In fact, more than half of people with IBD are estimated to at some point seek a complementary and alternative treatment or medicine to manage their disease.
CAMs offer a more natural approach to disease management that might help reduce one’s dependence on “chemical” conventional therapies while allowing someone to take a more active role in their treatment. With CAMs, the patient is often seen as the primary agent of healing helped by the guidance of the practitioner versus solely feeling dependent on a medication.
However, there is lots of uncertainty and confusion surrounding CAMs due to a lack of high-quality research, limited teaching of this topic in medical schools, and an ambiguous definition.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defines CAM as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered part of conventional medicine.”
CAMs can be grouped into five categories: 1) whole medical systems, 2) mind-body medicine, 3) biologically based practices, 4) manipulative and body-based practices, and 5) energy medicine.
Let's take a closer look at these categories (category descriptions borrowed from previously published articles, including "Defining Complementary and Alternative Medicine" by Everyday Health):
Whole medical systems: This category refers to complete systems of medical theory and practice, many of which go back thousands of years and have roots in non-Western cultures. Examples include traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, a therapy that originated in India. Whole medical systems from the West include homeopathy and naturopathy.
Mind-body medicine: This includes treatments that focus on how our mental and emotional status interacts and affects the body's ability to function. Examples include meditation as well as art and music therapies.
Biologically based practices: This is a focus on herbs, nutrition, vitamins, and other dietary supplements. There is a growing interest in these kinds of therapies, but many of these practices have yet to be thoroughly tested.
Manipulative and body-based practices: This practice relies on the physical manipulation of the body to improve symptoms and overall health. Examples of these practices include chiropractic, acupuncture and osteopathy.
Energy medicine: This form of alternative medicine uses energy fields to promote healing. Bio-field therapies affect energy fields that are said to encircle the human body; examples of these forms include Reiki and qi gong, and bio-electromagnetic based therapies, such as magnet therapy, and manipulation of electromagnetic fields.
There’s a very good chance that you’ve tried or have been interested in at least one of the above therapies.
While many of these approaches might sound harmless, it’s important to consult with your healthcare team and to conduct your own research before trying a complementary or alternative therapy.
Research suggests that the majority of patients are reluctant to discuss CAMs with their physicians because they’re afraid these types of questions will elicit a negative response, but your doctors might be more open to it than you think! A 2014 survey showed that the vast majority of surveyed gastroenterologists believed that there is an adjunctive role for CAMs in treatment of IBD. However, only 1/3rd of physicians said they would initiate the conversation.
Both patients and physicians have a responsibility to improve this communication gap. Patients need to be open and honest with their doctors, and doctors need to be more aware of the potential benefits and risks of CAMs.
Both health care providers and patients would benefit from keeping abreast of new research investigating the role of CAMs in IBD. Major organizations, such as the National Institute of Health, University of Exeter in England, and Cochrane Collaboration have committed to learning more about this topic and offer helpful resources.
Come back next week where we will delve into the literature and discuss the scientific findings of some of the principal CAMs that are popular among IBD patients.
- Chelfetz AS, Gianotti R, Luber R, et al. Complementary and Alternative Medicines Used by People with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Gastroenterology. 2017;152(2):415-429.
- Gallinger ZR, Nguyen GC. Practices and attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine in inflammatory bowel disease: a survey of gastroenterologists. J Complement Integr Med. 2014; 11(4):297-303.