~ Alternative Healing Methods – an overview and critique

 نتيجة بحث الصور عن ‪Alternative Healing Methods‬‏
The ideal of health and well-being has become a dominating feature of our civilization. And yet, there are still conditions which resist all the efforts of modern medicine. Cancer and cardiovascular diseases are number one causes of mortality. Arthritis, allergies and fatigue are haunting millions. Depression, anxiety and sleep disorders remain a constant challenge. Patients often feel left alone by medical and psychological professionals, without help and prospect. In the shadow of their hopelessness, sufferers and their families set out for a long journey in search for alternative modes of healing.

It is quite natural to do everything to escape suffering. Isn’t it legitimate to help yourself and to pursue new routes to well-being? Yet, today’s search for healing  seems to be going deeper. To some, health means considerably more than the absence of sickness. It is an ideal of absolute well-being – physical and psychological – beyond the concerns of traditional medicine. It is almost a spiritual quest. In my research for this article, I surfed the Internet under the key word „well being“. The list of hyperlinks I found was somewhat troubling: acupuncture, applied kinesiology, aromatherapy, Ayurveda, homeopathy, massage therapy, oriental medicine, Reikitherapy, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, chiropractic, massage, imagery, spiritualhealing, macrobiotics, herbal medicine, megavitamin therapy, energy healing, biofeedback, folk remedies, a course in miracles, spiritual empowerment and others.

Eastern philosophy, mystical wisdom and astrological concepts seem to transcend the movement of alternative medicine. Is this where the road to healing leads? How can we discern what is helpful, and what is spiritually questionable or even destructive? These questions are all the more pressing, as unconventional medicine is a rapidly growing field in modern health care. A recent Harvard study (1) showed that 34 percent of the respondents reported using at least one unconventional therapy in the previous year, and a third of these saw providers of unorthodox medicine. Sociologist Meredith McGuire (2) has published an extensive assessment of healing groups in a middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey, identifying no less than 73 alternative practices related to health.

Defining unconventional medicine is not easy. There are many synonyms, such as unorthodox, complementary, natural, traditional (or untraditional), New Age or holistic medicine. The term refers to medical practices that are not in conformity with the standards of the medical community or which are not being widely taught at medical schools or generally available at hospitals. The methods range from well-known and helpful practices to rather exotic and mysterious applications. Box 1 attempts to give an overview of some of the most widely used methods:

Why are people turning to alternative medicine?

To understand the surge of alternative medicine, we have to understand the distress of suffering people (3), especially those with life-threatening or chronic disease which do not sufficiently respond to conventional medicine. In their anguish, logic cannot comfort them, nor can the call for patience soothe their pain. The promise of help and healing through complementary medicine inspires them – at least in the beginning – with renewed trust, mobilizing fresh vigor and hope. Andrew Weil, author of several landmark books on the subject (4), says, he receives about 250 calls and 100 letters from around the world. The letters usually begin with „I need help“ and end with „You are my only hope.“

Alternative models of healing do no longer oppose conventional medicine, they rather want to be understood as complementary forms of healing. Thus it may happen (5), that you find two teams at work in an operating room: On one side the surgical team with all its high tech instruments, and on the other side of the drape an energetic healer trying to channel healing energy to the patient’s body. More and more main-stream physicians are blending their medical training with alternative forms of healing into a new form of treatment that they perceive as „integrative medicine“. Psychology Today (6) in a recent cover story calls them „cross-over physicians“ venturing the road less traveled. The story behind their paradigm shift often is a very personal one. The constant plight of help-seeking patients and the feeling of helplessness in the face of many diseases has created a vacuum that is not just perceived as professional failure. „Doctors are spiritually hungry,“ says one of them. „This is far more than an intellectual adventure. It has become a personal search.“ The increasing numbers of alternative practitioners is having its impact on medical schools, research projects as well as government and health plan funding. 34 of the 125 medical schools in the United States are offering courses in alternative medicine. Increasingly, health insurance companies are covering the costs of alternative treatments, as they expect lower overall expenditures.

What are the concepts behind alternative methods?

