You consider yourself an openminded gal. You’ve tried yoga, you drink green tea, and you’re all about Meatless Mondays. But one area you may still be a bit of a skeptic? The murky realm of integrative and energy medicine.
Not only are many of the treatments themselves confusing—Wait, my chi does what to where?—but it can be hard to discern what works and what doesn’t, too. “Many people still assume that there’s very little scientific evidence regarding complimentary and alternative medicine therapies,” says Daniel Friedland, MD, who specializes in internal medicine and is co-creator of SpaEvidence.com, a website that links dozens of spa/wellness therapies with hard scientific evidence. Yet the studies speak for themselves: Many of these approaches can have an enormous positive impact on your health and wellbeing.
Here, 20 alternative therapies—demystified.
Used to treat: Chronic neck pain, motion sickness, and lower back pain. Learn more ways to prevent lower back pain.
What it is: This ancient Asian technique is similar to acupuncture—without the needles. Practitioners use their hands or tools to apply pressure to various acupoints on the body to open energy flows, release tension, and promote emotional balance.
How it works: Stimulating various points on the body can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s pain-reducing chemicals, and increase the flow of blood and oxygen to areas of the body to relieve discomfort and soreness.
Used to treat: Migraines, chronic pain, and insomnia.
What it is: A key component of Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is practiced by inserting extremely thin needles through the skin at strategic acupoints on your body. The goal? To re-balance the flow of energy or life force known as chi. Don’t be frightened by the word “needles”—they’re almost as thin as a strand of hair and most people feel little to no pain.
How it works: Needles stimulate acupoints, which rouses the nervous system to release endorphins and opiumlike compounds to the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. This can change the experience of pain and trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones that influence the body’s internal regulating system.
Used to treat: Stress, sleep disorders, and mood disturbances including depression and anxiety
What it is: Aromatic essential oils from plants are extracted, distilled, and typically mixed with other substances like oil, alcohol, or lotion, then applied to the skin, sprayed into the air, or inhaled.
How it works: Inhaling a scent triggers powerful neurotransmitters and other
chemicals that stimulate certain parts of the limbic system (which controls emotions and behavior) in the brain, resulting in an improved mood.
Used to treat: Urinary incontinence, anxiety, and depression
What it is: This treatment technique trains people to improve their health using signals from their own bodies.
How it works: Sensors are attached to your body to provide instant feedback on things like heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and muscle tension. After reviewing the results on a monitor, the biofeedback therapist then teaches you mental and physical exercises to control those functions. It can also be useful in cementing stress management techniques, according to Kenneth Pelletier, MD, a clinical professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine.
Used to treat: Insomnia, urinary tract symptoms, asthma.
What it is: More than 100 years ago, an osteopath discovered that cranial bones are interrelated to tissues and fluids in the body and its central nervous system. This gentle form of massage therapy, used by chiropractors, massage therapists, and naturopaths, involves finger pressure to manipulate the bones of the skull, lower spine, and pelvis.
How it works: Some believe that the craniosacral system, consisting of membranes and fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord, has a rhythm that is felt throughout the body and influences the functioning of the central nervous system. Using a very light touch, skilled practitioners can pinpoint sources of stress and help the body self-correct by assisting in the natural movement of the fluid and related soft tissue.
Used to treat: Muscle soreness, inflammation, psoriasis. The first US cryotherapy center recently opened in Roseville, California. Some spas also offer it as a treatment.
What it is: Cryotherapy is localized or whole-body exposure to subzero temperatures to decrease inflammation, increase cellular survival, decrease pain and spasms, and promote overall health.
How it works: Extreme cold reduces the action of cytokines, which regulate various inflammatory responses, thus reducing soreness and decreasing pain. Cryotherapy chambers—originally intended to treat certain medical conditions like skin lesions and certain cancers—are becoming popular as an alternative to cold-water immersion or ice packs, often used for physical therapy. The patient stays in the freezing chamber (-166ºF) for no longer than 3 minutes, wearing shorts or a bathing suit, several pairs of gloves, a facemask, wooly headband, and dry socks.
Used to treat: Stress, bad moods, flagging energy levels
What it is: The flower essence system was created by Edward Bach, MD, in the 1930s. A physician and surgeon, Dr. Bach believed that distilled essences of wild flowers—usually preserved in an alcohol base and administered internally, under the tongue—could help heal emotional disturbances.
How it works: Flower essence therapy is considered “vibrational medicine,” based on the idea that everything in nature—including flowers and your own body—has its own vibration. When a vibration is out of tune in the body, which can be caused by emotional distress and illness, using flower essences with a different “vibration” can help restore balance.
Used to treat: Pain relief, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and knee osteoarthritis.
What it is: The healing power of water is used to treat disease or maintain optimal health through its different forms, including steam or mineral baths, saunas, hot or cold wet body wraps, aquatic physical therapy (called “watsu”), or whirlpools.
How it works: Practioners say that immersion treatments and wraps may detoxify the blood, enhance the immune system, and expand blood vessels. Native Americans traditionally used sweat lodges as a type of remedy to cleanse poisons from the body.
Used to treat: Migraines, improve sleep quality, enhance immune function, and reduce low back pain.
What it is: Using the principle that touch is healing, massage involves rubbing the soft tissues of the body, such as the muscles and connective tissues, to release tension or treat injury. There are over 80 different types of massage; some gentle (like Swedish massage) and others very active (like Thai massage) or intense (like deep tissue massage).
