Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Glossary

Complimentary and alternative medicine is a broad group of healthcare and medical practices, systems, products and services not generally considered to be a part of conventional medicine.  This glossary of complimentary and alternative medicine terms will assist you in learning more non-traditional medicine.

Understanding complimentary and alternative medicine is important given the nation’s move toward consumer directed health care. Without knowledge of complimentary and alternative medicine terms consumers will not be able to effectively manage their own healthcare. This is especially true since most complimentary and alternative medicine treatments are considerably less expensive than conventional medicine.

To use the Complimentary and Alternative Medicine Glossary of term simply click the first letter of the word for which you would like to find information:


Aboriginal healing

Each culture among the First Nations has a unique healing tradition. Physical and spiritual cleansing are common aspects of many of these practices, as is the use of medicinal herbs. Most Aboriginal healing traditions are holistic processes that include spiritual, physical, mental and emotional healing. Healing ceremonies combining these elements are designed to meet the individual’s needs. They may involve the use of herbs together with chanting, singing, dancing and vision quests. Connections with the community and with the natural and spiritual worlds are integral parts of the healing process.


Acupressure is a form of Chinese massage that is often described as “acupuncture without the needles”. Both practices involve working with the body’s vital energy or qi, in order to release blockages and stimulate the balanced energy flow necessary for good health. Acupressure involves applying firm finger pressure for several minutes to specific spots, called acupoints, on the surface of the body. Acupressure is used to relieve stress, muscle tension and pain. It is thought to improve blood and energy flow, which promotes healing and the elimination of wastes.


Acupuncture is a therapeutic technique that originated in China more than five thousand years ago. It is based on the idea that vital energy, or qi, must flow in the correct strength and quality throughout the body in order to maintain health. Illness and disease are related to blockages and stagnation of qi.

To stimulate or balance the flow of energy in a patient’s body, an acupuncturist inserts special, very thin needles just under the skin at specific spots called acupoints. Often the patient does not even feel these needles and they typically do not draw blood.

Depending on the patient’s symptoms and how they respond during the session, the needles may simply be left in place for a few minutes or more stimulation may be applied. This stimulation may include the application of gentle pressure, mild heat or a small amount of electricity to the needle.

Adverse Drug Reaction

An unintended, toxic or unpleasant effect caused by treatment with a drug or a natural health product. Adverse reactions may range from mild effects such as headache or drowsiness, to more severe effects such as neuropathy, a nerve disease that can produce numbness or weakness and even death.

Alexander technique

Alexander technique is a body-based technique that focuses on proper posture, movement and breathing. Facilitated by an instructor, Alexander students are taught to recognize and change habits that interfere with their body’s functioning.

Developed by Australian actor Frederick Alexander, the technique uses physical and verbal cues to help the student to consciously focus on their posture and relearn the natural alignments of the body’s parts both at rest and during movement. Students are taught to visualize and feel the correct postures and practice them in simple, efficient physical movements. Alexander technique is used to improve balance, posture and coordination and to relieve back pain, arthritis, rheumatism and gastrointestinal and breathing problems.

Amino acids

Amino acids are nitrogen-containing organic molecules that are naturally found in plants and animals. In the human body, 20 different amino acids are used to make proteins.


Antioxidants are substances that prevent changes in other molecules caused by oxidation. They protect cells and prevent tissue damage by soaking up or quenching free radicals. Antioxidants are thought to be particularly important in preventing the oxidation of substances (lipids) that make up cell membranes. Some common antioxidants are vitamins C and E, and the minerals zinc and selenium.


Aromatherapy involves the inhalation or topical application of aromatic plant oils to help healing and enhance well-being. It is thought that these scents influence the primitive part of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system associates odors with past experiences and feelings. Aromatherapy is used to affect moods and relieve stress, headache, digestive upsets and minor aches and pains. Some oils also have anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties and may be absorbed through the skin. r

Note: Most essential oils should be diluted with a carrier oil (such as almond oil) before use – direct application of pure essential oils may cause serious adverse effects. Essential oils should not be taken internally unless advised by a trained health practitioner — many oils are very toxic when ingested.

Art therapy

Art therapy uses art or creative self-expression for therapeutic purposes. It employs simple art materials, drawing and painting as a means to restore, maintain, or improve an individual’s physical and mental health. Assessment and treatment is based on established human developmental and psychological theories. Art Therapists look at the images a client creates, and at the client’s responses to their own creations, and interpret them as reflections of an individual’s development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns and conflicts. Art therapy is used to help resolve emotional conflicts, promote self-awareness, improve social skills, treat behavioral problems, solve problems, reduce stress and increase self-esteem.

Ayurveda (Aryuvedic medicine)

A holistic healing system developed over the past 5,000 years in India, Ayurveda means “science of life.” In Aryuvedic medicine, health is defined as harmony and balance between the body, mind, and spirit. Illness and disease are thought to occur when these factors are out of balance. The therapies and treatments used in Ayurveda depend on the nature of the imbalance in the patient, and their “dosha” or doshic profile – physical traits, emotional temperament, food preferences and mental attributes that suggest a particular set of tendencies, both in health and illness. Treatments may also vary according to the season. Aryuvedic therapies include herbal medicines, changes in the diet, massage, meditation, breathing exercises (pranayama) and/or yoga.



Similar to the concepts of qi, prana, and vital energy, bioenergy is the term used to describe the aura or subtle energy field in and around the human body. Bioenergy approaches such as magnetic therapy are used to restore, balance and enhance the human energy field.