 A few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe a herbal practitioner in her work. „All life is energy,“ she explained to me. „And all healing energy is divine energy. Illness is caused by negative vibrations or energetic blocks. To balance your energy field you have to find the right herbal remedy.“ On a table she had arranged 12 remedies in a circle representing the zodiac. She turned to her client and told her: „To find out which remedy is best for you, I need a sample carrying your vital energy. We could take a drop of blood, but a drop of saliva on filter paper can do. Like your specific DNA, it also radiates your specific energy profile. These energies are so subliminal that normal measuring devices cannot pick them up. So I am using a biological indicator.“ Then she took a pendulum, let it gently sway over the remedies with the drop of saliva in the center and waited patiently until it seemed to point towards one of the colored bottles.

This little scene is illustrative of the basic assumptions of alternative medicine in its various forms. Let me describe four principles:

1. Body and Mind are part of a universal energy field. which carries various names: vital force, bioenergy, Ch’i, Prana, or simply God. The energy is supposed to circulate in meridians or energetic channels. The Chakras are a Hindu concept of seven energetic centers which control the flow of energy and are supposed to correspond with endocrine glands and major organs.

2. Macrocosm finds its correspondence in microcosm: Thus the constellation of the stars reflects human destiny (astrology), the microcosm of the eyes tells you about the physical condition of the macrocosm of the body (iridology), the microcosm of the feet reflects the disharmony of the organism (foot reflexology), or the ear is a microcosmic representation of the energy flow in the body (ear acupuncture). Bach flower remedies correlate the characteristics of plants with a person’s emotional condition (e.g., holly is said to be a remedy for hatred, envy and jealousy).

3. Disease is the result of energetic imbalance or disharmony with universal cosmic energy. This imbalance may be caused by a multitude of causes, such as pathogenic vibrations, energy blockades in the Chakras or in the meridians. Some blame tooth fillings, others old scars from surgery. Emotional blocks are being seen as a major factor to explain energetic disharmony. Thus homeopathy and flower therapies talk of undesirable emotional conditions in which a person has been estranged from the universal cosmic stream of energy.

4. Healing is the restoration of harmony with cosmic energy. Many alternative therapies try to restore vital energy, to harmonize vibrations or to balance Yin and Yang. Healing in this concept is not just applying a method, rather it is the ritual with deep spiritual overtones. One of the proponents of acupuncture in the United States, Dr. Duke (7) writes: „The acupuncturist sees the lives of his patients as integral parts of the universe. He brings his patients back to health not only for their own sake and happiness, but so that the whole world may function properly. Every needle the acupuncturist twirls between his fingers bears the heavy weight of universal harmony in its slim, pointed end.“

A question of conscience

The movement of alternative medicine cannot be seen entirely negative. I have talked to many patients, who reported positive effects. Alternative medicine seems to be a necessary countermovement against the uncritical use of our western technical medicine. Its major challenges include: increased responsibility for your health, a healthy mistrust against overly relying on drugs and hi-tech medicine, a balanced application of natural remedies, balanced diet, an emphasis on stress-reduction.

However, the movement of alternative medicine has become much more than an updated collection of grandmother’s herbal remedies and natural folk healing (8). Frequently, the methods are viewed and practiced in the framework of eastern-mystical models. It is not only natural healing that is being promoted but ancient mysteries in the new garments of esoteric spirituality, a marriage of science and religion (9), of healing and salvation.

If you want to be a Christian, these tensions cannot leave you untouched (10). Is it possible to promote the positive aspects of alternative medicine within the framework of a Christian world view? Or is it necessary to open yourself to cosmic energies and mystical traditions in order to live a healthy life? How can we discern the various methods? What are the alternatives? More than ever, we need wisdom to use those remedies and practices which have a natural basis without mystical overtones. Choosing the roads to health has become a matter of conscience. And you will find different opinions regarding alternative medicine even among Christians. While some already feel troubled with the fact that a method has a history of mysticism, others only start asking questions when a method is overtly practiced in an occult framework. Regarding nutrition, diets and herbal remedies, let’s take Paul’s advice to the Romans not to pass judgments on disputable matters: „The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything, must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. . . . Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.“ (11)

Four criteria of discernment

To examine alternative medicine in order to „hold on to the good“ (12), let me propose four criteria of discernment: 1. Which is the philosophical background of a method? 2. How is the effect of a method or a remedy being explained? 3. What is the medical or scientific evidence for a method? 4. Is the method being intermingled with New Age concepts, practices or rituals?

