A Comprehensive Analysis of Complementary Medicines

Many things in life attract strong debate. Among the healthcare field, we have seen ongoing debate over vaccines, abortion, end of life, and of course the use of complementary medicines.
As with all of these debates, we see the majority of people take the view of yes or no. Either really support it or really against it. Perhaps the most controversial issues that comes to mind is that complementary medicine can cure cancer with an ongoing debate with doctors approving or disapproving its use.
But like many things in life, nothing is definite. Sometimes it is not a simple yes or no. But in order to understand the debate, we need to understand complementary medicine and both sides of the argument.

So what does complementary medicine include?

Complementary medicine, sometimes also referred to as traditional or alternative medicine is a range of healthcare practice that includes vitamin and supplements, iridology, aromatherapy, homeopathy, and acupuncture. There are also other practices believed to have health benefits such as meditation, tai chi, yoga, and hypnotherapy. These practices are not the main stay of western medical practice due to lack of clinical data and does not support evidence based medicine.


Complementary medicine is generally considered safe and free from adverse effects. In addition, it offers a more integrated approach to healing in that it addresses not only symptoms, but patient’s emotional and spiritual health. Finally, it places more emphasis on disease prevention which is the main reason the use of vitamins and supplements is on the rise.

Why Not?

Lack of research and clinical trials means there is not enough evidence for efficacy to warrant its place in mainstream medicine. This is the main reason why many doctors and clinicians are strongly against the use of vitamins and supplements. This is perhaps further intensified through many false advertising and unsubstantiated claims through online marketing. In addition, some complementary medicine do in fact cause adverse reactions and unwanted drug interactions.

Important Things to Understand

  • Vitamins are not drugs or miracle pills
  • There are many false advertising in the vitamin field. And no, vitamins cannot cure cancer
  • Some vitamin and supplements is more effective than others.
  • There is no one size fit all. Each person is different

Let’s Analyse

In medicine, there is no one size fit all. Certainly, there is no treatment that will work 100% of the time to 100% of the patient. Just because a painkiller worked for you doesn’t mean it will for every other person taking it. Just because an antibiotic is causing you diarrhoea doesn’t mean it will cause diarrhoea for every other person. Each case is different. But first, let’s do some analysis.

  • Clinical Evidence – It is no secret complementary medicines lack evidence. Some have been carefully studied while others have lacked the clinical trials to validate its use. However, one thing to understand is just because something has no evidence does not mean it doesn’t work. Take Traditional Chinese Medicine for example, one can safely establish there is a degree of efficacy to it as it has been used for thousands of years and passed down through generations. However, there is no evidence that any of this works, which is why to this day there is a big differentiator between Western Medicine and Eastern Medicine. The common reason for lack of evidence is the lack of funding to run clinical trials. This is common in the vitamin and supplements field. Make sure you do your research and find out the real reason for the lack of evidence.
  • Adverse reactions – Vitamins are definitely not 100% safe. For example, Black Cohosh can cause liver failure, Gingko can increase risk of bleeding, and St Johns wart can have many unwanted drug interactions that could potentially be fatal. This is important to understand that there are risks with vitamins and one should not simply take them just for the sake of taking them.
  • False advertising – I believe this is the single biggest reason the use of vitamins are hugely controversial. It is not because of the lack of evidence or the adverse reactions, it’s simply because of the claims many companies make. In order to understand why so many companies make these false claims year after year, we need to look at the claims they are making. The most common ones we can all think of is cancer cure, weight loss, and anti-ageing. Now let’s look at the current conventional treatment options for these conditions. There are basically none. And naturally humans will look for alternative options when they are being told there is nothing we can do for your cancer, you cannot lose weight because of your genes, and it’s normal to feel and look terrible because you are old. This seems like the perfect opportunity for vitamin companies to make bold claims and take advantage of human nature.

After understanding the limitations of clinical trials, everything has risks, and ignoring the marketing claims, let’s look at some situations where vitamins might just be a better option.

Clinical Scenarios – Vitamins do have their place

Now that you have a more complete understanding of the vitamins, consider these scenarios:

  • Insomnia – Conventional treatment of insomnia generally involves sedatives that can cause addiction, excessive sleepiness, and is dangerous in overdose. Personally, I would much more prefer to trial something natural prior to simply using a sedative.
  • Low Mood – Feeling down due to some triggering event is common. These cases do not warrant the use of anti-depressants and if counselling has not worked, who says I can’t take some vitamins to make me feel better? I would rather not have to start an antidepressant and be stuck with it for many months or possibly years.
  • Hair Loss – If I am losing hair and conventional treatment offers me with no solutions, who says I can’t give supplements a try? After all, even conventional treatment is trial and error at the end of the day.

Some other commonly used conditions with good evidence include magnesium for muscle cramps, probiotics for digestive health, fish oil for heart health, and garlic for high blood pressure.

Things to remember

Complementary medicine should work with traditional therapy and they should definitely not be mutually exclusive. As every case is different, I believe we should understand their place in medicine and it is not a simple yes or no question.

  • Perhaps the best analogy I can provide is imagine there is a fly in the room:
  • Conventional treatment kills the fly
  • Complementary medicine mops the fly away and clean up the floor

So often do we see people skip conventional treatment for their cancer therapy and turn to carrot juice or vitamin therapy. Please understand they are not mutually exclusive and conventional treatment should not be abandoned if you use vitamins. It is a complicated field with sometimes extremely biased opinions. Best thing is do your research, understand, and get a second opinion if you have to.

What is your experience with complimentary medicines?

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