Biofeedback is a mind-body therapy that teaches a person how to control their body’s vital functions. Sensors placed on the body are used to monitor functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and muscle or nerve activity. The patient is made aware of this information by sight (visual) signals, sound (auditory) signals, or body-muscle signals. The patient learns to control body functions they want to change by visualizing or imagining changes in the sensor signals. Biofeedback is commonly used as a complementary therapy for high blood pressure, headache and migraine, chronic pain, stress and asthma. In some cases, relaxation exercises are used along with this treatment.

Body therapies (Bodywork)

The term “body therapies” has traditionally been used to describe practices that involve physical treatments, or manipulations of the body, skeletal system, nerves or muscles. Body therapies are “hands-on” approaches — such as massage that are used to improve the structure and functioning of the human body. Some people include indirect manipulations such as drugs and natural health products in a larger definition of body therapies.


Chelation therapy

Chelation therapy involves a series of injections of a chelating agent — usually the synthetic amino acid EDTA or ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid. An accepted treatment for some types of heavy metal poisoning, Chelation is also claimed to detoxify, or cleanse the body. It has been used to treat cancer and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Treating these diseases with chelation is very controversial, because there is little good quality evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of chelation for these purposes.

The name “chelation” comes from the Greek chele, which means claw. This refers to what happens within the body in the process of chelation. The chelating agent (EDTA) grabs, or binds onto a metal ion to form a stable compound. Vitamins, minerals and other supplements are often given along with the chelating agent.

Chinese herbal medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is based on concepts of yin and yang and of qi energy. It is the most common form of treatment used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The properties of the herbs are described in terms of their taste, and qualities, such as “cooling” (yin) or “stimulating” (yang). They are used to treat or balance patients who have too much, or too little of these qualities.

In Chinese herbal medicine, preparations containing only one herb are very rarely used. Most often, a patient receives a prescription for an herbal formula containing many different herbs. The practitioner determines which formula to prescribe according to diagnostic ideas and methods used in TCM. The formula is selected and customized to suit the patient’s traits and symptoms – not according to what ailment or disease they have. This means that the same formula would not always be given to treat a particular condition.

Chinese medicine

The theories and diagnostic techniques of TCM are quite different from those of conventional medicine. The proper balance and flow of vital energy or qi is the main focus of this 5,000 year old healing system. Ideally, TCM is a preventive practice. The role of the practitioner is to help the patient maintain optimal health.

In TCM, diagnoses are based on the patient’s pulse, an examination of their tongue, and other physical, mental and spiritual characteristics. The diagnoses are described in terms of disturbances, blockages, or imbalances in the energy flow and the organ systems that are affected. Several therapeutic modalities and healing practices are used to help restore and maintain the balanced flow of energy. In addition to the primary approaches of herbal medicine and acupuncture, practitioners may also use massage (tui na), changes in the diet, exercise, qi gong and meditation.


The main focus of chiropractic is the relationship between the skeleton (particularly the spine) and the nervous system. In chiropractic theory, misalignments of the vertebrae caused by poor posture or trauma are thought to lead to decreased function, pain and illness. Chiropractic diagnosis is primarily based on physical examination and x-ray. In treatment, the chiropractor usually uses his or her hands to adjust or manipulate the spine, and bring it back into alignment. Chiropractic is commonly used to treat back pain, headaches, and injuries, and is also used as a preventive therapy.


A chiropractor is a practitioner who corrects the misalignments of the spine by physically adjusting, or manipulating the body. Depending upon the provincial regulations, some chiropractors may use only their hands to make adjustments while others may also use devices to facilitate the process.

Color therapy

Color therapy, or color healing, is the use of various forms of color and light to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Highly specialized equipment is used to project different colors to rebalance the body and encourage healing. The color is beamed onto the parts of the body corresponding to the problem for a specific period of time.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)

“Complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is often used as a catch-all phrase to refer to a wide range of unrelated healing practices. Although many people understand what is meant by “complementary and alternative medicine” or CAM, it is hard to define this term because there is no real agreement about which practices should or should not be included.

Many therapies that used to be considered CAM practices are becoming more accepted in the conventional medical community. This is because scientific evidence (research) is showing some CAM therapies work, and are safe. Many mainstream practitioners are also using more holistic approaches, and putting more emphasis on prevention and health promotion.

For this reason, it is easier to define CAM by stating what it is not – CAM includes any therapy that is not generally accepted or used in mainstream medicine.

There are a number of different ways to describe and categorize CAM practices. In the simplest model, four general types or modalities of CAM practices are recognized:

  • body therapies – approaches that involve direct physical contact with the patient’s body
  • mind-body therapies – practices such as hypnosis and visualization that use the power of the mind to make positive changes in the body
  • body-energy therapies – techniques for manipulating the body’s energy field to positively affect health
  • body-spirit therapies – prayer, faith healing and shamanism are examples of techniques used to affect both body and soul with the goal of healing

Many CAM health systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, use several of these modalities.

Complementary medicine

The term complementary medicine is used to describe therapies that are used alongside or in addition to mainstream medical treatments, therapies that are used in addition to or as a complement to conventional techniques. Complementary therapies are often used to improve well-being and quality of life.

Complementary and alternative (health) practitioner

This term describes a person who provides or practices a non-conventional therapy or CAM technique such as acupuncture, herbology or naturopathic medicine.

