Complementary Medicine

Search Knowledgebase

Topic Contents

Complementary Medicine

Topic Overview

What is complementary medicine?

The word "complementary" means "in addition to." Complementary medicine is treatment and medicine that you use in addition to your doctor's standard care.

What is considered standard treatment in one culture may not be standard in another. For example:

  • Acupuncture is standard in China but not in Canada.
  • Hypnosis is a standard part of psychiatry, but it may not be standard if used to treat cancer.

Other examples of complementary medicine include:

  • Yoga
  • Massage therapy
  • Herbal remedies
  • Naturopathic medicine

Is research being done on it?

Many complementary treatments and medicines have not yet been studied to see how safe they are or how well they work. Some treatments, such as prayer or music therapy, are hard to study.

The Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD), which is part of the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada, helps to ensure that natural health products sold in Canada are safe, effective, and of high quality. The NHPD supports some research on complementary medicine therapies.

Should you use complementary medicine?

Before you decide to use this type of treatment, think about these questions:

  • Why are you considering this treatment? People often use complementary medicine to treat long-term health problems or to stay healthy. But if you are looking for a "cure-all," you may be disappointed. Before you begin to use it, make sure that you learn how well it is likely to work.
  • What are you comfortable with? Part of the philosophy of some forms of complementary medicine is to listen to and touch people in a healing way. Some people find great comfort in this. Others may be bothered by it.

Some complementary treatments are covered by some provincial health plans. Check to see what your plan covers.

What are the risks?

The greatest risk is that you may use these treatments instead of going to your regular doctor. Complementary medicine should be in addition to treatment from your doctor. Otherwise you may miss important treatment that could save your life.

Sometimes complementary medicines can be dangerous when they are combined with another medicine you are taking. Always talk to your doctor before you use any new medicines. Diet supplements, for example, are complementary. And they can vary widely in how strong they are and in how they react to other medicines.

Also, complementary medicine isn't controlled as much as standard medicine. This means you could become a victim of fraud. Sellers or people who practice complementary medicine are more likely to be frauds if they:

  • Require large payments up-front.
  • Promise quick results or miracle cures.
  • Warn you not to trust your doctor.

What are the benefits?

One benefit is that many people who practice complementary medicine take a "whole person," or holistic, approach to treatment. They may take an hour or more to ask you questions about your lifestyle, habits, and background. This makes many people feel better about the treatment, the person giving the treatment itself, and the condition.

In some cases this type of medicine works as well as standard medicine. For example, research shows that St. John's wort works as well for depression as a common antidepressant and causes fewer side effects. Also, these treatments often cost less and have fewer side effects than standard treatment.

Some people feel more in control when they are more involved in their own health. And since most of complementary medicine looks at the connection between mind and body, many people who use it feel better. They like the focus on overall wellness instead of just relief from one problem.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about complementary medicine:

Alternative medical systems:

Mind-body interventions:

Biologically based therapies:

Manipulative and body-based methods:

Energy therapies:

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Alternative Medical Systems

An alternative medical system is a set of practices based on a philosophy different from Western biomedicine. Most of these systems have evolved apart from and earlier than the conventional biomedical medical system used in Canada.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Mind-Body Interventions

These techniques develop the mind's ability to help the body to heal or keep itself well. Some of these techniques, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, were in the past considered complementary medicine and are now a part of conventional medicine in Canada.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Manipulative and Body-Based Methods

These therapies involve the movement or realignment of parts of the body.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Energy Therapies

There are two types of energy therapies, both of which involve the use of energy fields. Biofield therapies are used to affect energy fields in and around the human body. Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use electromagnetic fields to affect the body, such as those from magnets or electrical current.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Complementary medicine: Should I use complementary medicine?

Other Places To Get Help

Online Resource

Health Products and Food Branch
Health Canada
Web Address:

The Health Products and Food Branch (HPFB) is part of Health Canada responsible for enhancing the benefits and reducing the risks related to health products and food available to Canadians.

Through its regulatory system, HPFB works to reduce health risk factors for Canadians and increase safety for health products and food. The agency also provides information and resources to help Canadians make informed decisions about their health.


Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance
344 Lakeshore Road East
Suite B
Oakville, ON  L6J 1J6
Phone: (905) 849-7606
Fax: (905) 849-8606
Web Address:

The Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance promotes massage therapy as an important part of the health care system in all provinces and territories.

Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND)
1255 Sheppard Avenue East
Toronto, ON  M2K 1E2
Phone: 1-800-551-4381
(416) 496-8633
Fax: (416) 496-8634
Web Address:

The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND) is a not-for-profit professional association representing the interests of licensed naturopathic doctors and promoting naturopathic medicine throughout Canada. Its membership consists of naturopathic doctors, naturopathic medical students, suppliers of natural remedies for professional use, and the provincial naturopathic associations.

Canadian Chiropractic Association
1396 Eglinton Avenue West
Toronto, ON  M6C 2E4
Phone: (416) 781-5656
Fax: (416) 781-0923
Web Address:

The Canadian Chiropractic Association (CCA) is a professional association. Its mission is to help Canadians live healthier lives by informing the public about the benefits of chiropractic health care, incorporating chiropractic into the health care system, and facilitating chiropractic research. A variety of information on chiropractic for both professionals and the general public is available on the CCA Web site.

Canadian Health Food Association
550 Alden Road
Suite 205
Markham, ON  L3R 6A8
Phone: 1-800-661-4510
(905) 479-6939
Fax: 1-888-292-2947
Web Address:

The Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) is a non-profit federally chartered trade association. Its members include retailers, wholesalers, distributors, and manufacturers in a variety of industries such as supplements, vitamins, herbals, homeopathics, sports and nutrition supplements, packaged foods, and organic foods.

Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada (CMAAC)
154 Wellington Street
London, ON  N6B 2K8
Phone: (519) 642-1970
Fax: (519) 642-2932
Web Address:

The Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada (CMAAC) is a professional association for practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture in Canada. The CMAAC's objectives include establishment of high standards of education and training for practitioners, assisting in the exchange of scientific research, and acting as an educational vehicle for the public.

Natural Health Products Directorate, Health Canada
2936 Baseline Road
Qualicum Tower A, Postal Locator: 3302A
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0K9
Phone: 1-888-774-5555
(613) 948-8096
Fax: (613) 957-3861
Web Address:

In Canada, natural health products—also referred to as complementary medicines or traditional remedies—are subject to the federal Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. The Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) within Health Canada is responsible for ensuring that all Canadians have ready access to natural health products that are safe, effective, and of high quality, while respecting freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity. The NHPD Web site provides information on regulations, product review and assessment, and research related to natural health products, as well as news, advisories, publications, and other materials for the general public.


Other Works Consulted

  • DeSmet P (2002). Herbal remedies. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(25): 2046–2056.
  • Fontanarosa PB, ed. (2000). Alternative Medicine: An Objective Assessment. Chicago: American Medical Association.
  • Jonas WB, Levin JS, eds. (1999). Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Micozzi MS (2001). Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2nd ed. New York: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Pizzorno JE, Murray MT, eds. (2006). Textbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Spencer JW, Jacobs JJ (2003). Complementary and Alternative Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach. St. Louis: Mosby.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Last Revised May 27, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.