects can affect a person’s health. These practices include Electromagnetic therapy, Reiki and Qigong (ancient Chinese exercises involving the body, mind and spirit). 

The mind

This form of medical health practice recognises the connection between the mind and body. It is linked to the belief that ‘a healthy mind constitutes a healthy body.’ Practices include meditation, hypnosis and biofeedback (a practice connected to the thought that you receive information about your body through the assistance of electrical sensors).

The senses: creative outlets

The belief in practising health through activating the senses and how these can affect your overall health. These include art, dance and music practices and visualisation practices.

Although there are many thoughts regarding the practices listed above, it does allow for alternative solutions to conventional medicine and can complement each other greatly. However, in most cases, these practices are not included in medical schemes, which brings us to the next question – why should we consider these?

Studies have shown that people choose to consider alternative approaches because:

  • It helps them feel better – which is the objective of healing
  • Some reduce symptoms and side effects
  • It helps them feel more in control
  • They like the idea that these therapies are more natural
  • It is comforting, the talk, touch and time spent with the health care professional
  • It boosts the immune system
  • It assists people to stay positive

Knowing that these ‘alternative’ approaches could assist with the healing process, advice on how to research the right practice and the right practitioner includes the following:

  • the cost of the treatment
  • the duration of the treatment
  • possible side effects
  • what you should do to prepare for the treatment
  • documentation and proof of qualifications
  • whether the practice is covered by medical schemes
  • any written reference which you can refer to.

Whether you consider complementing your health by practising any of the approaches mentioned above is a personal choice – as everything when it comes to your personal health. Some therapies have been researched extensively and doctors safely recommend them to their patients.

Furthermore, some of the approaches are preventative (like using supplements to ensure that your health is optimal) which is good practice. After all, it is your health, your choice and your body – always choose what is right for you.

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