Complementary and Alternative Healthcare (CAHC)

Most complementary and alternative health practices are intended to help maintain health and prevent illness, rather than to treat disease. Since the word medicine generally means the treatment of illness or disease, the term “Complementary and alternative healthcare”  has been proposed as a better way of describing these practices. As with the term CAM, Complimentary and Alternative Healthcare refers to healthcare practices and therapies that are not part of conventional medicine.

Craniosacral (cranial sacral) therapy

Craniosacral therapy is a body therapy for relieving pain and loss of function due to restrictions in the craniosacral system. The craniosacral system includes the:

  • brain
  • spinal cord
  • skull bones
  • sacrum (base of the spine) and
  • fluid and membranes around these structures.

Practitioners use their hands to apply gentle pressure and make adjustments, primarily to the skull bones. The goal of the treatment is to restore the proper alignment and balance of the craniosacral system, and what is described as the rhythmic movement of the fluid that bathes the brain and spine (cerebrospinal fluid). Craniosacral therapy is used to treat chronic pain, migraine headaches, and many other conditions.


Dance therapy (Movement therapy)

In dance therapy, the patient expresses and explores thoughts and feelings through movement rather than words. Dance therapy helps people become more aware of their feelings and the relationship between the mind and the body. For many people, it also provides a way to express deeply felt and complicated emotions, and a way to work through confused feelings. In addition to providing a physical outlet, dance therapy can help build self-esteem and self-confidence, and increase self-awareness. It is used to support other forms of therapy.


Environmental medicine

Environmental medicine focuses on the relationship between health and factors such as diet, lifestyle, chemicals, stress, water and air quality, and other environmental factors. Practitioners of environmental medicine are doctors.

Practitioners take a complete history from the patient about their nutrition and environment, and also do a physical examination. They pay special attention to possible causes of allergies, such as yeast, moulds, fungus, parasites and pollen as well as chemicals in the patient’s environment, dental work and family illnesses.

Treatments may include:

  • avoiding particular substances or environments
  • changes in the diet
  • nutritional support with supplements, herbal medicines and other natural health products, and
  • detoxification support (helping the body “clean” itself, inside and out) with manual therapies, aromatherapy, relaxation and meditation and other approaches.

Enzymes and co-factors

An enzyme is an organic substance (most often a protein) that catalyzes (increases the rate) at which a chemical reaction takes place. There are hundreds of different enzymes. Enzymes are involved in many types of bodily functions including converting and storing energy, and building and breaking down various substances. Most enzymes only catalyze a single reaction or a few very similar types of reactions. Most commercial enzyme products are different types of digestive enzymes from plants and animals.

Co-enzymes or co-factors are substances that play an essential helper role in chemical reactions. Each co-factor has a specific role — for example, acting as a carrier molecule, providing energy or lending an electron to a reaction. There are many different co-factors found in the body. Many of these substances are made from vitamins and/or minerals.

Enzyme therapy

This therapy uses enzymes that come from plants and animals to improve body functions. Enzyme therapy is intended to help strengthen the digestive system, with the goal of enhancing overall health. It is used to relieve problems with digestion, and improve the absorption of nutrients. People who believe in enzyme therapy claim that better digestion may also improve many other acute and chronic conditions.


Flower essences

Flower essences are specially prepared extracts of plants and flowers. Each plant species used is thought to have a different type of healing property. Similar to the preparation of homeopathies, the flowers are extracted in an alcohol solution that is shaken and diluted several times.

Flower essences are used to change a person’s emotional state, with the goal of improving both physical and mental well-being. A few drops of the flower essence are taken under the tongue to restore harmony and balance. The flower essences are thought to help relieve the basic causes of stress.

Bach flower remedies are the best-known flower remedies. The Bach flower remedies include 38 different essences. Each of these essences is supposed to correspond with a particular state of mind.

Free radicals (Reactive oxygen species)

Free radicals are highly reactive atoms that have at least one unpaired electron. They bind with the electrons of other chemicals, often setting off a chain reaction of molecules losing and gaining electrons. Their “stealing” of electrons can disrupt important processes and cause damage to cells. Cell damage caused by free radicals is called oxidative stress. Free radicals are normal by-products of the metabolism that are usually mopped up or “quenched” by antioxidants such as vitamin C. The formation of free radicals may also be promoted by radiation and some toxins.


Gerson therapy

Gerson therapy involves a special diet originally developed by Dr. Max Gerson to treat cancer. Gerson believed that cancer occurs when the liver, pancreas, thyroid and immune system are not balanced and functioning at their best. This therapy focuses on flooding the body with nutrients and avoiding harmful foods. The diet consists of a strictly vegetarian low-salt diet, freshly crushed fruits (mainly apples), and vegetable (mainly carrot) juice. To cleanse the body of toxins and relieve pain, three to four coffee enemas a day are recommended. (A coffee enema involves taking strong coffee into the large intestine through the rectum. The coffee is held as long as possible before voiding. This is a very controversial treatment). Other supplements include vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, and thyroid extracts (glandulars).


Glandulars are specially prepared extracts of animal (usually cow) glands and organs that are taken by mouth. The idea behind their use is that “like heals like,” or like cells help like cells. Glandular products are made from different endocrine glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream, including the following glands: pituitary, pineal, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenals, pancreas, prostate, testes and ovaries. Extracts of other organs such as the heart, spleen, uterus and brain may also be used in glandular therapy, even though they are not glands.

Guided imagery

Guided imagery is a technique that uses the power of the mind to encourage relaxation and healing. The instructor guides the participant by asking them to imagine or visualize a vividly described scene or feeling. Guided imagery is used to reduce stress and pain, stimulate the immune system, and promote healing.


