7 Alternative Medicine Treatments Doctors Actually Recommend

Updated: Mar. 31, 2020

Alternative medicine isn't just "woo-woo" wellness. Here are the once far-out remedies top docs are using

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Alternative medicine goes slightly more mainstream

Last year, I had a few months of odd symptoms including heart palpitations, insomnia, and intense fatigue. Finally, after some blood tests, my gynecologist whipped out her prescription pad and scribbled… the name of an ancient herb. Two things about this were strange. First, the herb, ashwagandha, seemed to help. Second, my mainstream doctor in suburban Florida recommended an herb?

But my physician is not the only one dabbling in alternative medicine. While many doctors remain skeptical, a Harvard study found that homeopathic medicine use has jumped 15 percent in the United States. And the American Hospital Association says more than a third of the nation’s hospitals offer integrative medicine. Here are some treatment options that are proven to work.

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Guided imagery to help recovery from surgery

Visualizing your success pre- and post-surgery could help your recovery. A Kaiser Permanente study found surgery patients who used a guided imagery program reduced their anxiety and pain. Plus, 93 percent would recommend the program. Gulshan K. Sethi, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the Arizona Health Science Center and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, adds that imagining yourself recovered could specifically lower your heart rate. Dr. Sethi doesn’t force patients to do guided imagery, but most take his suggestion.

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Acupuncture to treat pain

According to Lonnie Zeltzer, MD, the director of the pediatric pain program at the Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, people with chronic pain often experience a “snowball effect.” Meaning, the longer the pain persists, the harder it is to treat. That’s why she recommends acupuncture to most patients, among other methods. “We don’t know exactly how it works, but it has been found to increase levels of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, and it may also deactivate parts of the brain involved with pain perception,” she says. Research published in the Journal of Pain backs this up. Researchers found that acupuncture effectively treats chronic pain. More specifically, the effects persist over time, and the benefits cannot be explained away solely by the placebo effect. Here are more proven ways to manage chronic pain without medication.

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Yoga for depression and anxiety

Yoga might not seem like alternative medicine, but the practice is hugely beneficial for your health. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that people with major depressive disorder (depression) who participate in yoga and deep breathing classes at least twice weekly experience a dramatic dip in their depressive symptomsPatricia Gerbarg, MD, a psychoanalyst and assistant clinical professor at New York Medical College, adds that inhaling and exhaling in equal measure makes a difference. “We think changing the breath sends signals up the vagus nerve, telling the brain that the body is relaxed, so the brain can relax too,” Dr. Gerbarg says. That said, Dr. Gerbarg still prescribes medication for patients who need it, but she’s seen people who don’t respond to drugs or psychotherapy improve after practicing yoga with deep breathing for 20 minutes twice a day.


Hypnosis to calm irritable bowel syndrome

Various studies show that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients can reduce their symptoms with hypnosis. One study in Ailment Pharmacology and Therapeutics from 2015 found that 76 percent of 1,000 IBS patients cut the severity of their symptoms in half with hypnosis. Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis also found that the benefits of this alternative medicine last after six, ten, or 12-month follow-up sessions. David Spiegel, MD, a psychiatrist, and professor at Stanford Medical School, has hypnotized more than 9,000 patients for everything from phobias to IBS. Don’t miss these natural stomach ache remedies you never knew about.

Supplements to help cancer patients

Internist Gary E. Deng, MD at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, grew up in China—where herbs and teas are medicinal. His Western-based education, however, brought him to believe that supplements must be heavily studied. “When patients ask me whether supplements might help, I tell them that in most cases, we don’t have definitive evidence, and some supplements can even be harmful,” Dr. Deng says. Still, the research on some supplements is intriguing enough for a patient to consider them. For example, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)—an antioxidant—could help chemo patients with tingling and numbness caused by nerve damage, according to Dr. Deng. Other sources claim there is no evidence to support the use of ALA for cancer, and another avenue of research suggests that vitamin D and green tea extract could potentially lower the risk of developing cancer. Plus, check out these healthy herbs that could boost your brain health.

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Tai chi for insomnia

Research published in the journal of Biological Psychology shows that cognitive behavioral therapy combined with tai chi could reduce both insomnia and inflammation. After one year of treatment, those on cognitive behavioral therapy and tai chi had reduced blood levels of C-reactive protein. Plus, they had decreased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines—both indicators of inflammation. The Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota recommends practicing tai chi to reduce stress and help you fall asleep faster, too.

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Aromatherapy for anxiety and stress relief

Aromatherapy is a therapeutic alternative medicine approach for people suffering from anxiety, depression, fatigue, and pain management, according to a systematic review in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine. Other research also shows it could improve sleep and reduce pain. Some smaller studies indicate that aromatherapy could improve the quality of life for people with dementia. One study specifically found that rose water can noticeably reduce anxiety. Plus, combining massage therapy with essential oils is known for being relaxing. Next, check out these 26 home remedies that actually work.