Understanding the Rise of Alternative Medicine in the United States

When the word medicine is used in different countries around the world, people have an array of definitions and associations. Westerners have historically associated medicine with prescription medication that come from pharmaceutical companies. Easterners have a much broader definition, considering everything from pills and vitamins to oils and plant roots. And while there’s still a significant divide between eastern and western definitions of medicine, the gap between the two is closing.

According to research conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and published in a National Health Statistics Report, roughly one in three Americans now seek alternative forms of medicine – a figure that’s considerably higher than in recent decades. But what’s driving this shift, and is it a good thing?

The Rise of Alternative Medicine

The research from the NIH studied more than 89,000 adults and more than 17,000 children between the ages of 4 and 17. It surveyed participants on their health habits and found that the use of alternative medicine is higher than ever in the United States. Popular forms of alternative medicine include probiotics, melatonin, fish oil, yoga, and chiropractic treatments.

Fish oil is by far the top selling (and most consumed) natural product, with melatonin coming in second. However, some natural products have declined over the past few years including garlic supplements, Echinacea, and glucosamine/chondroitin. It’s likely that the dip in usage of these latter products has to do with research studies questioning their efficacy.

“While the National Center for Health Statistics study does not assess why shifts in use occur, some of the trends are in line with published research on the efficacy of natural products,” Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, said as part of the report. “For example, the use of melatonin, shown in studies to have some benefits for sleep issues, has risen dramatically. Conversely, the use of Echinacea has fallen, which may reflect conflicting results from studies on whether it’s helpful for colds. This reaffirms why it is important for NIH to study these products and to provide that information to the public.”

It’s also possible that the rise in alternative medicine has something to do with growing skepticism and distrust of the medical profession in the United States. According to a public health poll in which people from 29 countries were surveyed over multiple years, just 58 percent of Americans trust the medical profession – placing the United States 24th on the list alongside Croatia.

As nationalism gradually becomes replaced with globalism, there’s also a growing sense that other cultures and countries may have superior answers to health problems. In other words, there’s a growing acceptance of trying new things – even when that means going an alternative route.

The Future of Alternative Medicine in the U.S.

Is America experiencing a momentary surge in alternative medicine, or is this a permanent shift that will continue to alter the landscape of western medicine for years to come? Many experts believe the latter to be true.

“We have an acute-disease system for a chronic-disease population,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Center for Functional Medicine. “The whole approach is to suppress and inhibit the manifestations of disease.”

As people begin to realize that acute treatments aren’t very effective in addressing long-term conditions, they become more open to alternative solutions. This is becoming apparent in many areas of the medical community, including in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.

“When you treat the whole person and not just the symptoms, the root of the problem can be chopped down, and make for a healthier, more whole person-mind, body and spirit,” explains Sagebrush Treatment Centers, which integrates practices like art, music, aromatherapy, yoga, acupuncture, and energy healing into its treatments. “These holistic practices repair past and current trauma, help produce better behavior patterns, and enhance the overall quality of life of those brave enough to take the path.”

As more and more people see how effective alternative medicine is in areas like addiction recovery, they’ll be more likely to give it a try in other areas. And it’s for this reason that those within the medical community feel like the future of alternative medicine is brighter than it’s ever been before.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.