Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Complementary and alternative medicine includes treatments that are outside mainstream Western medicine.1 The terms are sometimes used to mean the same thing, but they are different. “Complementary” therapies are used alongside of conventional medicine. “Alternative” therapies are used in place of conventional medicine. Another term, “integrative medicine” means the practice of combining conventional and complementary treatments. The goal of integrative medicine is to improve overall well-being.

People sometimes use complementary medicine to relieve symptoms of a chronic disease or to treat medication side effects.2 Some people feel more in control of their health when they use complementary therapies.3 Complementary approaches include mind-body practices and natural products.1

Few complementary approaches have been proven to help people with asthma.3 It can be risky to use unproven treatments if they delay necessary medical care.

What are mind-body practices?

Mind-body therapies bring together the brain, mind, body, and behavior.4 The goal is improve health and function through the mind.

You can use some mind-body techniques at home. Therapies used for asthma include breath retraining, relaxation techniques, and yoga. Breathing techniques are one of the most popular complementary therapies for asthma.5 Relaxation techniques may lower stress. Stress tends to make asthma worse. A handful of studies have shown some positive results using these techniques. However, the studies are generally small and poor quality. Poor quality evidence does not mean that the techniques are no good. It just means there is not much information about them.

Among US adults, deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation are very popular complementary therapies.2 About 11% of the population practices deep breathing. A little less than 10% does yoga and 8% meditates.

Other mind-body procedures used for asthma are done by a trained practitioner. These include breathing muscle training and acupuncture. However, acupuncture is not beneficial for asthma. Therefore, it is not recommended.6

What are natural products?

Natural products include herbs, vitamins, minerals, and probiotics. Dietary supplements are the most popular complementary therapy used by US adults.2 About 18% of the population uses dietary supplements.2

Some people use herbal remedies for their asthma symptoms. These remedies have a long history of use in Asian traditional medicine. There are very few high-quality studies of herbal remedies, and too little information to recommend them for asthma.6 There is a risk that the ingredients in herbal remedies could cause a reaction or dangerous side effects.

Vitamin A, C, and E supplements and omega-3 supplements are sometimes used for asthma. Studies of these supplements have been generally disappointing. However, there is a link between eating a healthful diet and improvements in asthma.

Who uses complementary therapies?

A recent survey showed that one-third of US adults used a complementary therapy in the past year.2 About 20% to 30% of adults with asthma use complementary therapies.3 The frequency might be even higher in children.

One study showed that people who use complementary therapies tend to be younger and female.3 They have lower income and higher education. This study also showed that people with severe asthma are more likely to use complementary therapies.3 Research suggests that there is a link between using complementary therapy and having more days of poor health. One explanation is that people decide to use complementary therapy because mainstream treatments are not improving their quality of life enough. Most people say they are very satisfied with their alternative therapies.

Written by: Sarah O'Brien | Last Reviewed: May 2016.
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