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   Alternative is Relative



Alternative Health is big news these days, but the term is misleading. Herbology, for instance, is thousands of years old, but to many sounds novel because our society has a short memory. Two generations ago, all medicines came from plants. Now they come from test tubes, yet we call the far older approach "alternative." Within a few decades, western medicine has "normalized" synthetics, and all but discarded centuries of accumulated indigenous knowledge about valuable, natural medicines.

When I first moved to New England in the early '70's, midwifery and home-birth was still a underground, quasi-legal movement. Today, nurse-midwives, family-assisted home-birthing, and breast feeding are recommended as healthier by the same establishment that denigrated them a few years ago. Likewise, chiropractic, massage, yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism have all gone from fringe to chic within the past two decades.

As alternatives go mainstream, the word quickly loses its meaning. An alternative term for "alternative" is "non-traditional" but that's relative too. To many of us, "traditional" medicine means MD's and drug-stores. To native Americans, shamanism is traditional.

I prefer terms like complementary medicine, or integrative therapy. This implies cooperation - not competition - with established methods. The new, holistic over-view is like a larger umbrella covering our previous medical knowledge, not excluding it.


What we have come to think of as conventional medicine is a high-intervention, bio-analytical form of allopathy. It relies primarily on chemical drugs, surgery, radiation, and other high technology. It excels at symptomology and exacting diagnosis. It is the system of choice for infectious and life-threatening diseases, organ failure, traumatic injuries, acute pain and emergencies. In other words, if you have a broken leg, forget the home remedies and go get it repaired by the best medical technicians!

However, if you suffer from chronic fatigue, hypertension, digestive disorders, colds, tension headaches, back pain, allergies, complexion problems, or the numerous other unfortunate consequences of stress, junkfood, overweight, substance abuse, lack of exercise, or pollution, neither the hospital nor your doctor will be able to offer much help. First you have to do your own health-care homework.


Eighty percent of modern America's medical complaints are preventable life-style or stress-related disorders. The holistic practitioner's job is to educate and encourage people to take care of themselves. He or she does not diagnose, prescribe, or cure, but rather coaches. An adjunct practitioner, she takes some of the load off your Doctor, who does not have the time to review your lifestyle, assess you work environment, analyze your diet, counsel your addictions, examine your relationships, teach you stress management, monitor your fitness program, or direct you to further resources.

Supposing you discover - while taking medications to lower your blood pressure, reduce pain, or get to sleep - that you can learn relaxation with bio-feedback, a low-risk, inexpensive alternative. Any good doctor would support this worthwhile goal (although not all offer it). In this case an "alternative" makes a good co-therapy, or may just become the treatment of choice.
We should also be aware of how commercialism and the media co-op and corrupt health terminology. The word "organic" finally has a federally-defined legal definition, but not so for terms like "natural," "holistic," or even "herbal." Unfortunately and all too often, these have become meaningless marketing tools.


The New England Journal of Medicine, has reported that millions of Americans spend billions of their own dollars on health services not covered by medical insurance. The fact that 80% of these determined health consumers did not tell their regular physicians of their decision to seek alternatives reveals a crises of confidence in the establishment.
The government has recognized the issue by forming a special Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health to investigate the efficacy of homeopathy, acupuncture, massage, apitherapy, magnetic therapy, and other "traditional" modalities.

But the surge of acceptance of new (and old) approaches need not lead to a turf war between MD's and alternative practitioners. In a shrinking world and a time of information explosion, what will prevail is what works. Twenty-first-century medicine will witness the inevitable and long-overdue reconciliation of science and art, east and west, old and new, body, mind and soul. The resulting Co-operative Medicine, will naturally allow for all the diverse and mysterious ways in which healing occurs.

Lonny J. Brown is the author of "Self-Actuated Healing" (, "Meditation - Beginners' Questions & Answers", and "Enlightenment In Our Time", and His writings on holistic health have appeared on AOL's Alternative Medicine Forum and in Alternative Health Practitioner, Yoga Journal, and many other progressive publications. Brown offers holistic health counseling by email, phone, and in person in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, and teaches meditation, mind/body healing, and stress reduction courses at hospitals, schools and businesses throughout the US. His Web site also features essays, tapes, books, and links to a variety of integrative health sources.