The iris of the eye is studied by the technique called iridology, as explained in the chart below.

Alternative therapies are, for the most part, still suspect in conventional medical eyes; indeed, several of them are commonly regarded as no more than quackery except by the patients who seem to benefit from them. The medical profession, however, is properly cautious, secure in the knowledge that it has science and proven safety records behind it; physicians’ reservations are deeply felt. Yet overall, in both physicians and public, there is a growing awareness that conventional medicine does not hold all the answers, and techniques such as osteopathy have become recognized medical practices.

Drug treatment in particular has contributed to this disquiet because although drugs are a strong weapon in the fight against disease and pain many have harmful side effects.
Furthermore, drugs are often used to control symptoms rather than to prevent or cure disease. Drug treatment, however, like surgery, has the advantage that it can be understood in conventional scientific terms, and this is crucially important to those trained in that tradition, because the mysticism and ritual that seems to surround some alternatives makes them unacceptable to a scientist from the start.

Iridology claims to interpret the color and condition of segments of the iris in terms of the state of health of various parts of the body. This simplified chart is for the right eye (the left-eye chart is basically a mirror image of this one). For example, by studying the right-hand sector of the eye at the four o’clock position, an iridologist can possibly diagnose ill health in a person’s back or spine.

The alternative approach

There are so many different alternatives that to regard them as a whole can be of only limited value. One characteristic many share, however, is that the interrelationship, or coordination, between the healer, the patient, and the method used is much closer than is usual in orthodox medicine. Although the variety of alternatives is vast, their modes of action can be broken down into three major categories.

The first category includes techniques that manipulate the body’s “energy” a characteristic that is difficult to understand, but which certainly seems to exist. It has been effectively excluded from Western medical concepts, but in some Oriental philosophies it is known as “prana” or “chi,” which translates best as “life force.”

The second category works on the physical body as conventional drugs and other treatments do. These therapies either alter the structure of the body as does osteopathy, for instance or alter the chemicals within the body, as occurs in orthomolecular therapy or herbalism.

The third category has a mental or psychological approach. Examples include biofeedback, or on a paranormal or psychic level-faith healing.

Curative properties of mud and hot sand have been advocated for hundreds of years. Here, a group of people, completely buried except for their heads and feet, relax in the warm volcanic sands at the hot springs near Ibusuki in Japan.


Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of medical treatment and has been practiced in China for centuries. Classical acupuncturists believe that the body remains healthy so long as its energy or life force (chi) flows freely along well-defined channels known as meridians. Blockages in these channels are the cause of ill health, and the insertion of needles into points along these channels or the application of heat at these points (moxibustion), allows the energy to flow once more, encouraging the restoration of health.

Acupuncturists decide where to insert needles either by assessing the qualities of six pulses felt at each wrist, which represent the major organs of the body or, if they are treating pain, by needling points lying along the meridians that cross the painful area. Pain is often successfully treated by acupuncture but many other conditions can be helped too notably hay fever and depression. Belief in acupuncture is not needed for it to be effective, although some people for unknown reasons do not respond to treatment. Techniques are still developing and recent advances include electrical stimulation of needles, ear acupuncture, and the use of acupuncture in anesthesia.


Homeopathy originated in the 1750’s when a German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, noticed that if the effects produced by a substance taken by a healthy person corresponded to the sufferings of a sick person then this substance, homeopathically prepared, could provide a useful cure. His homeopathic preparations were made by repeatedly diluting and shaking the substance.

Why does this system work, even when the degree of dilution may be so great that the physical presence of the original substance is virtually undetectable? Many homeopaths believe that every substance has both physical properties and a characteristic “vibrational energy,” which is enhanced by homeopathic preparation. Treatment is effected by a substance with a vibrational energy that corrects the distorted vibrational energy of the patient. The substance is usually chosen as a result of investigating both the symptoms and character of the patient, though some practitioners attempt to match up the vibrational energy of the remedy to the patient directly. This can be done using radionics or electrohomeopathy. Homeopathy has been used to treat all forms of illness and tends to work either very well or not at all.


Osteopathy was developed in the 1870’s by the American doctor Andrew Taylor Still, who felt that the physical integrity of the spinal column was essential for good health. Today, this is no longer generally believed, although osteopathic techniques are widely and usefully practiced. Osteopathic medicine emphasizes the importance of the muscles and bones of the body and their connecting tendons and ligaments. These parts of the body make up the musculoskeletal system, which osteopathic physicians believe has important interrelationships with all other body systems.

Osteopathic physicians are specially trained in the detection and treatment of musculoskeletal disturbances. They use massages and other types of osteopathic manipulation to treat these disturbances. This form of therapy is a distinctly osteopathic approach to the problems of health and disease. However, osteopathic physicians also use all the medical, surgical, immunological, pharmacological, psychological, and hygienic procedures of modern medicine.

Healing by touch, or laying on of hands,” has been regarded with skepticism by some orthodox practitioners, who challenge its scientific basis. That physical changes do occur is demonstrated in those remarkable photographs, taken by Kirlian photography using an electrostatic field. The upper illustration shows the fingertips of a healer in their normal state; in the lower photograph, the fingers are in a state of healing.