Healing practice

Any therapy or system of treatment used to cure or prevent illness and improve health. This term usually refers to an individual therapy such as acupuncture or reflexology. Some people also use this term to describe a complex healing system such as traditional Chinese medicine which includes many different therapies.

Health promotion

Health promotion means more than just encouraging people to adopt a healthy lifestyle or just trying to prevent disease. The goal of health promotion is the best possible physical, mental and emotional health for all individuals and society in general.

People need the best possible health to achieve their goals and live life to its fullest. Health promotion focuses on providing educational, economic and organizational supports that will help people have more control over their health and the many factors that affect their well-being.

Herbal medicine (Herbalism, Botanical medicine, Phytomedicine or Phytotherapy)

Herbal medicine or the use of plants as therapeutic substances is believed to be the oldest form of medicine. Today, herbal medicine is still a very important part of many different health systems around the world. More than 75% of the world’s population relies on herbal medicines as their primary form of health care. Every cultural group has its own beliefs and cultural traditions involving healing with herbs. For example, herbs are used as medicines in traditional Chinese medicine, Aryuvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine and Aboriginal healing traditions. Each of these health systems is based on different theories or ideas about health and healing. The herbs that are used, and the way they are used may differ.


An herbalist is a practitioner who prescribes herbs to treat illnesses and to maintain health. The herbalist may also prepare the herbal remedies — some grow and harvest their own herbs as well. Herbalists are often described in terms of the region or cultural background in which they were trained, such as Western, Chinese, or Aryuvedic herbalists. These descriptions provide more information about the herbalist’s approach to healing, the species or types of plants they use as medicines and the philosophy behind their practice.

Herbs (Herbal remedies, Herbal medicines or Botanicals)

An herb is a plant or part of a plant used for medicinal purposes. For each specific type or species of herb, particular parts of the plant are used. Depending on the herb, this may be the whole plant, above ground or aerial parts, roots, flowers, fruits, bark or leaves. It may also be a substance extracted from a plant such as a resin, sap, gum or essential oil.

Herbal products that contain plant material from more than one herb species may be referred to as herbal formulas. Herbal medicines may be prepared in many different ways, for internal or external use. They may be used fresh or dried, or made into a tea, tincture, extract, oil, salve, or cream. Herbs differ from pharmaceutical drugs in that they contain many chemical compounds, not just one.


Holistic refers to an approach that considers the “whole person” including mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, social and environmental factors. Rather than focusing on a specific disease or disorder, holistic practitioners look at all aspects of the person’s life, and try to help them achieve a healthy balance.


A homeopath is a practitioner who practices homeopathy. Homeopaths use a holistic approach, taking into account physical, mental, emotional, environmental and spiritual aspects of the patient in their diagnoses and treatment approaches.


Homeopathy attempts to stimulate a person’s natural healing processes with minute (homeopathic) dilutions of specific remedies. Based on the patient’s physical, mental and emotional state, a remedy is chosen to match the pattern of their symptoms or the “profile” of their illness. The remedies selected would cause the same symptoms if they were given in very large doses. Most homeopathic remedies are much diluted extracts of natural substances from plants, minerals, and animals.

Homeopathy is a healing system that was founded in the 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor and chemist. It is based on three principles:

  • that “like cures like” (Law of Similars)
  • the more diluted the remedy, the stronger, or more potent it is (Law of Infinitesimal Dose), and
  • illness is individual and holistic.

Homeopathic medicine (Homeopathics or Homeopathic remedy)

A homeopathic medicine contains a much diluted, non-toxic dose of a specially prepared natural substance — a substance that, at higher doses, would produce the same symptoms the patient is experiencing in a healthy person.

Homeopathics are made from plants, minerals, metals and other natural substances that are dissolved in alcoholic solutions and shaken. This solution is called the mother tincture. One drop of the mother tincture is diluted into a hundred drops of alcohol solution and then vigorously shaken or succussed. It may be diluted in the same way several more times.

Symbols such as 6X and 30X are used to indicate the number of times the mother tincture has been diluted — 6X means it has been serially diluted six times, while 30X means it has been diluted 30 times. In homeopathic practice, the more diluted the solution, the stronger it is thought to be — the exact opposite of the way we usually think about the strength of pharmaceutical drugs.

Homeopathic remedies are may be given directly as drops, or the diluted solution may be sprayed onto inert tablets, granules or powder. Remedies taken in these solid forms are held in the mouth until they dissolve — they are not to be swallowed.


Hypnosis is a mind-body therapy that taps into the mind’s healing power on a subconscious level. The practitioner guides the patient through visualization, breathing and other relaxation exercises to gradually put the patient into a light trance. While the patient is in this deeply relaxed state, the hypnotist provides the patient with suggestions or cues that will help them overcome habits, mental barriers and emotional traumas.

Hypnosis may also be used to help the patient become aware of gifts and abilities they may not have known about. Hypnosis is often used to help a person change their behavior in areas such as quitting smoking, reducing drug and alcohol dependence and changing eating habits. Some people also find it helps treat stress, sleep disorders, anxiety, phobias, and depression.


Light therapy

In light therapy, natural and artificial light is used to restore normal circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the body’s internal clock that controls sleep cycles, hormone production and other body functions. The types of light that may be used include full spectrum light, bright light, ultraviolet light and laser light. The patient spends specified periods of time in an area lit with these lights. Light therapy is used in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), some forms of mild depression, sleeping disorders, skin problems and other problems related to disturbed circadian rhythms.

