Definitions & Terminology for Alternative Medicine: Since there is no global defining body, or universal agreement on many of these terms, we’ve taken the most common phrases, and offer you a guideline on usage and meaning.  Definitions often overlap and are interchangeable, and may vary in different cultures and localities.


Alternative Medicine is any form of healthcare, medical treatment – including remedies, prescriptions and supplements – given for any medical or health condition, that exists outside the realm of traditionally trained and licensed healthcare practitioners, such as MD’s, Doctors, GP’s, Registered Nurses, Specialist MD’s, Hospital staff and technicians etc.   It’s a wide blanket description given to any form of medical support that is non-traditional.


Holistic Health, or use of the term “holistic” (or “wholistic”) in combination with “medicine” or “health” or “healing”, designates the understanding and integration of the “whole person” concept in wellness and healing.  Traditional medicine has historically been engineered to seek “cures” by targeting the known symptoms of health disorders, or isolating and understanding “disease” as an entity of it’s own nature, divorced from the human who happens to have the disease.

“Holism” suggests understanding both the whole human, in all dimensions, and the system of balances between all aspects of a person’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.  The “holistic” approach tends to understand both health and disease in terms of maintaining and restoring balances to the entire machinery of life, rather than focusing on only one aspect or symptom.  It also hands back responsibility to the patient, in terms of self-awareness, empowerment, and insight in managing and optimizing wellness.


Complimentary or Integrative Medicine refers to combining both traditional and alternative forms of healthcare to achieve an optimal result in treatment.  This can cover a wide range of patients and wellness issues, utilizing the best of different health practices which together act synergistically, and address a more well-rounded approach to health management.

An example is the use certain natural or vitamin supplements to counter the effects of chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer.  Another example might be diet, lifestyle changes or the addition of supplements to aid digestive problems, in combination with traditional medical treatment.  Many MDs these days are recognizing the benefits of nutrition and health supplementation in terms of restoring and maintaining health.  Many are also recognizing the practice of certain mind-body disciplines such as meditation or yoga in combating the effects of stress-related disorders.


Natural Healing – or using the word “natural” in conjunction with any form of medicine or therapy, suggests more of a nature-based approach to healing, rather than man-made devices or substances.   It’s a reaction to post-industrial societies moving farther and farther away from nature, into environments that are “advanced” in terms of technology and science, but are more and more removed from the original elements that human beings derive from.

The word “natural”, like many of the catch-phrases applied to lifestyle options and consumer goods, can be very misleading and sometimes deceptive.  Food items labeled “natural” are often-times just as processed and full of chemicals as any other junk food.  So, as always, consumers need to protect themselves by making educated choices and paying attention to fine-print and labels on products.

“Natural Therapies” suggest therapies that are more hands on, intuitive, or “energy-based”, rather than machinery or technology based, and “Natural Remedies” suggest medicines that are plant-based or come from natural elements with minimal human tampering.


“Mainstream Medicine” (also called “Traditional” or “Western” Medicine), refers to the widely-accepted or status-quo medical practices, professions, and options available in western societies. They are usually governed by training, education, professional standards and protocol established by scientific methods and research.

The type of mainstream medical practices in place in most of what we call “civilized countries”, involves a group of trained professionals. This infrastructure is usually comprised of Doctors, MD’s specialists and paramedical professionals: 1st Aid Technicians, Ambulance staff, Nurses, Physio / Physical Therapists etc.  This organizational matrix also includes hospitals and clinics, along with equipment and technology designed for diagnosis and treatment.  Other related branches included Pharmacists and Pharmacies, and a myriad of technicians and laboratory workers who manage various aspects of clinical, diagnostic and administrative  tasks.

NOTE: Because the term “Traditional” also refers to aboriginal or ancient medical systems, we’ll reserve the term “Traditional” to refer to these ancient systems and use “Western”, “Establishment”, or “Conventional” medicine to refer to the systems in place in modern societies.


“Traditional Medicine” – besides referring to establishment or mainstream medicine, is also commonly used to refer to historically derived systems of healing that have been in practice since ancient times.  These include, but are not limited to, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurvedic Medicine, Shamanic Medicine, and various forms of Aboriginal or First-Nations traditions.

In order not to confuse the historically established “traditional practices” with our modern-day medical practices, let’s choose to reserve the term “traditional” for historically-correct practices, and “western” or “establishment” medicine, for the modern-day medical practices that most of us in the western world are familiar with.

Traditional Medicine then, refers to the branches of Alternative Medicine that draw from practices, techniques and remedies originally derived from older cultures and civilizations, sometimes dating back thousands to tens-of-thousands of years.  Be aware that in ancient societies, medical and healing practices were often interwoven with spiritual beliefs and lifestyles that were immersed in natural elements and context that we cannot appreciate or emulate in our modern-day lives.  Because the modern mind-set is so different, so left-brained, and so culturally-programmed, much of what transpired in ancient times is misinterpreted and misunderstood.  However because Nature and man’s relationship to the elements of nature is consistent over vast times, there are still truths and elemental principles in Traditional Medicine that have powerful restorative and healing effects, even in our modern context.