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Alternative Cures What Actually Works?

Interested in going natural? We’ve scoured the evidence behind the most popular treatments.


With its origins in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves fine needles being inserted into specific points on the body. Practitioners believe disease is caused by blocks to the flow of energy or ‘qi’ in the body, and that stimulating the points releases it. It’s said to help everything from headaches to infertility.

» The science bit

Acupuncture has some solid evidence behind it – for chronic lower back pain, tension headaches and migraines. But it probably doesn’t work in the way practitioners believe. Scientists think it stimulates nerves, which send signals to the brain to produce pain-relieving hormones. The jury’s still out on whether it helps other conditions. While one study suggested acupuncture boosted pregnancy rates in women undergoing IVF, Professor Edzard Ernst, a leading researcher into complementary medicine, believes the results might be down to the placebo effect – in other words, it works because people expect it to. ‘The expectation for the acupuncture to work helps women relax, which in turn increases pregnancy rates,’ he says.

» Find out more

Visit The British Medical Acupuncture Society:


Reflexology is based on the theory that there are ‘reflex points’ on the feet that are linked to organs in the body. A therapist massages these points to help treat conditions from insomnia to migraines.

» The science bit

‘The treatment may be enjoyable, but there’s no scientific backing,’ says Edzard. Some recent research showed it might help with fatigue. ‘But the majority of studies carried out seem to mostly rely on placebo effects,’ explains Edzard. However, there’s a lot to be said for the power of relaxation…

» Find out more

Visit the Association of Reflexologists:


Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis, an altered state of consciousness, to help with stress-related conditions like IBS, and to break bad habits.

» The science bit

Research shows gut-centred hypnotherapy, a special form for treating digestive disorders, can make a real difference to IBS, especially for people who haven’t responded to other treatments. ‘But the evidence for smoking and weight reduction is unconvincing,’ says Edzard. That’s partly because only limited research has been done.

» Find out more

Visit and Or try an app, such as Free Hypnosis by Joseph Clough (iTunes and Google Play).

Herbal medicine

A medicine made from plants, trees or fungi.

» The science bit

Only some herbal remedies have science behind them. ‘St John’s Wort, which works for mild to moderate depression, is the most well-researched herbal medicine,’ says Edzard. ‘There’s also evidence for devil’s claw, which reduces pain, and senna for constipation.’

» Find out more

Visit When buying remedies, look for the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) mark.

Massage therapy

If you’ve ever had a massage you’ll know how super-indulgent it can feel. But does it have any effects beyond helping you feel pampered?

» The science bit

‘Some types of massage have been proven to be effective for relaxation, such as Swedish massage,’ says Edzard. The evidence is limited for other benefits, but one study found massage might help with poor sleep, while another suggested it could lower blood pressure.

» Find out more

Visit the General Council for Massage Therapies:

THE ONE THING… that worked for me

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