Defining Types of Natural Medicine

Discover the differences between styles of alternative medicines and natural herbal remedies.

| July/August 2016

herbs and utensils

Botanical medicine uses herbs and other natural therapies in preventative medicine, and to treat illness.

Photo by iStock


Acupuncture is one aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which also includes acupressure and Chinese herbal medicine. It’s rapidly grown in popularity over the past three decades, primarily due to its success with pain management. Acupuncture involves placing tiny, sterile needles in strategic areas of the body, with the intent of stimulating organ systems or nervous system channels to improve metabolism, decrease pain, or improve mental-emotional states, among others. Acupuncture can be practiced as a stand-alone therapy or in conjunction with treatment by MDs, NDs and chiropractors. See AAAOM for more information.

Naturopathic medicine 

Naturopathic medicine is a primary health-care profession focused on prevention. It can include health guidance and treatments using traditional and natural remedies, as well as modern evidence-based healing methods. Naturopathic practice includes clinical and laboratory diagnostic testing, nutrition, botanical medicine, naturopathic physical medicine, hygiene, counseling, minor surgery, homeopathy, acupuncture, prescription medication, intravenous and injection therapy, and naturopathic obstetrics (natural childbirth). See American Association of Naturopathic Physicians for more info.


Ayurveda is a system of medicine that arose thousands of  years ago in India. It’s a comprehensive, individualized approach to wellness and utilizes dietary counseling, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, herbs and massage. Ayurveda translates to “the study of or the science of life.” The practice encompasses lifestyle factors as well as health’s relation to the environment and the interconnectedness of life. See National Ayurvedic Medical Association for more info.

Botanical medicine 

Botanical medicine is the use of herbs and other natural therapies to prevent and treat ailments. Botanical medicine is a main therapy used by naturopathic doctors, but across the U.S. and in other nations, specialized herbalists, who are not doctors, consult on herbal therapies for various conditions. The popularity of botanical medicine is evidenced by the wide array of herbal products in stores nationwide, as well as the professional herbal products used by almost all CAM practitioners. See American Herbalists Guild for more info.


Homeopathy is a popular but controversial therapy. It is the least understood of the bunch; its basic tenet is “like cures like.” For example, if you were to get stung by a bee, homeopathy might suggest treating it with a vastly diluted medicine made from bee venom, which could potentially reverse the symptoms of the bee sting. The practice of homeopathy is the most individualized of all of the alternative therapies and boasts thousands of potential remedies, matched through extensive analysis to a particular patient. Homeopathy can be difficult to make sense of: First, it can be hard to understand how its remedies could be effective as they are so incredibly diluted (for example, a “30X” homeopathic solution contains 1 part mineral or botanical substance to 1,000,000 parts water and/or alcohol); second, homeopathy’s incredibly individualized nature makes it almost impossible to study.  However, some high-quality studies have shown surprisingly successful results, so it is worth further study. See North American Society of Homeopaths for more information.

Learn more about Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

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