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Alternative Medicine Goes Mainstream

Why All the Hype?

What's Driving the Demand for Alternative Medicine?

Consumers, particularly those between 30 and 55, are powering the growth of alternative medicine. According to Eisenberg's 1997 testimony before the U.S. Senate, one out of every two boomers uses non-conventional therapies. What boomers seem to favor is the safe, noninvasive nature of alternative treatments. Furthermore, many alternative remedies hold the promise of slowing the aging process.

Another motivation is the increasing cost of health care — without an increase in the quality of the care, says Dr. Roger Jahnke, doctor of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, chairperson of both the Qigong Department at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) College of Oriental Medicine and the National Qigong Association, and author of "The Healer Within."

A third driver, says Edelberg, is that conventional doctors are coming around to accepting alternative therapies: "More papers are appearing on alternative medicine in conventional medicine journals; there's a National Institutes of Health division on it; and they themselves are experiencing it.

We regularly have doctors coming into our clinic for chiropractic or acupuncture or sending their patients over...Cardiologists are taking antioxidants and vitamins, and psychiatrists are beginning to realize that St. John's wort actually works."

Choosing Safe and Effective Alternative Therapies

Edelberg says attitudes toward alternative medicine still vary greatly by region, but that chiropractic is relatively common as is acupuncture. Usually, the more studies that have confirmed the efficacy of a particular therapy, the greater its acceptance.

For instance a number of controlled studies have proven the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating a variety of conditions, from osteoarthritis to migraine headaches. Other studies have shown positive results in pain management and drug addiction — two areas where conventional medicine is limited.

But as with anything else, it pays to be a careful consumer when it comes to alternative medicine. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, harmful alternative treatments include DMSO, laetrile, snake venom, coffee enemas, ozone generators, and ephedra (also known as ma huang).

Studies have also shown some remedies to be harmless — but not necessarily effective. These include dong quai and wild yam. The latest research on using garlic to reduce blood pressure indicates the effect only lasts several months.