Orthomolecular medicine

Orthomolecular medicine was developed in the 1950’s, with the aim of supplying patients with quantities of all the forty or so nutrients the body needs, on the assumption that a lack of any of these prevents the body from either working or healing itself effectively.

As well as adequate amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates, minor nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, are also necessary for health. All of the substances used in orthomolecular medicine are found naturally in foods. The nutrients are either supplied by alterations to the diet or by dietary supplements. A range of methods, including blood and urine tests, hair analysis, and the use of questionnaires, together with information obtained directly from the patient by questioning or examination, help the practitioner to formulate the treatment. How much of any nutrient is required is difficult to decide. However, as the majority of nutrients used are harmless and without side effects unless given in extremely large doses there is a tendency for practitioners to err on the side of excess. Although this form of treatment can be used on its own, it is often even more useful when combined with other treatments, whether orthodox or not.


Hypnosis is now an accepted part of medical practice, although it has passed in and out of fashion since it was first used clinically in the 1820’s. A hypnotic state can be invoked in a variety of ways, but all aim to suppress the activity of the conscious mind. This relaxes the patient deeply, allowing the subconscious part of the mind to become more accessible. Through this access, the hypnotherapist can discover, explore, and remove forgotten mental or physical traumas that may be the root of the patient’s disorder. The high degree of relaxation also allows the patient’s body to heal itself, which is especially valuable in cases where relaxation is normally hampered by an overactive conscious mind.

Hypnosis can also be used in a form of behavior therapy. An idea, such as stopping smoking, is suggested to the patient under hypnosis, so that it continues to work through the patient’s subconscious mind once the session is over and full consciousness is restored. Not everyone can be hypnotized, and there is great variety in the depths of hypnotic state that can be achieved in different people.

Most people experience an enhanced sensation during hypnosis-being hypnotized is not like being sent to sleep although they respond automatically to the hypnotherapist’s suggestions. A hypnotized subject would break from the hypnotic state, however, if an attempt was made to override the conscious will. Hypnosis is particularly useful if mental or emotional factors are important in a condition for example, in an illness that is psychosomatic or induced by stress. It is also of value in the treatment of addictions.

Faith healing

Faith healing is as old as civilization and appears under many guises. As a general term, it is used (by uninformed observers) to cover any means of healing that claims to work by unknown forces that only certain people are able to utilize. It can be argued that such methods work by psychological suggestion based on confidence, beliefs, and receptivity of the patient and healer. However, this does not explain why such methods seem to work even when the patient has no faith.

Many healers work by lightly stroking or touching the patient, often while the healer enters a meditative or trancelike state. The healer’s thoughts are directed toward the health and love of the person, and this seems to encourage the healing phenomenon even when “projected” from a distance. It is possible for any illness to be helped by faith healing but in no specific case can success be guaranteed.

Medicinal plants have been used to treat illness, relieve symptoms, and affect the body or mind since ancient times, in societies at all levels of sophistication and in all parts of the world. In Western countries, refined pharmaceutical preparations tend to be favored, but some of these are, in fact, the active ingredients of traditional “herbal” remedies. For example, distillations of deadly nightshade (belladonna) were used as sedatives or antispasmodics; one modern drug obtained from belladonna is atropine, which has various medical uses, including the treatment of the spasms of asthma. Preparations of foxglove (digitalis) were employed as heart stimulants, and one derivative, digitoxin, is used for this purpose today. Peyote is still taken for its hallucinogenic properties by some North American Indians, and its derivative—mescaline—is also used as a psychedelic drug. Willow bark was employed in ancient times—for instance, by the Romans—as a dressing for wounds because it relieved pain and inflammation; its active ingredient resembles aspirin, which is widely used for pain relief today.

Alternatives evaluated

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, alternative therapies are not without their dangers, because almost any treatment that is of value can do both good and harm. In alternative therapies, the most common unwanted effect (often termed a “flare-up”) is the worsening of symptoms after treatment. Nevertheless, despite its temporary unpleasantness, this is a measure of the patient’s sensitivity and usually indicates that treatment will succeed.

One fear shared by many regarding alternative therapies is that they are practiced by charlatans or quacks. Unlike conventional physicians, alternative therapists are not subject by law to a strict code of therapeutic practice. Uniform standards of training and practice are not established, although membership in a recognized organization goes some way toward providing this.

The future

As interest in alternatives grows, among conventional medical practitioners as much as the general public, the clear distinction between the two camps is disappearing. When drugs fail or surgery seems inappropriate, alternatives such as osteopathy may be suggested. And conversely, a homeopath or acupuncturist would recommend antibiotics to treat an abscess or an infected wound. Fair evaluation by each of the other techniques can only serve to advance medical knowledge, and this view is gaining favor in what is loosely called “the holistic approach.” This involves all forms of treatment, according to what is thought likely to benefit the patient most.