Lomi Lomi (Hawaiian massage)

Lomi Lomi is an ancient form of massage used by the native Hawaiian people. The techniques have been passed down through many generations of traditional healers as part of their religious and healing practices. It has been described as the loving touch that connects the body, heart and soul with the source of life. Practitioners use their hands, forearms and elbow to perform massage strokes and stimulate pressure points. Treatment often includes a steam bath and shower. Lomi Lomi is used to:

  • release muscle tension
  • improve blood and lymph circulation
  • help facilitate the remove wastes, and
  • aid childbirth.



Macrobiotics is a special lifestyle diet that was developed by George Oshawa and Mischio Kushi. The macrobiotic diet is made up of whole, natural and organic foods. A macrobiotic menu would include whole grains such as brown rice, barley and millet; a variety of vegetables, beans, and other whole foods. People following this diet avoid foods that are considered hazardous to health. This includes products containing chemical food additives, refined or processed foods, meat and dairy products. The time of day, the season and the environment are also factors that affect food choices.

Magnet therapy (Bio-magnetic or Electromagnetic therapy)

This body-energy therapy involves the application of magnets or magnetic fields to the human body to diagnose illness, and as a treatment. By enhancing the body’s natural energy fields, magnetic therapy is thought to stimulate the metabolism and increase the amount of oxygen delivered to the cells. It is used to relieve headache, stress and pain, promote healing, and slow disease processes such as cancer and infections.

Massage therapy

Massage Therapy is a general term for a number of techniques that involve manipulation of the muscles and connective tissues. Massage is used to relieve muscle tension and stress, improve flexibility and enhance the patient’s sense of well-being. There are many different types of massage, with approaches that range from the very light touches used in lymphatic drainage massage to the deep tissue manipulation involved in rolfing. Other massage techniques include Swedish massage, Aryuvedic massage, Thai massage, Lomi Lomi and Shiatsu.


This is a general term used to describe the movement of a body part or tissue by a practitioner. Manipulations are performed by applying manual force or passive manual movements. They include movements in which therapists use their hands to apply traction, knead, stretch, rub, vibrate or otherwise stimulate the patient’s muscles, bones, and connective tissues. Manipulation techniques are the basis of many body therapies, including massage therapy, chiropractic, and osteopathy.

Medical acupuncture (French acupuncture, Helms-style acupuncture)

The term medical acupuncture is used to describe acupuncture treatments performed by conventional doctors (M.D.s) who also have special training in acupuncture. It is also called Helms-style acupuncture because Dr. James Helms at the UCLA Medical School has been the leading advocate and teacher in this field. Medical acupuncture is used to relieve pain, stimulate the body’s natural healing and enhance the patient’s physical and emotional well-being.


Meditation is a practice in which a person tries to still and empty their mind, by:

  • focusing on breathing
  • visualizing a particular image, or
  • chanting a word, phrase or prayer.

This practice provides many people with a sense of inner calm, peacefulness and relaxation. There are many different types of meditation, as well as different reasons for using mediation. Some people use meditation simply as a relaxation technique to calm the mind and body, relieve stress and pain, and improve their sense of well-being. Meditation is also an important part of some personal development programs and some religious practices, where it is used to help achieve greater self-awareness, self-realization and spiritual communion.

Metabolic therapies

Metabolic therapies are most commonly used in the treatment of cancer. They are based on the idea that many different factors contribute to the development of cancer. Most of these therapies use several different treatments including cleansing the body of toxins, whole or raw food diets, herbal medicines and nutritional supplements such as vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Gerson therapy is one example of a metabolic therapy.

Mind-body therapies

There is a growing amount of scientific evidence that a person’s mood, attitudes and beliefs can have a very significant impact their health. Mind-body therapies use this powerful relationship between the mind and body. There are many different techniques that focus on various levels of consciousness, but all involve the patient actively using their mind to positively affect health. Examples of mind-body therapies include meditation, hypnosis and art therapy. Mind-body therapies are commonly used to:

  • reduce pain and stress
  • promote relaxation and
  • stimulate the body’s innate ability to heal.

As the patient is the most important healer in the treatment process, mind-body therapies can help patients re-find their sense of control and improve their sense of well-being and ability to cope. A number of mind-body therapies are no longer considered “alternative.” They have been integrated into conventional medical practice because of strong scientific evidence supports their safety and efficacy.


Minerals are inorganic substances that play important roles in many of the body’s biochemical processes. Minerals that are needed in relatively large amounts are called macronutrients. These include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and sulphur. Minerals that are only needed in very small or trace amounts are called micronutrients. These include chromium, cobalt, copper, fluoride, iodide, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc.


A modality is the mode, mood or manner of a therapy. This is the way a diagnosis is made or the technique with which the treatment is given. The two most common are manual therapies and mind body therapies. With manual therapies such as massage therapy, the mode or manner of the treatment is the physical manipulation or handling of the body. Mind-body therapies use the power of the patient’s mind as the means of delivering treatment.

Music therapy

Music therapy is used to help patients express their thoughts, moods and emotions. It also helps relieve stress, anxiety and pain. The patient may perform the music, or listen passively, with the goal of helping the patient communicate, overcome personal barriers or blockages, and express their feelings. Music therapy may be used to help lower blood pressure, overcome learning disabilities, or improve movement and balance. Background music, or various types of “non-intrusive” New Age music, is often used in combination with meditation, hypnosis and to guided imagery.


