How Does Complementary Medicine Work?

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Complementary medicine focuses on the interactions between your mind, your body, and your behavior.

Research has shown that your emotional state, both good and not so good, affects your immune system's ability to fight off disease. In one study, people with higher stress levels or more negative moods who were exposed to a cold virus came down with worse colds than people who were less stressed or had more positive moods.

Several studies on people with various types of cancer suggest that complementary medicine can improve mood, quality of life, and coping. This stress relief might help your immune system function better and allow you to better cope with treatment-related side effects.

People who practice meditation or yoga or have acupuncture say that their bodies AND their brains are engaged. New studies are helping researchers understand the connection between mind and body. In one study, meditation was associated with a better immune system response to a vaccine.

Scientific research on many complementary therapies is relatively new. Many of the studies are small, and some haven't been done in a clinical setting. But as complementary therapies become more popular and well known, more research is starting. This research includes studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, one of the centers that make up the National Institutes of Health. Each new study adds to the available knowledge.

The "placebo effect"

Doing something regularly, whether it's taking a pill or getting a massage, can give you real benefits — as long as you believe that what you're doing is going to help you. For people taking medication, believing in the power of the medicine adds to the benefit. People in a clinical trial given a placebo (a dummy or sugar pill) without their knowing may still feel better because they believe that what they're taking has a healing effect. This is known as the placebo effect.

The benefits happen because your mind wants the tested technique to help you. Every time you use the technique, your hopes that it will help you are reinforced. The power of your belief causes the placebo effect.

Complementary medicine may help even if it only causes a placebo effect. By giving people a more positive outlook, complementary therapies may possibly ease stress and help the immune system function more effectively.

Expert Quote

"Doctors usually focus on treatment and not on the process of healing. When patients have finished their chemotherapy or radiation, part of them believes, great, I'm done, time to go back to real life. Inside, they don't feel that way, and they don't have a chance to heal. These therapies help physically so people can get their stamina back. Using these therapies is a way to get support as you move forward."

-- Tracy Gaudet, M.D.

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