These two terms are thrown around a lot and sued as if they were synonymous. They are not. Often medical people use the term “alternative medicine” in reference to anything that is not modern mainstream medicine. Okay, using this definition “natural medicine” is a more specific subset of practices within it.
Natural Medicine Has Traditions
The reason it is important to distinguish between these two terms is that many things labeled “alternative” are modern practices that may have little or no tradition with empirical evidence gathered. The point is not to dismiss those things labeled ‘alternative’ that sit outside natural medicine traditions or indicate that they are unreliable, but to trigger a deeper look at it rather than embrace them simply because they are not modern mainstream medicine. That’s no way to choose what is effective, wholesome health practice.
Both the two major traditions have underlying foundational philosophies that guide them. Not so for the hodge-podge of modern alternative treatments (except perhaps for the notion that each one of us has the capacity to heal, the body can heal itself given the right stuff).
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
As a group the Chinese herbalists are the best in the world. If you truly want to make best use of herbs, then their wealth of knowledge is an invaluable resource. Many westerners like Michael Tierra have incorporated western herbs into the Chinese/Oriental system for a reason. This system is thousands of years old.
TCM has a naturalist philosophy (Taoism) that underlies it and guides how herbs and other treatments are applied to people’s health situations. This philosophy guides practitioners through diagnostic methods as well as through treatments. In the Chinese system there is Qi (energy) that is the fundamental life force; Ying-Yang is paired as a balancing act of substance and function rooted in each other; the 5 phases of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood are the specific ways these are expressed through human experience. Sometimes these are known as the five elements, but that would be an object distinction rather than an energy-based understanding. These are used to understand imbalances that need to be corrected, as well as fundamental constitutional types of various people.
Each herb, substance or food is understood by the main energy channels it enters in the human body and what it supports or strengthens. Each is understood to be hot, warm, neutral, cool, or cold in its energetic nature so that there is no reason for major mistakes in the application of herbal medicine. A hot body must be cooled down with appropriate herbs, and a cold body must be warmed up.
Acupuncturists work directly with these energy channels using their needles and moxibustion. In this way specific energies that are blocked can be unblocked and everything will work better when energy is moving better through the body.
Ayurveda in India
Ayurvedic herbalists run a close second in skill and understanding to those in China. Some of our most important and most effective and versatile herbs come from India. Gotu Kola and Ashwagandha are two examples. Some practitioners in the west draw on Ayurvedic tradition in addition to TCM. Ayurvedic medicine is also thousands of years old and based on the Vedas, the documents written in Sanskrit that may be the most distant connection to our pre-history.
This gives a well-rounded approach to natural medicine with a unifying philosophy that has many correlates to TCM. Instead of Qi, we have prana. Ayurveda looks at Vata, Pitta, Kapha for its expression of fundamental energy and the constitutional types of people, as well as what needs to be brought into balance. You wouldn’t give the hotter herbs to the nervous or energetic Vata or Pitta type that the Kapha type needs to overcome a cold, phlegmy, sluggish condition.
Free floating “alternative” medicine knows little or nothing of these.
Without such underlying philosophical guidance for understanding the human body and its variations and conditions, one is left with little more than modern nutrition, guesswork, and desperation when serious conditions set in.
Western traditions of natural medicine have been repeatedly broken, often fused with alchemy, persecuted as witchcraft — because of a rift in fundamental philosophy.
Since classical Greek times there has been a war in western medicine between those who see the body and human health in two very different ways — both legitimate, but never finding peace with each other. One approach, the heroic medicine approach, sees decisive intervention with strong medicines in large doses by a heroic doctor as essential. The other approach, the homeopathic approach, allows for innate healing ability to kick in and prefers to use micro-doses or far smaller doses of medicines.
This led to the fight we are still seeing today between mainstream modern chemical medicine (heroic) and gentler forms of natural medicine in which the body’s innate wisdom and healing capacity is honored.
While it is not essential that a practitioner be educated in one of these two Oriental healing arts, it can often make the difference between recovery and more illness, confusion, etc.
Besides, I find that TCM is educational in its own way, so that even if I don’t get a “cure” for someone or for a condition, that it still gives good guidance and further insights on the way the body functions and how the emotions and the mind interfaces with it. Understanding nature better is to live better within the natural world.