Last updated: Mar 15, 2009
If natural medicine still sounds too alternative for you, here are four things that may help mainstream the concept for you.


Its not so “out there”
In addition to the 38 percent of all adults in the United States who have tried natural medicine, nearly 12 percent of children have used complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies. Veterinarians use it on pets, too. “Its not just the fringe anymore,” says Donald B. Levy, MD, medical director of the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Womens Hospital in Boston.

“Its more widespread.” In fact, CAM is considered standard treatment in many European countries (including Germany, which regulates herbs, and France, where hospitals widely use acupuncture), so sometimes alternative treatments new to the States have already been researched and used for years abroad.

Its a spa thing
Our strong desire to “heal” ourselves with natural medicine has made alternative therapies hot items at spas and resorts. Some treatments may sound like a wacky mix of the scientific and the spiritual—Crystal Bowl Sound Healing (at Rancho La Puerta Fitness Resort and Spa in Baja California) claims to activate alpha waves in the brain; Spirit Flight treatment (at Miraval in Tucson, Arizona) is touted as a blend of energy medicine, full-body massage, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, and spinal alignment, along with indigenous ceremonial rituals.

But treatments like these are very popular, and an arm of the National Institutes of Health called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is researching their validity. In fact, you may be able to take part in a clinical trial for an alt med therapy being studied at a university near you. For information, visit the NCCAMs Web site.Lots of MDs use it
More than half of U.S. medical schools now include at least some courses in alternative medicine. And the government is pumping more money than ever into research. The current budget for the NCCAM is $121.5 million—thats 61 times as much as it was in 1992, the year the department was founded.

Many people turn to alt med when conventional therapy doesnt do the trick, says Richard Nahin, PhD, senior advisor for scientific coordination and outreach at the NCCAM. The number-one concern: relief for chronic pain (in areas like the neck, joints, and lower back).

But adding complementary therapies like supplements (specifically, omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils), Tai Chi or yoga, mind-body therapies (such as biofeedback), and even spiritual practices (including forgiveness), to conventional medications for heart disease is getting a lot of attention and can lower risk, says Victor Sierpina, MD, chairman of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine.

Some docs use natural products along with prescription medication, Dr. Levy says. For instance, he may suggest that his patients who cant tolerate migraine medication try Petasites hybridus (butterbur) root to ease the side effects. “Its the perfect marriage with modern medicine,” he adds.

Insurance may pay for it
Just over 80 percent of employers health insurance plans cover chiropractic care, and more than 33 percent cover acupuncture or acupressure. At least 13 percent will pay for massage and nutrition therapy, and 9 percent cover biofeedback.

Contact your states insurance department to find out which companies in your area are most alternative-friendly. You may also be able to deduct some alt med treatments as medical expenses on your tax return if you itemize or as eligible expenses for most flexible-spending and health-savings accounts.