Brain and Body

The Truth About the Most Popular Alternative Medicines

November 26, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Alternative medicine
Photo credit: Adams Homestay Cochin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Acupuncture, reiki, ayurveda — is there any science to these common healing methods?

Rightfully so, many people aren’t too quick to trust everything the pharmaceutical industry recommends — dozens of prescription drugs have proven to be addictive, ineffective, or accompanied by other harmful side effects. Instead, many people turn to “safe alternative” medicines, like acupuncture, reiki, or ayurvedic medicines, but do these common healing techniques have any scientific basis?


Millions of people trust acupuncture to treat chronic pain and even depression, according to Scientific American. If you aren’t familiar with acupuncture, it’s a traditional Chinese medicine that involves inserting needles into the body at specific pressure points.

However, scientists and doctors hold conflicting views on acupuncture — some swear by the practice while others denounce it as pseudoscience. “Acupuncture does not work, which means all discussions of how it does work are irrelevant,” pharmacologist David Colquhoun at University College London, told Scientific American. “I’m not aware of any evidence that acupuncture works for depression.” He dubs acupuncture a “theatrical placebo.”

Others see the practice differently, however, especially because placebos are often effective in their own strange ways. Dr. Leena Mathew, an attending physician in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, told The Atlantic that the response to acupuncture is a robust, demonstrable physiological phenomenon.

SEE ALSO: The Placebo Effect is Stronger and More Bizarre than Ever Before

Acupuncture is similar to placebos in the way that some people respond to it better than others. Interestingly, “sham” treatment studies have shown that using toothpicks can have a similar effect to acupuncture.

So when it comes down to it, the practice of acupuncture lacks strong scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness. Although it has worked for millions of people over the centuries, today we have a multitude of effective options to manage pain and depression — scientifically-proven options that work better than than the placebo effect.


Reiki is an alternative healing technique that was developed in 1922 by Japanese Buddhist Mikao Usui. With Reiki, it is believed that a therapist can channel energy into a patient by means of touch, specifically through the palms of the hand. This “palm healing” or “hands-on healing” is said to activate a natural healing process, as well as restore a patient’s physical and emotional well-being.

Interestingly, similarly to yoga and meditation, Reiki is hinged on the willingness of a patient to get lost in the treatment. It’s all about the mindset, and if you don’t want to believe in the healing powers of Reiki, it’s probably not going to work for you.

Back in 2011, nurses performed a Reiki study on chemotherapy patients to determine whether the medicinal technique improved a patient’s well-being. Nearly 200 patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Reiki, “sham” Reiki, or standard care. Amazingly, patients in both the Reiki and “sham” Reiki groups experienced increased comfort and well-being during a chemotherapy infusion, while the patients in the standard care group experienced no changes.

Naturally, it is important for healthcare providers to decrease patient discomfort in any way they can, but the study doesn’t recommend practicing Reiki. In fact, science proves that there is nothing special about the ancient practice, if toothpicks can achieve the same results. Instead the researchers advise that one-on-one support from a nurse is the key ingredient to raising a patient’s well-being.


Ayurveda is an ancient Indian health care tradition that’s been practiced for over 5,000 years. In Sanskrit, the word Ayurveda means the “science of life.” According to the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing, more than 90 percent of Indians use some type of Ayurvedic medicine, and it’s gaining popularity in the Western world.

The principles of Ayurveda state that each person has a specific constitution, or prakruti, which is determined by three "bodily energies" called doshas — Pitta, Vata, and Kapha. According to Live Science, Pitta energy, linked to fire, is believed to control the digestive and endocrine systems. Vata energy, associated with air and space, is linked to bodily movement, including breathing and blood circulation. Lastly, Kapha energy, linked to earth and water, is thought to control growth and strength, and is associated with the chest, torso and back.

A number of factors like stress, strained relationships, and unhealthy diet can influence the balance between an individual's doshas, and unbalanced energies can make the individual more susceptible to disease, according to Ayurvedic beliefs.

However, a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that nearly 21 percent of Ayurvedic medicines purchased on the Internet contained unsafe levels of lead, mercury or arsenic!

Currently, the herbs and dietary supplements that may be prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners are unregulated by the FDA, meaning they have not been tested for safety nor effectiveness,

and there’s no official licensing procedure for Ayurvedic practitioners. Although Ayurveda has been around for millennia, it’s best to keep a skeptical eye on their unregulated medications.

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