Natural therapies

Last updated 01 March 2017 — Last reviewed 16 December 2016

'Natural therapy', 'complementary therapy', 'complementary medicine' and 'alternative therapy' do not all mean the same thing, but they describe therapies and approaches to health and healing that are not considered parts of conventional, evidence-based (Western) medicine. The common catch-all term for all of these is 'complementary and alternative medicine' (CAM).

Nearly every culture throughout the world has at some point used plant-based substances as the basis for its medicines, and many people today use acupuncture, homeopathy, nutrition, remedial therapies and traditional Chinese medicine.

Types of natural therapies:

  • Alexander technique
  • flower essences
  • herbal medicine
  • homeopathy
  • iridology
  • naturopathy
  • nutrition
  • osteopathy
  • remedial therapy such as massage and kinesiology
  • traditional Chinese medicine

Naturopathy is an umbrella term that covers many, but not all, of these natural therapies. Formal training at private colleges and universities has influenced the way naturopathy is practised in Australia. An increasing emphasis on herbal medicine and clinical nutrition, has seen naturopathy become less of an umbrella term, and the practice is now more focused on herbal medicine and nutrition.

Naturopathy is concerned with treating the whole person, and seeking the underlying cause of any problems and symptoms, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than focusing on treating a person's particular illness or complaint. This 'holistic' focus is gradually finding more acceptance in mainstream medicine. 

In naturopathy, health is a state of wellness in which a person is not only without disease, but is also mentally and physically balanced, energetic and vital. Naturopathy aims to achieve the best possible state of well-being, restore health where it has deteriorated, or slow down or prevent any further decline in health.

When treating a person, the naturopath will usually:

  • take a thorough case history to identify key health issues and changes
  • assess risk factors for ill-health
  • examine the diet for any deficiencies or inadequacies
  • recommend appropriate dietary advice and lifestyle modifications
  • prescribe herbal medicine and nutritional supplements if needed.

If you choose to use natural and complementary therapies, make sure you are informed of the benefits and risks, and consider any scientific evidence to support the therapies' use. Many natural therapies have not gone through rigorous clinical trials to evaluate their effectiveness, which is a criticism often levelled at them.

Complementary therapy use in Australia

Complementary therapy use is popular in Australia.

  • Two out of three Australians used complementary medicines in 2004
  • Australians spend more than $3.5 billion each year on complementary medicines and therapies to help manage chronic disease and to improve health and wellbeing
  • Australians are increasingly using complementary therapies. A recent survey showed that over a 12 month period, almost 70% of Australian adults had used at least one form of CAM and about 44% had visited a CAM practitioner - an estimated 69.3 million visits, about the same number of visits to a doctor
  • Despite the high use of CAM, Jean Hailes' 2015 Women's Health Survey has shown that more than 70% of women know very little or nothing about the efficacy and safety of natural therapies. Here at Jean Hailes, we have created web pages to give you the best available evidence on CAM efficacy and safety
  • CAM users are more likely to be females, middle-aged and a higher education and higher annual income in comparison to female non-CAM users.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and acupuncture

Traditional Chinese medicine is a system of health care that includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, remedial massage (anmo tuina), exercise and breathing therapy (including qigong), and diet and lifestyle advice. It is one of the oldest and most long-standing health care systems in the world. TCM is holistic, focusing as much on the prevention of illness as on treatment. In Australia, the most popular forms of TCM are acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.

In TCM, a human body has a 'life energy' or qi (pronounced 'chi'). Qi moves around the body through a network of invisible channels called meridians. In a healthy person, the qi flows easily through these channels. Disease or illness is a result of the inadequate supply, or blocked qi in the meridians, disrupting the body's harmony, balance and order.

acupuncture

To restore the correct flow of qi, the acupuncture practitioner inserts sterile needles at specific sites (acupuncture points) on the meridians of the client's body. Acupuncture points can also be stimulated using cupping, laser therapy, electro-stimulation, massage and moxibustion (the burning of the traditional herb mugwort, rolled into cigar shapes and placed on acupuncture points).

