Why More People Are Turning To Alternative Medicine in the U.S.

Why More People Are Turning To Alternative Medicine in the U.S.

In the past few decades, we’ve seen a surge of interest in complementary and alternative forms of medicine (CAM) in the US - which has only continued to rise in the midst of COVID-19. These days people are looking for new ways to achieve their best health, and sometimes this means turning to methods that aren’t conventional. 

Keep reading to learn about the increase of CAM, and why more and more people are seeking it out.

What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine?

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is defined as any range of medical therapies that are not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession, such as herbalism, homeopathy, and acupuncture. The basic philosophy of CAM includes holistic care, which focuses on treating a human being as a whole person.

Some of the most common different types of CAM’s include: 

  • Chiropractic care
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Yoga
  • Dietary supplements & vitamins
  • Herbalism

The increase in CAM is not a new trend. In fact, the use of alternative medicine dates back to ancient times with natural or spiritual healing methods. These therapies may offer a number of benefits, such as reducing stress, improving well-being, and providing additional support during illness or recovery. In 1990, a third of all Americans had used some form of CAM. Now, close to half of all Americans report having tried alternative medicine. With the onset of COVID-19, this number is still on the rise. 

There is no one answer as to why people are turning to alternative medicine, but there are some common threads. 

Patients feel unheard: 

Think of your typical visit to the doctor. You enter the waiting room, where you'll wait your turn to be called back. Then, you probably go with the nurse to take your vitals. After more waiting, the doctor pops in and spends about 10-15 minutes with you. 

While these traditional check-ups can be helpful, it can also lead to distrust among patients. Some people are more comfortable with a CAM provider and report that it is more relationship-focused, compared to conventional settings.

People want a more integrative approach: 

Many people are looking for an approach that's tailored to their individual needs. They want therapies that view the patient as a whole person and not just a disease or set of symptoms. In addition, while medications to treat both physical and mental health can assist in addressing their conditions, many also experience negative side effects.

Rising healthcare costs: 

The cost of healthcare continues to increase and outpace inflation. Health spending in the U.S. is projected to increase by an average 5.1% over 2021-2030, reaching nearly $6.8 trillion by 2030. With no end in sight to projected cost increases and employees who can't afford them, many are searching for an affordable solution for healthcare.

There may also be a number of other factors at play, including: 

  • An aging population 
  • Growing consumer interest in natural health solutions
  • The growing prevalence of neurological disorders and cancer
  • Decrease in the cost of alternative therapies
  • A rise in consumer health consciousness

The Rise of Alternative Medicine Post COVID-19

In a December 2020 poll, The Washington Post asked readers to describe the year using a single word or phrase. The top three responses were revealing: chaotic, exhausting, lost. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, people began searching for more ways to take better control of their health. This could be due to the increased amount of fear and lack of effective COVID-19 prevention programs, which led to a surge in the demand and supply for alternative forms of medicine. Recent studies have shown that the number of CAM information requests made to pharmacists and other healthcare professionals continues to be on the rise. Some CAM therapies are now offered in hospitals and in some cases they may even be reimbursed by your insurance company.

The Dietary Supplement Industry Soars

Consuming dietary supplements including vitamins, minerals, and plant extracts is the most commonly used form of CAM in the United States. 

It's unsurprising, then, that US consumers spent more than ever on dietary supplements for immune health and stress relief in 2020. Herbs used for supporting cardiovascular health, digestive health, and prostate health also had higher sales this year. This suggests that consumers may have been taking products not only to address immediate health concerns but also to ensure whole-body wellness. 

While dietary supplement sales were already on a steady incline, the pandemic resulted in the largest boost in history. In 2020, sales increased by a record-shattering 17.3% from 2019 -  surpassing $10 billion for the first time.

With the onset of COVID-19, this has also paved the way for more research studying the possible immune-related effects of several dietary supplements, including vitamin D, vitamin C, and probiotics. Vitamin D is of particular interest due to its immunomodulatory roles in humans. 

As more people turn to alternative medicine for help with physical and mental health concerns, researchers are beginning to take a closer look at these practices. And while there is much still to learn, the evidence so far suggests that many alternative therapies can be safe and effective ways to improve your health and well-being.