A Mixed Bag of Alternative Remedies

This handful of unconventional practices only hints at the breadth of the spectrum.

By and SHARE

This handful of unconventional practices only hints at the breadth of the spectrum. Journals, guidebooks, government resources, and private publications and websites provided the information.

Herbals and dietary supplements
Herbals such as echinacea for colds are a key element of traditional Chinese medicine. Dietary supplements range from vitamins and minerals to melatonin for insomnia and psyllium for cholesterol.

Pro/con: Some herbals, such as green tea and flaxseed, may turn out to have significant benefits, but few have been rigorously tested for effectiveness, and their safety, purity, and potency are loosely monitored. Dietary supplements also are understudied. Vitamin E for heart health was shown to add rather than reduce risk; glucosamine and chondroitin, however, hold promise for moderate-to-severe knee osteoarthritis.

Homeopathy

To treat a malady, a tiny amount of a substance is administered that in large doses would induce symptoms like those caused by the illness—for flu, say, something that would cause nausea. The substance often is diluted in water to the point that it is undetectable. The water is said to "remember" it.

Pro/con: Supporters say that homeopathy is safe and often helpful, so gold-standard proof is unnecessary. Large, systematic studies have failed to show its effectiveness for any condition.

Magnet therapy

Permanent magnets (like those in refrigerator magnets) embedded in items such as straps, shoe inserts, and mattress pads are used to treat pain.

Pro/con: The purported benefits have been attributed to the magnetic field's effect on cell function or blood flow. A recent analysis of numerous studies, however, found that for any of several conditions studied, magnets were no better than a placebo. Experts warn that magnets might affect implanted devices such as insulin pumps or pacemakers.

Reflexology

Reflexologists believe specific spots on the bottom of the feet are linked to other parts of the body, and massage or applying pressure to a part of the foot addresses problems in the associated organ.

Pro/con: Reflexology has been shown in preliminary studies to ease headache pain, severity of premenstrual symptoms, and, in cancer patients, anxiety. But the evidence that it counters specific diseases is weak. Experts urge caution with foot conditions such as unhealed wounds, a recent fracture, or active gout.

Meditation

Tuning out the everyday by finding a peaceful place and focusing inward on a word, an idea, or the act of breathing is a form of deep relaxation that may have health benefits beyond lowering stress.

Pro/con: An analysis of 311 studies found that the strongest and most consistent benefits were lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol. But its authors declined to draw firm conclusions because the studies were not methodologically sound and the results varied widely by the study design and the kind of meditation.

Naturopathy

An overall approach to health emphasizing natural prevention and care. It draws on both conventional and unconventional practices, including nutrition, exercise, herbals, and homeopathy.

Pro/con: Naturopathy promotes a healthful lifestyle by encouraging sound eating habits, physical activity, and contact with nature. But some naturopaths oppose certain childhood vaccinations. And enemalike colonic irrigation, a cleansing therapy favored by many naturopaths, carries a small risk of infection (and a tiny one of bowel perforation) with little if any evidence that it helps.