Chinese medicine and acupuncture are regulated professions in Australia. National registration and accreditation came into effect in Australia in 2012, making registration standards mandatory.

Alexander technique

Alexander technique is a set of skills that helps recognise tension in the body and provides exercises that help to ease it, returning the body to a more balanced state. Alexander technique can help relieve pain, reduce stress and improve posture and the way you move.

Herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is the use of medicines made only from plants. This is the oldest, and still the most widely used, system of medicine in the world. In Australia, the most common types of herbal medicine are:

  • Western (based mostly on European herbal medicine traditions)
  • Chinese
  • Ayurvedic (Indian)
  • Australian Aboriginal

Herbal medicines are available as various preparations. These include:

  • herbal teas (decoctions and infusions)
  • alcoholic extracts (tinctures and fluid extracts)
  • non alcoholic glycerine extracts (glycetracts, syrups and oxymels)
  • powders
  • tablets
  • capsules
  • topical preparations (creams, ointments, liniments, pessaries, infused oils, poultices and compresses).

Evidence on the effectiveness of herbal medicine varies, and has shown positive effects of some herbs.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy, devised in the late 18th century by German physician Samuel Hahnemann, is based on the principle that 'like cures like'. According to this principle, a substance that can produce a certain set of symptoms in a healthy person, will cause similar symptoms to disappear in a sick person, when given in a highly diluted form.

Homeopathy prescribing is highly specific, to fit each person's symptoms. This therefore makes homeopathy difficult to study in clinical trials because no two treatments will be the same.

The practice of homeopathy can stir up significant controversy, with its practitioners pointing to its long history of use the world over, while critics say it is ineffective, not supported by evidence and based on outdated concepts.

healthy plateNutrition

Nutritional medicine is practised by several types of health professionals, including naturopaths, nutritionists, dietitians and integrative medical practitioners. There are, however, differences in the way nutritional knowledge is applied. Nutritional medicine provides individualised plans to prevent illness, to improve the wellbeing of the individual, or to manage health complaints. It may involve:

  • providing information about the types of foods containing nutrients that are essential for health
  • identifying and correcting specific nutritional deficiencies
  • identifying potential food intolerances related to health problems (such as fructose and lactose intolerances)
  • advising on the use of nutritional supplements.

Nutritional advice and therapy can be specific to different life stages, such as nutrition for pregnancy and breastfeeding, or perimenopause, or for conditions ranging from cardiovascular disease (or its prevention) to premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Osteopathy

Osteopathy is therapy based on the science of human mechanics. It is often used for treating spinal pain. Osteopathy views the human body as a unit with its different systems and components interconnecting and affecting each other.

Osteopathy is particularly focused on the musculoskeletal system. One of the key principles in osteopathy is that the structure of the spine and the workings of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments) can have an impact on the general health of the body. Therefore an osteopathic treatment will usually involve massaging, stretching and manipulating the patient's limbs, muscles and spine.

Remedial massage

Remedial massage therapy treats muscle tension and tendon and ligament injuries. Massage techniques include relaxation, sports massage, deep tissue, shiatsu, trigger-point techniques and aromatherapy (using essential oils).

Massage

Safety and efficacy of natural medicine

Some people may prefer complementary therapy because they believe that natural therapies are always safe and have no side effects. This is not the case. It is important to understand that complementary remedies should be prescribed by a practitioner trained in their proper use, and that before using any therapy - natural or pharmaceutical - you and your health practitioner should carefully examine its evidence, safety, risks and benefits.

For more information, see our CAM efficacy and safety webpages.

How to find a natural therapist

References

  1. www.nicm.edu.au/images/stories/research/docs/cost_effectiveness_cm_ae_2010.pdf

  2. Xue CC, Zhang AL, Lin V, Da Costa C et al 2007. 'Complementary and alternative medicine use in Australia: a national population-based survey' J Altern Complement Med 13(6):643-50.

  3. Hollinghurst S et al. - 'Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain: economic evaluation'. BMJ 2008 Dec 11;337:a2656

  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4902999/citedby/

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at December 2016.

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