We’ve all seen the words “complementary,” “alternative,” and “integrative,” but what do they really mean?
This fact sheet looks into these terms to help you understand them better and gives you a brief picture of the mission and role of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in this area of research. The terms “complementary,” “alternative,” and “integrative” are continually evolving, along with the field, but the descriptions of these terms below are how we at NIH currently define them.
Complementary Versus Alternative
According to a 2012 national survey, many Americans—more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children—use health care approaches that are not typically part of conventional medical care or that may have origins outside of usual Western practice. When describing these approaches, people often use “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts:
- If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
- If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”
Most people who use non-mainstream approaches also use conventional health care.
In additional to complementary and alternative, you may also hear the term “functional medicine.” This term sometimes refers to a concept similar to integrative health (described below), but it may also refer to an approach that more closely resembles naturopathy (a medical system that has evolved from a combination of traditional practices and health care approaches popular in Europe during the 19th century).
Integrative health care often brings conventional and complementary approaches together in a coordinated way. It emphasizes a holistic, patient-focused approach to health care and wellness—often including mental, emotional, functional, spiritual, social, and community aspects—and treating the whole person rather than, for example, one organ system. It aims for well-coordinated care between different providers and institutions.
The use of integrative approaches to health and wellness has grown within care settings across the United States. Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors.
Types of Complementary Health Approaches
Complementary health approaches include natural products and mind and body practices.
This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements.
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 17.7 percent of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. These products were the most popular complementary health approach in the survey. (See chart.) The most commonly used natural product was fish oil.
Researchers have done large, rigorous studies on a few natural products, but the results often showed that the products didn’t work for the conditions studied. Research on others is in progress. While there are indications that some may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body, and about their safety and potential interactions with medicines and other natural products.
Mind and Body Practices
Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. The 2012 NHIS showed that yoga, chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation, and meditation are among the most popular mind and body practices used by adults. According to the 2017 NHIS, the popularity of yoga has grown dramatically in recent years, from 9.5 percent of U.S. adults practicing yoga in 2012 to 14.3 percent in 2017. The 2017 NHIS also showed that the use of meditation increased more than threefold from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017.
Other mind and body practices include acupuncture, relaxation techniques (such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation), tai chi, qi gong, hypnotherapy, Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.
The amount of research on mind and body approaches varies widely depending on the practice. For example, researchers have done many studies on acupuncture, yoga, spinal manipulation, and meditation, but there have been fewer studies on some other practices.
Other Complementary Health Approaches
Some complementary approaches may not neatly fit into either of these groups—for example, the practices of traditional healers, Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, and functional medicine.
NCCIH is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches.
NCCIH’s Mission and Vision
The mission of NCCIH is to define, through rigorous scientific investigation, the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative health interventions and their roles in improving health and health care.
NCCIH’s vision is that scientific evidence informs decision making by the public, by health care professionals, and by health policymakers regarding the use and integration of complementary and integrative health approaches.
To learn more, visit the NCCIH Facts-at-a-Glance and Mission webpage.
For More Information
NCCIH Strategic Plan
NCCIH’s current strategic plan, 2016 Strategic Plan: Exploring the Science of Complementary and Integrative Health, presents a series of goals and objectives to guide us in determining priorities for future research on complementary health approaches. The scientific objectives in the plan are aligned with those of the broader National Institutes of Health strategic plan.
The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
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