Natural health products (NHPs)

“Natural Health Products” or NHPs is used to refer to the entire spectrum of substances found in nature that may be used to maintain health, prevent illness and treat some disorders. In addition to well-known supplements such as herbs, vitamins and minerals, the NHP category also includes natural substances such as enzymes, glandulars, hormones, animal substances (such as shark cartilage, bear gallbladders and bee venom), and purified chemical compounds, amino acids, glucosamine and co-enzyme Q10. In the United States, the term “dietary supplements” is usually used to describe these products.

Naturopathic medicine (Naturopathy)

Naturopathic medicine is a comprehensive holistic health system that incorporates therapies from traditional Chinese medicine, Aryuvedic, Homeopathy, Western herbalism, as well as nutritional approaches, body therapies and other healing practices.

Naturopathy is based on six governing principles:

  • First do no harm (Primum Non Nocere)
  • The healing power of nature (Vis Medicatrix Naturae)
  • Identify and treat the cause (Tolle Causam)
  • Treat the whole person
  • Doctor as teacher (Docere)
  • Disease prevention and health promotion

The practitioner or naturopathic physician considers the patient’s physical symptoms, diet, lifestyle, work, and personal characteristics when determining a treatment regimen. The goal of naturopathic treatment is physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Naturopaths (Naturopathic physicians)

Naturopaths or naturopathic physicians are doctors who practiced Naturopathic medicine. Licensed naturopaths have successfully completed a four-year educational program that includes the conventional biomedical sciences, natural therapies and a supervised clinical practicum.


Osteopathy (Osteopathic medicine)

Osteopathy is based on the idea that the body’s structure is closely related to its function. With proper nutrition and a healthy environment, a body that is in correct structural alignment can fight off disease and other toxic conditions. The role of the practitioner is to help restore structural balance in order to enhance the body’s natural ability to heal.

Although the osteopath’s approach to realigning the structure of the body is similar to chiropractic, osteopaths also focus on improving the blood and lymph circulatory systems. Osteopathy is mostly used to treat musculoskeletal disorders including spinal and joint difficulties, arthritis, traumatic injuries and chronic pain. The practice of osteopathy has changed significantly over the past 100 years. In addition to manipulation and physical therapies, modern American practitioners are also trained in conventional therapies such as surgery, and may also prescribe drugs.

Oxidizing agents (ozone, hydrogen peroxide)

Ozone and hydrogen peroxide are the oxidizing agents most commonly used in oxidative therapy. It is thought that these substances supply additional oxygen to the body’s tissues. Oxidizing agents can also destroy disease-producing bacteria, viruses, and other invading microbial organisms. Oxidizing agents should not be taken internally, unless under close medical supervision – these chemicals are toxic if administered incorrectly or taken in too large a dose.



A substance or mock therapy made to look like some form of experimental treatment that has no therapeutic or medicinal qualities. Placebos are given to the control group in placebo-controlled clinical trials. On average, 33% of patients receiving a placebo report they feel better after receiving a mock treatment – this is known as the placebo effect.

Placebo-controlled clinical trial

In this type of clinical trial, the participants are split into two groups. The people in the control group are given an inactive substance or placebo and the therapy under study is given to the other patient group (verum). Otherwise, the two groups are treated exactly the same, and go through the same tests and evaluations.

The use of this placebo control reduces any bias in the results that may result from the participant’s expectations. By comparing the results from the experimental group to those of the placebo group, researchers can determine how much of the therapeutic effect was actually due the therapy being studied and how much was simply due to the patient’s belief that they were receiving a medicine.

Polarity therapy

Polarity therapy is based on the idea that health is determined by the flow of energy in the human energy field. It is thought that specific parts of the body have either positive or negative charges and that these differences in polarity create the electromagnetic currents that form the body’s energy field. Therapists use their hands to redirect the patient’s energy flow but do not physically manipulate the body. Changes in the diet, exercises, breathing techniques and counseling may also be used to help free energy blockages or disturbances and rebalance the body’s energy field.


In Aryuvedic medicine, the Sanskrit word “prana”, which means life force, is used to describe the vital energy that animates life. Similar to concept of qi in traditional Chinese medicine, prana is power that connects body, mind and spirit to function as one individual. Prana is the essence associated with air and breath. Although prana does not mean air in the physical sense, oxygen is a vehicle through which prana is “seen” in material form. The breathing techniques and exercises practiced in yoga are designed to help focus and enhance this vital life force.


Qi (Chi or Ki)

The practice of traditional Chinese medicine is founded upon the concept of qi or vital energy. Qi is the energy and potential energy that flows throughout and around the body, animating us and connecting us to all aspects of the world around us. It is manifested as the energy that animates life forms and as potential energy in the physical world, in the earth, water and air. The proper balanced flow of individual qi is essential for optimum health. Disruptions, imbalances or blockages in the flow of qi result in illness. For example, physical pain often results from qi stagnation (qi that is “stuck” or not circulating).

In the human being, qi circulates through 12 main meridians or energy pathways. Each meridian is associated with specific organs and body functions. There are over 1,000 nodes or acupoints along these meridians that focus or amplify the energy. The energy flow can be most effectively manipulated at these acupoints. The flow of qi can be detected and measured as electric currents that flow along the meridians. Qi is perceived as a physical entity that can be measured using electronic devices and influenced using herbs and techniques such as qi gong and acupuncture.

Qi gong (Chi-kung or Energy medicine)

Qi gong is the ancient practice of meditative exercise used in traditional Chinese medicine. Qi gong combines slow, circular and symmetrical movements with meditation and breathing exercises. The practice of qi gong stimulates and balances the flow of qi, or vital energy. It is used to promote inner strength, calm the mind, reduce stress, and restore the body to its natural state of health.


