Date Published: 5 October 2003

Alternative, Complementary, Holistic, Natural ?

Different words are often used to refer to the same or very similar concepts, the variation in words sometimes reflecting the views and allegiances of the writer, or in this context the therapist, rather than the product or procedure referred to.

In many cases treatments or therapies may be accurately described by two or more, sometimes all (and more), of the following words. It is in such cases that the choice of language often conveys more about the attitudes of the writer or speaker than about the subject

The following are included in alphabetical order:


In the context of healthcare the word alternative is sometimes used to convey and emphasize the concept of choice, especially personal choices available to a person seeking care, or improvement to a health situation.
Presenting a therapeutic option as an alternative conveys the view that, in a moral and (usually) in a practical sense, each person has options and may to react to a physical, mental or emotional condition in a variety of ways, such as:

  • conventional (allopathic) medicine
  • other forms of treatment/s,
  • a combination of allopathic and other treatments, or
  • no treatment at all.

Therefore, in this context, use of the word 'alternative' implies tolerance and a willingness not to judge either the type of treatment or approach, or an individual person's decisions about which treatments to try, accept, or reject for him or herself.

In the sense that use of the word complementary (below) implies deference to conventional medicine, use of the word alternative in the same context implies deference to the individual person (client / patient).
This is because use of the word alternative implies that the person ('patient' or 'client' being another case of choice of words conveying attidude) owns the decision-making process and is empowered to choose his or her preferred combination of all the possibilities available without being constrained by the views of others, other people's genuinely, firmly and perhaps lovingly, held views necessarily arising from the views and life experience of those people rather than the experiences and attitude of the person seeking improvement for him or herself.


The word complementary is sometimes used to convey and emphasize the idea that the product or therapy offered is not in conflict with conventional Western allopathic medicine, and is therefore appropriate for use in conjunction with whatever treatment the person is already receiving from his or her conventional medical practitioner(s).

Therapists who emphasize that their treatments are "complementary - not alternative", might be presenting their services in this way as part of an overall policy of deferring to conventional medicine whenever possible, e.g. checking with clients' medical practioners to ensure that he/she/they do not object to the patient receiving the 'complementary' treatment concerned. Doing so protects the therapist, especially in the event that the patient's condition deteriorates or allegations are made that the therapist caused or exacerbated a problem. It is useful to be aware that some therapists prefer to work in conjuction with and with the blessing of allopathic practitioners while other individual therapists, perhaps offering exactly the same treatments, do not have that preference - either to the same extent, or in some cases at all.

In other words, when applied in the context of health and well being, the word complementary, is often used by those (individuals, groups or organizations such as clinics or colleges) who seek favour from conventional medical institutions, perhaps for patient referrals, use of premises, some idea of 'status' for the treatment method, or for some other reason. For example, the word complementary is sometimes used by those presenting their treatment or process as a mild, harmless, pleasant 'help and support' to go with some conventional medical treatment that is widely considered 'difficult to bear' due to it being generally painful, stressful, inconvenient, embarassing or unpleasant in some other way. In such situations the intention is often to imply, or at least not to challenge the idea, that the allopathic treatment is the real source of the cure.


The word complimentary means 'with compliments'. In common English usage, something that is 'complimentary' is given away at no cost/charge to the recipient. An example could be modest refreshments such as the coffee or tea and small biscuits offered in some airport lounges and other places such as the waiting area of some automobile repair facilites. Although "Complimentary Health Centres" are sometimes seen advertised in various places, we have yet to hear of any that do not charge for consultations or treatments, therefore:

'Complimentary' is a spelling error when it appears in this context. Instead, the word 'complementary' (above), meaning 'to go with' is usually intended.


The word holistic is sometimes used to emphasize that the treatment offered works with and to enhance all aspects of the 'whole person', that is the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects.

Another expression that also encompasses the idea of the totality of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of a person (or sometimes also animal) is 'Mind, Body, Spirit'. This expression or its acronym 'MBS' is sometimes used in large book shops to refer to the range of books and other materials, e.g. card decks, on this subject. [Note added 2018: In recent years some book shops have renamed the MBS Section 'Self Help' or 'Self Development' even though in many cases those categories also existed in the past, with slightly different emphasis. For more about holistic see also What does Holistic mean? and Barriers to use of a holistic approach.]


The word natural is sometimes used to emphasize that the product treatment concerned does not involve the use of synthetic substances, e.g. anything derived from genetically modified plants or the petrochemical industry. There have been various objections to and concerns about the use of the concept of 'natural' to describe and promote heathcare products and modalities. While it is easy to relate to the general appeal of natural over synthetic products, it is also worth bearing in mind that merely being 'natural' does not guarantee that any particular substance is good for human health: There are also many natural poisons. See also more about how to define Natural Therapies.

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Source: IvyRose Article.

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