Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Chronic Conditions
Living with a chronic condition can leave you feeling drained. Learn how complementary medicine can help you heal while managing the discomforts of treatment.
·October 15th, 2021
Most people who use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use it together with treatments ordered by a doctor.
Alternative providers address the root causes of chronic disease, not just the symptoms.
Holistic healing may take more time, but the solutions are often gentler.
Working with a complementary medicine practitioner will give you the knowledge to manage your health with confidence.
With some complementary treatments, you will be able to reduce the amount of prescription medication you take daily.
Behavioral therapy can give you the tools to manage stress and regain mental well-being.
Always discuss alternative medicine and holistic remedies with your doctor first.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) goes by many names. You may hear it referred to as alternative, holistic, integrative, or even functional medicine. While there are subtle differences between them, many people use them interchangeably. You will often find all forms of holistic medicine and treatments grouped together and called CAM (complementary and alternative) therapies.
What is complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)?
Complementary and alternative medicine covers a range of methods that can be used in conjunction with conventional therapies. Those treatments go beyond what we know as “Western medicine” and use non-standard and natural methods to heal.
Some of the more common complementary, alternative, or holistic remedies include:
While some people choose to rely only on alternative methods, most people opt for a mix of both for best results. Complementary approaches are useful in managing a number of chronic conditions, including:
Menstrual cycle problems
Infertility and pregnancy
Digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
What’s the difference between CAM and conventional medicine?
People living with chronic disease go to complementary health providers for more than symptom control. Many people feel that the “human” and holistic aspects of care are just as important. There are several reasons why you might consider complementary medicine to manage your chronic condition.
Treating the root cause, not just the symptoms
Online fertility forums are filled with heartbreaking stories of people struggling to conceive once they got off the pill. Hormonal contraception may mask problems with your menstrual cycle.
With your periods regulated by hormones, your doctor may miss early symptoms of PCOS or endometriosis. And when you decide you want to get pregnant and stop birth control, you may realize that you need to address some underlying issues to boost your fertility.
CAM can help you notice some of those tricky health problems sooner. If you go to a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice, the intake might take a full hour. You may be surprised to hear the doctor asking you about the quality of sleep or regularity of toilet visits.
Alternative providers generally look at the human body and mind as an interconnected system. A bit like a butterfly effect — destabilize one part, and others will follow.
Getting to the root cause of your chronic condition allows the practitioner to offer tailor-made solutions.
A gentle approach to healing
Chronic illness comes with its own set of necessary discomforts — diagnostic tests at the hospital, IVs, side effects of medication. These are sometimes necessary to help you get better. But a gentler approach is also possible (at least in non-urgent cases).
Complementary providers understand that healing and recovery take time. Visiting an acupuncturist or an art therapist can bring you much-needed relief after an exhausting course of treatment.
Sometimes, herbal remedies may be all you need to manage your chronic symptoms. A 2017 meta-analysis of 27 clinical trials revealed that St. John’s wort extract could be as effective as antidepressants for symptoms of mild to moderate depression, though the researchers did recommend further research to evaluate longer-term effectiveness.
A word of caution: if you wish to manage your chronic illness solely with the use of natural remedies, discuss it first with your physician. And never stop a treatment ordered by your doctor without speaking to them first.
Put control of your health in your own hands
Living with a chronic disease can make you feel powerless and at the mercy of your own body. Here’s how complementary medicine can help you feel in control of your health again.
You are a person, not a symptom. Holistic health practitioners look at each patient individually. There are no general solutions in herbalism, acupuncture, or nutrition therapy.
Your complementary medicine provider will take the time to learn about you and your history of chronic illness. They will then adapt the treatment as necessary to minimize side effects and maximize results.
Knowledge is power. While some chronic conditions require surgical interventions or medication, sometimes there are other options. You just need to know you have them.
“Elle” magazine author Veronica Manchester described her long journey to find a solution for pelvic pain. Pelvic floor physiotherapy allowed her to avoid invasive treatments. Had she not heard about this alternative, she might have ended up getting surgery for interstitial cystitis, a condition she never had.
This is not an unusual story because there is no diagnostic test for interstitial cystitis, so it’s often misdiagnosed.
More body awareness. Conventional doctors rely on diagnostic tools when making treatment decisions. And this is all good, but one element can be missing — the patient’s own observations and understanding of their own body. This is where complementary medicine can add value to your health journey.
Working with an alternative therapy provider is not only treatment, it’s also a learning experience.
For example, people who deal with infertility can benefit from a practitioner who will teach them how to analyze their body temperature and vaginal fluids to determine the most fertile days in their cycle. More body awareness maximizes the chances of natural conception.
Fewer medications means fewer side effects
By definition, chronic conditions last a year or longer. For some people, they are lifelong. Most chronic diseases cannot be fully cured. They can, however, be managed to reduce uncomfortable symptoms. Western medicine is good at easing people’s suffering. We have effective painkillers and products for digestive ailments.
But if you’re someone who has been dealing with chronic illness for some time, you know that relief comes at a price. Unpleasant drug interactions and side effects may appear after taking many pills a day.
As an example, it’s common in conventional Western medicine for people who have high blood pressure to take several medications. The combination of two or three drugs often produces side effects that can include anxiety, palpitations, blurred vision, joint pain, and chills.
These patients often have to take new medicine to fight the negative effects of the original meds, and a vicious cycle begins.
Here’s how alternative medicine can come to the rescue:
With complementary and alternative therapies, you may be able to cut the number of pills you take daily. For instance, with the right nutrition, you may get your blood sugar under control and eliminate the need for prescription drugs.
Alternative approaches can also be used to manage the side effects of Western treatments. For example, physicians often prescribe antidepressants for irritable bowel syndrome. These drugs, however, can cause side effects, such as insomnia, dizziness, or diarrhea. Before you take more meds to manage these symptoms, talk to a complementary medicine provider. Chances are there is a gentler solution.
Get better, body and soul
Complementary medicine can also help you regain mental stability with a chronic condition. There’s widespread agreement that people with a chronic illness are at higher risk of depression. The constant carousel of testing, treatment, and recovery can leave you feeling hopeless and drained.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one example of a holistic treatment method that many have found to improve pain and anxiety, leading to better mental health. A 2017 study found cognitive behavioral therapy to be as effective as antidepressant medication for generalized anxiety and more effective than antidepressants six months after the study ended.
Not surprisingly, pain relief also contributes to better mental health. A 2019 review of 233 randomized clinical trials (the gold standard in research) found CBT to “consistently improve function and/or pain beyond the course of therapy for specific chronic pain conditions.”
Seeing a behavioral therapist will also give you space to process your emotions. You will learn to manage stress and maintain a more positive outlook.
Discuss complementary and alternative therapies with your doctor first
Complementary treatments can be amazing additions to conventional therapies. They can boost your chances of recovery and provide lasting results. Always use reliable practitioner directories to find complementary medicine providers. And let your doctor know that you are thinking of using alternative treatment or holistic remedies.
Choosing the right complementary practitioner may feel challenging. Let Bright Belly be your ally on your way to better holistic health. Follow our blog for more information on complementary and alternative therapies, and visit our provider directory to find a practitioner near you.