Randomized controlled trial (RCT)

In a randomized clinical trial, participants are randomly assigned to one of the treatment groups, either the experimental treatment group(s) or a control group (placebo or positive control). A lottery, performed by hand or by a computer, is used to determine which patient gets assigned to which therapy group. Randomization is used to reduce any possible treatment bias by the researchers or participants. It also helps ensure that the characteristics of the patients in the treatment groups — known as the “arms” of the trial — are similar. A study is not randomized if the doctor or the participants decide which therapy they will receive.

Raw foods

The raw foods or living foods diet emphasizes eating foods in their natural, raw state to obtain the maximum nutritional benefit and help regulate digestion. The diet consists of organic, raw fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Cooked, processed and refined foods are avoided.


Reflexology is a body therapy that involves the gentle application of pressure to key spots on the feet. Some therapists also work on the hands and ears. Practitioners use their fingers and thumbs to detect small deposits or lumps. They gently apply pressure to these points to release blockages and imbalances so that the flow of energy may be restored. Reflexology is based on the idea that there are reflex areas on the feet that correspond or map to every part of the body. Stimulating a specific area on the foot triggers a reflex reaction in the corresponding organ, gland or part of the body. Reflexology is used to release tension and stress, improve circulation, help cleanse toxins from the body, and to promote healing and general well-being.


The word reiki means universal life energy. Reiki is a Japanese qi (or ki)-energy therapy in which the practitioner acts as a conduit for this energy and uses their hands to channel energy to the patient. Reiki is used to help the body heal, relieve emotional and mental distress, and improve spiritual focus and clarity. Stones such as crystals and quartz are sometimes placed on the body to help focus this energy.


Rolfing is a body therapy developed by Dr. Ida Rolf. It is based on the idea that physical and emotional traumas are held or recorded by the body, causing misalignments that are made worse by gravity. Practitioners use their hands, knuckles and elbows to perform a deep tissue massage to loosen the connective tissues and muscles. On the physical level, the objective is to re-align the major segments of the body (head, shoulders, chest, pelvis and legs) in order to improve posture and freedom of movement. Correcting these body memories is also said to provide an emotional release of these stored traumas and restore the flow of vital energy.


Shiatsu (Japanese acupressure or massage therapy)

A Japanese body-energy therapy involving pressure from the fingers, thumbs or palms at specific points on the body. (These are the same acupoints used in acupuncture and acupressure). Shiatsu is used to stimulate the proper flow of energy through the body in order to optimize health.

Swedish massage

In Swedish massage, the manipulations imitate the effects of exercise and are used to help relax muscles, improve circulation and to increase flexibility and range of movement. Five basics kinds of massage strokes are used: kneading, long strokes, friction, vibration and percussion or tapping. Swedish massage is generally performed for relaxation and pleasure. The intent is to energize the body by stimulating circulation.

Supplements (Dietary supplements)

The term supplements initially referred to purified and concentrated forms of essential nutrients taken to supplement a person’s normal intake of food. Many people now use the terms supplement or dietary supplement in a broader sense to refer to any or all natural substances that are taken in order to maintain wellness or treat illnesses.

Some supplements such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and protein drinks, are used by conventional medical practitioners to treat disease and illnesses caused by lack of nutrients (deficiencies). In addition to vitamins and minerals, a broad range of other natural substances have also become popular as supplements that may help a person attain and maintain optimal health.


Tai chi (Tai qi, Tai chi chuan or Taijiquan)

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese exercise system. It is commonly practiced in China to help people maintain their health and live longer. It is a gentle routine of meditative exercises that involve a set pattern of slow but purposeful circular movements. The movements are designed to contain and balance energy, rather than use it up. The practice of tai chi encourages the development of the mind and the body and their integration through movement.

Tai chi is used to:

  • reduce stress
  • lower blood pressure, and
  • improve breathing, cardiovascular function and general health.

It improves strength, balance and flexibility, and inspires a sense of inner peace and tranquility.

Therapeutic touch

Therapeutic touch is a body-energy therapy that was developed by Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N. and Dora Kunz in the United States during the 1970’s. It is now taught in many medical and nursing schools and is a fairly common practice in many hospitals. Therapeutic touch incorporates several techniques including visualization, aura reading and manipulation of the body’s energy field.

In spite of its name, this therapy usually does not involve physical contact as the practitioner’s hands are usually placed a few inches away from the body. The practitioner uses slow, rhythmic hand motions to first detect energy imbalances, then to release them and restore the flow of energy. Therapeutic touch is used to reduce pain and anxiety, and to promote healing.

Tibetan medicine

This traditional system of medicine is rooted in Buddhist philosophy, but includes ideas from India, China, Persia, and Greece. It is a complex health system with a unique approach to diagnosis and healing. Health is seen as a state of balance between the three humours called “nyes pa” in Tibetan, which means “ills.”

The humours are the three basic systems involved in the functioning of the body. In a healthy person, these three humours work together in harmony. When there is too little or too much of one humour, balance is upset. This is thought to cause illness. The humours may become unbalanced by diet, behavior, season, or spiritual problems.

Treatment is intended to restore balance, and involves four types of antagonists, or opposing therapies. Listed in order of their applications and increasing strength, these four types of treatment are: conduct or behavior, diet, medicines (mostly herbs) and external therapies.