1. Philosophical background: Does the method historically draw from mystical or occult concepts? A review of the literature on many alternative healing systems shows that this is often the case. However, this philosophical background does not always play a role in their actual practice.

2. Explanatory model:  Is it possible to explain a healing method apart from occult or mystical models? Frequently, there are several explanatory models for the effect of a practice or remedy. An example: Mystical herbalists explain part of the efficacy of their remedies as a consequence of sowing and harvesting them during specific phases of the moon or through homeopathic potentialization. Thus, they are overtly using magical models of explanation. On the other hand, there is ample evidence for biochemical modes of action in herbal extracts given in a sufficient dose - mechanisms, which ultimately have been created by God, and which do not require magical enhancement.

3. Scientific confirmation: If you do not want to be ensnared by „empty deceit“ (13) you have to critically ask: „Can the claims of a method or a remedy be confirmed by scientific validation?“ This is not mere belief in science, but simple quality control for consumer protection. Evidence is positive for many herbal remedies, where studies have shown effective ingredients which can powerfully influence bodily functions. Other methods, however have a poor record. Especially mechanical and electrical devices which are being recommended to fend off „pathogenic vibrations“, to improve sleep, to reduce rheumatic aches or to stimulate self-healing powers, are more than dubious. Similarly, many exercise and relaxation techniques, such as visualization, touch for health etc. can only produce anecdotal evidence, or in other words: they only work in the adherent.

4. Current application of a method: This criterion seems the most important to me, as it addresses the tension between alternative medicine and Christian faith. Is the method being practiced without being intermingled with occult models and esoteric practices? I.e., is the practitioner using massage to relax tense muscles or is he claiming to transfer mystical energies? It may be helpful to read the literature on the methods a practitioner is using or to ask the healer for his beliefs. In my research, I have made the acquaintance of physicians and health practitioners who are using alternative methods without giving much thought to their philosophical underpinnings. For them, iridology is a diagnostic method like other tests; the prescription of homeopathic remedies the same as prescribing aspirin, and the recommendation of acupuncture equivalent to physiotherapy. On the other hand, there are esoteric health practitioners and shamans, who choose herbal remedies (which are part of God’s natural creation) with the help of magical ritual (such as a pendulum or clairvoyant techniques).

Where is the borderline between light and darkness?

Applying the criteria mentioned above can yield a wide array of opinions, even among Christians. Let me give an example. Homeopathy  is an alternative system of healing that is being widely used and was even taught to missionaries in Britain before they were sent out. The background of the method (criterion 1) is a prescientific concept of vital energy encapsulated in the extreme dilution of a substance. The explanatory model (criterion 2) cannot be conveyed without the so-called potentialization through which, in its founder Samuel Hahnemann’s words „the medicinal properties of drugs . . . are excited and enabled to act spiritually (dynamically) on the vital forces.“ The effectiveness of homeopathy has never really been proven by independent scientific research (criterion 3) although there have been numerous attempts and some interesting publications. However: Countless individuals claim to have had positive experiences with homeopathy. Biochemically, the pills and tinctures are not toxic. Especially, in Britain and Germany, Christian physicians and health practitioners are prescribing homeopathic remedies without resorting to New Age philosophy (criterion 4). Where then, is the borderline to apply or reject homeopathic remedies? Individuals have to decide for themselves, where they want to draw the line.

The problem with an objective evaluation of alternative medicine is this: not every practitioner or consumer of alternative remedies and methods is subscribing to such overt spiritual assumptions. For many of them, alternative medicine is nothing more than an effort to treat the whole person and „to take charge of your own health“. However, many books are drawing the spiritual lines described above and patients start to understand their personal experience of being helped with eastern-mystical explanations. Marc Albrecht, a researcher in the field concludes: „While many types of psychic healing may not be overtly anti-Christian or anti-Biblical, our experience indicates that people who pursue these areas for the most part end up adhering to some form of occult world view or Eastern-mystical practice.“

How should we advise our clients?

