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Alternative therapies -- safe and effective?

Jena Al-Awadhi

Everyone wants to feel their best, but with so many products on the health market, it can be difficult to know which are truly effective. Today, many medical consumers are turning to alternative medicines and therapies in an effort to increase their overall health and well-being. So which ones are safe, and which actually work?

To find out, “Take Care” spoke with Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. A Harvard and Yale-trained physician, Briggs researches and reports on various therapies to provide the public with the information necessary to decide whether a certain practice is beneficial.

The running list of alternative therapies include commonly known practices like yoga, acupuncture, and massage, as well as some lesser-known practices, such as reiki and aromatherapy. Drawing from her personal and professional knowledge, Briggs was able to give some insight into the benefits and legitimacy of a handful of non-traditional medical practices.


What is it? An ancient, eastern practice, characterized by strategically inserting thin needles into the body.

Credit Cara Slifka / Flickr

Briggs’ view: There is a “large body of anecdotal evidence” to validate the effectiveness of acupuncture. It has consistently been found to ease pain. The placebo effect may play a role, in terms of anticipating pain and our reactions to sensations. Overall, the minimal risk along with its effectiveness makes acupuncture a worthy consideration.

Naturopathic medicine

What is it? A branch of medical practice that focuses on holistic healing, incorporating dietary supplements and herbal medicines, and encouraging the notion of the “self-healing” body.

Briggs’ view: Naturopaths are typically well-versed on the products they endorse, and are able to give helpful advice to patients regarding healthy habits and product selection. Naturopathic medicine attempts to incorporate various health components in order to, in a sense, revamp the overall health of the patient. Due to the nature of the practice, application of naturopathic medicine will be different for everyone.


What is it? Originating from India, yoga began as a Hindu discipline. A combination of breathing, meditation, and postures, yoga is meant to relax and strengthen the mind, body, and spirit.

Briggs’ view: The mental aspect of yoga, along with its physical demand, makes it an effective practice that can not only relax the individual, but even ease back pain, for example. Briggs notes that some poses are not necessarily “safe” (headstands), so caution should be exercised and instructors should be attentive. Generally speaking, there is plenty evidence to affirm the benefits of yoga.


What is it? A bit different from yoga, tai-chi is characterized by slow, methodical movements, meant to improve strength, balance, and mental well-being.

Briggs’ view: Tai-chi is highly meditative, and can greatly improve balance. As it is such a slow, deliberate practice, there is virtually little to no risk, making it a great option for elderly individuals who wish to prevent falls. Tai-chi has also been practiced by patients who suffer from Parkinson’s. Briggs is “positive” regarding the application of tai-chi and says it is not just for old people.


What is it? Reiki is a healing practice that involves a therapist channeling energy to the patient through touch, as a means to activate the natural healing processes in the body.

Briggs’ View: Reiki “has actually not attracted much high quality research.” The center has not yet done any full studies on the practice, thus Briggs does not consider herself an expert. However, she doesn’t know of any risks.


What is it? Widely popular, massages involve the kneading and rubbing of the body to relieve tension and pain.

Briggs’ view: Certainly, everyone loves a massage. There is good evidence that manipulating muscles and their capsules activates neural mechanisms which can improve sleep, and relax the individual. At the hands of an experienced practitioner, massage is a very safe option for anyone.


Credit Kate Johnson / Flicker

What is it? The use of aromatic essential oils and plant extracts, often in baths and massages. 

Briggs’ view: The science is “soft,” however there is something to be said about how our mental state is affected by our environment. While the evidentiary benefits are “modest,” Briggs does not write off aromatherapy altogether. There may indeed by subtle effects on the brain, with potential for mood-boosting and relaxation. Aromatherapy is, according to Briggs, not something one must implement, but there is no reason not to.


What is it? The practice of focusing on one’s mind and thinking deeply, sometimes incorporating chanting, but often in silence.

Briggs’ view: There is a “sizable body of work” to suggest that meditation has very positive benefits on the mind, body, and spirit. Meditation improves mindfulness and mental cognitive control, as well as reduces stress. Meditation, Briggs says, is “positive in more domains of life than simply health,” and the science surrounding meditation is very promising.


Credit Vinod Velayudhan / Flickr
Cod liver oil

Vitamin D: For those who live in colder climates with limited sun exposure, talking to your doctor about taking vitamin D is worth considering. Doctors can now test the levels of vitamin D in an individual, and based on those levels, determine if a supplement is worthwhile.

Fish oil: While neutral on taking it as a supplement, Briggs does acknowledge the importance of a diet rich in omega-3s. 

Probiotics: There is growing research to suggest that probiotics can counteract gastrointestinal issues caused by antibiotics.