Traditional medicine

According to the World Health Organization, traditional medicine is a broad term used to refer to both traditional medicine (TM) systems such as traditional Chinese medicine, Indian Ayurveda, Arabic Unani Tib, and various forms of native medicine. TM therapies include those that use medicines – such as herbal medicines, animal parts and/or minerals, as well as therapies that do not use medicines — such as acupuncture, manual therapies (using the hands), and spiritual therapies. In countries where the dominant health care system based on conventional, or allopathic medicine, or where TM is not a part of the national health care system, TM is often referred to as “complementary,” “alternative” or “unconventional medicine.”

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)

The theories and diagnostic techniques of TCM are quite different from those of conventional medicine. The proper balance and flow of vital energy or qi is the main focus of this 5,000 year old healing system. Ideally, TCM is a preventive practice. The role of the practitioner is to help the patient maintain optimal health.

In TCM, diagnoses are based on the patient’s pulse, an examination of their tongue, and other physical, mental and spiritual characteristics. The diagnoses are described in terms of disturbances, blockages, or imbalances in the energy flow and the organ systems that are affected. Several therapeutic modalities and healing practices are used to help restore and maintain the balanced flow of energy. In addition to the primary approaches of herbal medicine and acupuncture, practitioners may also use massage (tui na), changes in the diet, exercise, qi gong and meditation.



Visualization is a mind-body technique that is used mainly to promote relaxation and healing. As with guided imagery and hypnosis, the power of the mind is tapped to produce a positive physical effect. The patient mentally pictures a particular scene or image reflective of the change they would like to have take place. For example, a cancer patient might focus on the image of their immune cells as policemen capturing and neutralizing the cancerous cells.

Vital force (Vital energy)

The term vital force or vital energy is used to express the concept of the essence, spiritual force or energy that animates and sustains living organisms. When this energy is unbalanced, disrupted or blocked, illness can occur. When an organism dies, this vital energy dissolves, or disperses.


Vitamins are organic substances that are needed for many body functions including growth, reproduction and immune function. Most vitamins are used by the body as components of co-enzymes or co-factors, which are substances that play an essential helper role in chemical reactions. Vitamins are needed in many of the reactions involved in generating energy for the body and for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues and organs. Most vitamins must be taken as part of the diet although a few, such as Vitamin D, can be produced in the body.



The term wellness means more than simply not being sick. Wellness is the state in which people can be at their best, or reach their fullest potential, in the physical sense and also in terms of their emotional and spiritual well-being. Wellness is the state of optimal health that allows a person to experience life to its fullest, to be happy and to lead a satisfying and fulfilling life.

Western herbalism (Phytomedicine or Phytotherapy)

The term western herbalism is used to describe the European tradition of herbal medicine. The written record of the use of herbs extends back over 2,000 years to the time of the ancient Greek healers Dioscorides and Hippocrates. Although most of the herbs used are plants native to Europe, many North American plants have also been adopted into the collection of healing herbs used by western herbalists — the western herbal pharmacopoeia.

The herbs used are described in terms of the effect they have in on an illness. For example, herbs may be to reduce inflammation or pain, or to stimulate the immune system. Over the past two decades, European researchers have confirmed the folk uses of many of these herbs using modern scientific techniques. The terms phytomedicine (plant medicine) and phytotherapy (plant therapy) were coined to describe the rational use of herbal medicines based on this scientific evidence.

Wise Woman

The Wise Woman approach to herbs and healing has been popularized by Susun S. Weed, author of New Menopausal Years the Wise Women Way: Alternative Approaches for Women 30-90. Some describe it as a form of shamanistic herbalism because intuition, ritual, meditation and spiritualism are emphasized. The moon is thought to play an important role in governing a woman’s body. The herbalist’s use of plants to heal body and spirit is described as “spirit work with plants.”


Yin and yang

In Daoist philosophy, any change can be explained in terms of the interaction between two opposite forces, yin and yang, that make up the whole individual or object. Yin and yang are neutral terms that are used to describe any pair of opposites, such as hot and cold, hard and soft, male and female.

The vital energy, qi, is thought to be generated through the interaction between yin and yang. Changes in the proportion of yin and yang, and the attraction between these forces is said to create motion and energy.

Yin and yang are not absolutes. No thing remains completely yin or yang forever. The correct balance between yin and yang is necessary to maintain health. Illness is thought to occur when these two forces are out of balance.

Conditions caused by excessive yang and deficient yin (for example, too much heat and not enough cooling) are treated with yin or cooling herbs and other therapies such as acupuncture to restore the balance of yin and yang.

Yin is associated with qualities such as cold, wet, rest, responsiveness, passivity, negative, darkness, inwardness, downwardness, and decrease. In Chinese herbal medicines, Yin herbs are said to have cooling, damping and calming properties.

Yang is associated with qualities such as heat, dry, stimulation, movement, activity, positive, excitement, vigor, light, the exterior, upwardness, outwardness, and increase. In Chinese herbal medicine, Yang herbs are said to have warming, drying and stimulating properties.


Yoga is an ancient system of meditative exercises developed over the past 2,000 years in India. Most people connect the word yoga with stretching postures and exercises. The practice of yoga also includes breathing techniques, visualization, diet and cleansing regimens. Research has shown yoga increases flexibility, improves blood circulation and reduces stress.

There are many different types of yoga that vary slightly in their approach. Some people practice yoga simply as a form of physical exercise or as a relaxation technique. Others may practice it therapeutically, with the goal of enhancing the flow of vital energy or prana. Yoga is also practiced to increase self-awareness and achieve enlightenment.