Being informed about basic tenets of alternative healing methods can be of great value to sort out possible benefits and risks with those clients who eventually ponder to resort to them for additional help (14). Not always will patients follow our advice, and sometimes it is necessary to agree that we disagree. Alternative medicine seeks to enhance the body’s self healing capacities. Yet, in the midst of  all the remedies which are recommended to reach this goal, most people tend to forget the fact that these self healing powers are God-given, constantly watching and restoring our health – with and without the manifold healing techniques (including psychoactive drugs and psychological counseling) and herbal tinctures. But we are also susceptible to stress and illness, as a consequence of our fallen humanity. Careful discernment is necessary, therefore, to decide which techniques to apply to regain health. „Everything is permissible for me,“ Paul writes, „but not everything is beneficial.“ (15) Here are a few guidelines which I give my patients:

-           Try to live a healthy life style with enough exercise and balanced nutrition without falling into fads.

-           Be aware of the God-given self healing powers within you. Be critical against all claims of enhancing them through spiritual means and psychological techniques.

-           Live with the acknowledgment of your weakness: Accepting your limitations can be more helpful than striving for super health.

-           Give your mind and body time to regenerate. As a wound needs time to heal, so does our whole organism, and there is a good chance that even emotional wounds tend to heal over time.

Beware of alternative methods

-           which build on a concept of cosmic energies to improve your health

-           which are primarily based on anecdotal evidence

-           which seem to be neutral in themselves but are being used in connection with New Age teachings and techniques.

Whereas we should not make scientific medicine the source of a technology-oriented faith, we should also beware of letting New Age teachings change our view of God and his creation. Try to find a balance between helping your clients to actively participate in their healing process and encouraging them to patiently wait on God for their restoration. If healing only seems possible through techniques and remedies inspired by mystical teachings, let them seriously ask themselves: „What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?“ (16)


1.   David M. Eisenberg et al., „Unconventional medicine in the United States“, The New England Journal of Medicine 328 (4), (1993): 246–252.

2.   M. B. McGuire, Ritual Healing in Suburban America (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

3.   A. Kleinman, The Illness Narratives. Suffering, healing and the human condition. (New York: Basic Books, 1988)

4.   A. Weil, Spontaneous Healing (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995)

5.   G. H. Colt, „The Healing Revolution“, LIFE-Magazine, September 1996, pp. 34–50.

6.   J. Neimark, „On the front lines of alternative medicine.“ Psychology Today, January/February 1997, pp. 52–68.

7.   M. Duke: Acupuncture. Pyramid House 1972, p. 67.

8.   N. Gevitz (ed.), Other healers. Unorthodox medicine in America. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

9.   Spiritual Counterfeits Project: Holistic Health Issue - The Marriage of Science and Religion. (Berkeley: SCP 1978).

10. S. Pfeifer, Healing at any price? The hidden dangers of alternative medicine. (Milton-Keynes, U.K.: Nelson-Word 1988).

11. Romans 14:3,5 (NIV)

12. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NIV)

13. Colossians 2:8 (RSV)

14. R. H. Murray and A. Rubel, „Physicians and Healers – Unwitting Partners in Health Care“, The New England Journal of Medicine 326 (1) (1992): 61 – 64.

15. 1 Corinthians 6:12 (NIV)

16. Matthew 16:26 (NIV)

Table 1:  Methods of Alternative Medicine

1.         Diagnostic Methods

·      Iridology

·      Aura (Kirlian Photography)

·      homeopathic drug characteristics

·      „bio-indicators“

·      muscle tests in kinesiology (touch for health)

·      Astrology, pendulum, clairvoyance

2.         Treatments with physical forces and electromechanical devices

·      Acupuncture and its variants

·      Biofeedback, „Mind-Machines“, various electrotherapies

·      Healing jewelry and gems

·      Chiropractice, Osteopathy, Reflexology

·      Mind-Body-Techniques such as Touch for Health and other forms of massage

3.         Nutritional treatments

·      Herbal medicine

·      Vitamin and mineral dietary supplements

·      Orthomolecular nutrition

·      Lifestyle diets

3.         Treatments with drugs and biologic means

·      Homeopathy

·      Drugs, serums and vaccines of questionable effects

·      injections of live cells from fetuses and animals

·      Aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies

4.         Spiritual  and psychotechnical treatments

·      Yoga und Meditation, Reiki

·      Bio-Energetics

·      Rebirthing and reincarnation therapy

·      Guided Visualization (Simonton)

·      A Course in Miracles

·      psychic healing

·      shamanism

Frequently, a method cannot be summarized in just one category. Herbal remedies are often applied in homeopathic dilutions and chosen on the basis of some test of vital energy (such as kinesiological muscle testing or use of the pendulum).

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