How it works: Aside from being the ultimate in relaxation, massage works on the cellular level to reduce inflammation and promote the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle, stimulating the healing of connective tissues or damaged muscles.
MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
Used to treat: Depression, enhance learning and memory, stress, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
What it is: If you’re longing to shut down your busy brain, this structured program trains you to focus on the present moment and let go of thoughts from the past or worries about the future. MSBR is remarkable in bringing about changes ranging from improved sleep, greater productivity, and both prevention and treatment of chronic illness, says Dr. Pelletier.
How it works: Participating in MSBR is associated with changes in the gray and white matter of the brain, which are involved in learning, memory processes, and emotion regulation.
Used to treat: Stress, depression, hypertension, and irritable bowel syndrome
What it is: Meditation is a simple and fast way to reduce stress on the mind and body by refocusing your attention on calming thoughts and your breath. This may include mindfulness meditation, repeating a mantra, or guided imagery or visualization.
How it works: By reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for the anxiety-inducing “fight or flight” response), meditation can lower your heart rate, slow your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and relax your muscles. Meditation also changes the structure of the cerebral cortex in the brain, which plays a key role in memory, attention, thought, and consciousness. Here are 3 Ways to Get Started with Mindfulness Meditation.
Used to treat: Depression, high blood pressure, enhanced immune function.
What it is: Music’s powerful effect on the mind transfers easily to the clinical effects on the body. It can influence physical, emotional, cognitive, and social well-being.
How it works: Listening to music and certain sounds—such as those produced by Tibetal singing bowls—affects various parts of the brain associated with emotion, relaxation, and learning.
Used to treat: Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, bone density.
What it is: A traditional Chinese health care technique that’s at least 4,000 years old, the practice involves a series of postures and exercises, including slow circular movements. It combines relaxation, meditation, and breathing exercises to achieve a tranquil state of mind.
How it works: Through study, you learn to manipulate your chi, or “life-force energy,” in order to promote healing, prevent disease, and increase longevity. Practitioners of this form believe that this force penetrates and permeates everything in the universe.
Used to treat: PMS, depression, stress, post-operative pain, strengthened immune function.
What it is: This form of massage targets reflex points on the feet to cause therapeutic changes in the corresponding organs or body systems.
How it works: Feet are sensitive to pressure, stretch, and movement. By stimulating their nerve endings with pressure and massage, the body’s flow of vital energy can be unblocked. Pressure may also help release pain-altering endorphins in the body.
Used to treat: Depression, stress, and pain relief.
What it is: Stemming from a 2,500 year-old Buddhist practice, this therapy is based on the belief that the “laying on of hands” can strengthen and normalize certain energy fields within the body and reconnect the subject with life energy. The therapist gently touches your fully clothed body or hovers her hands 1 to 2 inches above it.
How it works: Reiki, known as a type of biofield therapy, works by encouraging the healing processes of the body and mind and by restoring and balancing the flow of stagnant energy in the body. The body is thought to regulate the amount of energy it receives and where it goes.
Used to treat: A range of respiratory ailments, including colds, asthma, allergies, and bronchitis
What it is: Salt rooms (or “halo chambers”) are well known in Europe and are popping up around the United States, too. Soak in a salt steam bath, or inhale tiny breathable salt particles ground up by machines and dispersed into the air.
How it works: Some doctors believe that salt helps respiratory conditions by drawing water into airways, thinning mucus, and improving the function of cilia, small hairs that help move mucus out of the lungs.
Used to treat: Pain relief, mood disorders, glucose control, and balance problems from Parkinson’s disease
What it is: Originating as a martial art and sometimes called “moving meditation,” this form of exercise is graceful, slow, and low-impact.
How it works: In traditional Chinese medicine, illness is seen as an imbalance between two opposing life forces (yin and yang). Tai chi aims to reestablish that balance to achieve harmony between the body and mind and the outside world.
Used to treat: Fibromyalgia, cold and flu prevention, dry skin, general health.
What it is: These healing therapies make use of materials from the sea—among them seaweed body wraps or alluvial mud body scrubs (a sediment deposit that contains silt and clay particles).
How it works: Minerals and trace elements in sea water, absorbed through the skin, are thought to boost the body’s blood and lymph circulation to promote the elimination of toxins.
Used to treat: Stress reduction, insomnia, mood, chronic pain
What it is: This ancient system of relaxation, exercise, and healing goes back more than 5,000 years, with its origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Most Westernized yoga focuses on physical poses, breathing technique, and meditation, with the goal of achieving relaxation, overall health, and improved fitness.
How it works: Long, deep breathing encourages the actions of the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that lowers blood pressure and slows the pace of breath), allowing for relaxation and healing to take place. Yoga also tones and strengthens your entire body, and especially your core, which is why gentle poses can be a godsend for people with lower-back pain.
Western Herbal Therapy
Used to treat: Insomnia, depression, circulation problem.
What it is: Uses plants and plant material from seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers to create medicines to help prevent or treat various illnesses.
How it works: In some European countries such as Germany, the use of herbal therapies (such as St John’s Wort for depression) actually exceeds the use of prescribed medications, according to Dr. Pelletier. In fact, many modern medications, like aspirin, are derived from herbs (the salicylic acid in aspirin comes from tree bark).