Medicinal Herbs and ADHD


What’s in a Name? Alternative, Complementary, and Integrative Health

February 25, 2023 • 2 min read
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Most Americans are familiar with conventional medicine, but there are other approaches to health, including alternative, complementary, and integrative medicine. These three fields have important distinctions that can help support health when conventional medicine falls short.

What’s the Difference Between Alternative, Complementary, and Integrative Health?

An increasing number of Americans are seeking out different, or alternative, forms of healthcare. In national surveys conducted in 2007 and 2012, more than 30 percent of adults reported using approaches that are not typically part of conventional medicine, as well as about 12 percent of children.1,2 Given the increasing interest and acceptance, it is likely that over a decade later, these numbers are even higher. In line with this trend, the National Institutes of Health has dedicated resources towards the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to provide information about and scientific evaluation of various health products and practices.

What is Alternative Health?

Alternative health describes an approach outside of the mainstream, used in place of conventional medicine. Alternative health strategies typically rely on more natural, (w)holistic approaches to treat the underlying issue compared to conventional medicine, which may be viewed as focusing on the treatment of symptoms of a disease. Many alternative therapies such as acupuncture and herbal remedies date back thousands of years.3,4 Examples of alternative health strategies include utilizing herbal remedies to depression or acupuncture for headaches, allergies, and nausea.4

What is Complementary Health?

Complementary health is also a non-mainstream approach to health but is typically used in tandem with conventional medicine.5 Complementary health practices include nutritional and herbal supplements, practicing mindfulness, and spinal manipulation, among many others.4-6 A combination of complementary health strategies can be used to support health maintenance as well as improve specific health conditions.5

Complementary Vs. Alternative Medicine

Complementary and alternative health strategies are often grouped together under the term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Some techniques that were once considered alternative have evolved over time to become more mainstream and are now considered complementary. The major distinction between the two is how they are utilized, either replacing conventional medicine (alternative) or supplementing it (complementary). Some CAM techniques that have become mainstream include meditation, acupuncture, and chiropractic treatments.5

Evidence-based CAM treatments

As the field of CAM expands, conducting research on the effectiveness of various CAM therapies and educating future practitioners becomes increasingly important. Despite the belief that CAM therapies are not well-researched, there is substantial evidence of similar or higher quality compared to research on conventional medicine.4 Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of CAM strategies, including improving lipid and glucose profiles and reducing inflammation and blood pressure.5 CAM therapies can also help chronic conditions, including relieving pain, which plagues many Americans.9

Condition Effective CAM Intervention5
Type 2 diabetes Nutritional supplements (fish oil, alpha-lipoic acid, chromium)
Herbal medicines
Mind-body techniques
Hyperlipidemia Therapeutic diets (functional food)
Nutritional supplements
Herbal medicines
Osteoarthritis Manual therapies (massage, acupuncture)
Nutritional supplements
Herbal medicines
Rheumatoid arthritis Therapeutic diets (anti-inflammatory diet)
Nutritional supplements
Manual therapies
Pain Mind-body therapies (meditation, biofeedback, tai chi, yoga)
Manual therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic, massage)
Herbal medicines
Nutritional interventions

Why do people seek CAM?

Individuals may seek CAM strategies for a variety of reasons including the presence of disease that is resistant to conventional treatments or poorly understood, if they are experiencing medically unexplained conditions, or general dissatisfaction with conventional medicine.5 Before seeking CAM treatment options, it is important to find a practitioner that is open and licensed or trained in CAM and knowledgeable about available evidence indicating degree of safety, effectiveness, and alternatives.5

Complementary vs. Integrative Health

Integrative health is a multimodal approach designed to support the body’s innate ability to heal and considers the whole person – physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological.5,8-10 Integrative health uses CAM techniques where appropriate but also utilizes conventional medicine when the evidence supports its use. Integrative health provides a more intentional, coordinated fusion of CAM and conventional medicine to treat the whole person and allows the best of both worlds – scientifically proven therapeutics along with historically proven treatments that may come with fewer side effects.5

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  1. Barnes, P.M., Bloom, B., Nahin, R.L. (2008). Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Adults and Children: United States, 2007. Natl Health Stat Report, (12):1.
  2. Falci, L., Shi, Z., Greenlee, H. (2016). Multiple Chronic Conditions and Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Among US Adults: Results from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. Prev Chronic Dis, 13:E61.
  3. Sierpina, V.S., Dalen, J.E. (2013). The Future of Integrative Medicine. Am J Med, 126:661.
  4. Kemper, K.J., Vohra, S., Walls, R. (2008). American Academy of Pediatrics. The use of complementary and alternative medicine in pediatrics. Pediatrics, 122:1374.
  5. Ali, A., Katz, D.L. (2015). Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: How Integrative Medicine Fits. Am J Prev Med, 49:S230.
  6. Phutrakool, P., Pongpirul, K. (2022). Acceptance and use of complementary and alternative medicine among medical specialists: a 15-year systematic review and data synthesis. Syst Rev, 11:10.
  7. Templeman, K., Robinson, A. (2011). Integrative medicine models in contemporary primary health care. Complement Ther Med, 19(2):84.
  8. Steinhorn, D.M., Din, J., Johnson, A. (2017). Healing, spirituality, and integrative medicine. Am Palliat Med, 6:237.
  9. Maizes, V., Caspi, O. (1999). The principles and challenges of integrative medicine. West J Med, 171:148.
  10. Horrigan, B., Lewis, S., Abrams, D.I., Pechura, C. (2012). Integrative Medicine in America- How Integrative Medicine Is Being Practiced in Clinical Centers Across the United States. Global Adv Health Med, 1(3):18.

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