Herbal remedies and nutritional supplements are among a variety of health and wellness solutions offered by natural product stores that have been labeled as Alternative Medicine in the United States.  These include aromatherapy, homeopathy and flower essences, Ayurvedic Medicine, Naturopathic Medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine including acupuncture.  For decades, health food stores have offered education, practitioner referrals, and products at retail to customers who have been interested in these various alternatives to conventional medicine.  

Why this matters:

The growth of alternative medicine practices in the United States paralleled the growth of the health food and natural product industry.  For decades in the later part of the 20th Century, health food stores were the community center where practitioners of alternative modalities could purchase products, network with each other and receive and give referrals.  In 1992, the US Congress established the Office of Unconventional Therapies (later changed to the Office of Alternative Medicine) to explore "unconventional medical practices."  DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, was passed by Congress a mere two years later giving both customers and practitioners unfettered access to recommended products. 


Aromatherapy began in 1937 by a French perfumer and chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who coined the term aromatherapie.  He documented the early clinical findings of using essential oils for a range of physiological ailments. Today, practitioners use these naturally extracted oils to balance, harmonize, and promote the well-being of the body, mind, and spirit.  Aromatherapy is practiced more widely in Europe and incorporated into their integrated medicine practices for antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial purposes. 

Essential oils are used as massage oils, applied directly to the skin, or inhaled from the air via diffusers.  Inhalation of the essential oils stimulates the olfactory system which sends signals to the part of the brain that controls emotions and retrieves learned responses.  When applied to the skin, the essential oils destroy microbes and fungi.  Some aromatics taken internally (only by prescription) are known to stimulate the immune system. 

Essential oils are created using a distillation method that recovers lighter molecules, a different method than how other herbal medicines are produced.   Using the seeds, roots, bark, stems, leaves, fruit, flowers, and branches, the therapeutic grades of an essential oil depend on environmental factors, where the plant is grown, the soil type, fertilizer uses, altitude, etc.; and physical factors, how and when the plants are harvested and how the oils are distilled and bottled.  Commercial manufacturing uses solvents and chemicals to hasten the distillation process, causing the oils to retain a portion of the solvent.  A more natural method uses boiling water or steam at low temperatures, which takes more time, but yields higher quality oil with more therapeutic constituents.

Why this matters:

Essential oils are also used as ingredients in a wide variety of household cleaning and disinfectant products, hair and skin care products, and products for oral hygiene.  Manufacturers of essential oils and these products can provide information about the specific oils and their purpose.

Essential oils should be stored in tightly-sealed, dark-colored bottles in cool locations out of sunlight.  They should be stored out of the reach of children and pets, and should never be stored in the same location as flammable materials.  Exposing essential oils to air will oxidize the oil and degrade the quality.   Essential oils should be kept away from the eyes.  It is also recommended that epileptics, those with high blood pressure, and pregnant women should be careful when using aromatherapy oils. 

Single plant and combination plant oils are often categorized by their therapeutic target, e.g., oils for anxiety, sleeping, burns, insect bites, inflammation, hair, skincare, etc.   Similar to herbs, essential oils are typically considered as Single Oils or Oil Blends.   There are scores of singles and blends; each has specific therapeutic properties and aromatic effects.   Typically, natural product stores will carry the most popular oils along with various oil diffusers which may use either heat or miniature fans to diffuse the oil into the air.

Homeopathy & Flower Essences

Homeopathy, also known as homeopathic medicine, is an alternative medical system that was developed in Germany more than 200 years ago by Dr. Samuel Hahneman (1755-1843), a physician and chemist.  It is still widely practiced in Mexico, India, England, France, and other European countries.  It is considered "alternative medicine" in the United States and is somewhat controversial due to the minute amounts of the active ingredient contained in each of the formulas.  Homeopathic remedies are regulated by the FDA as drugs, but can be marketed without agency preapproval under certain conditions and only for minor health problems.  Homeopathic remedies intended for serious diseases may only be sold with a prescription.

The practice of homeopathy is based on the basic concept that the treatments will stimulate the body's own healing response.  There are three key principles to homeopathy:

  1. The law of similars states that a disease is cured by a medicine that creates symptoms similar to those the patient is experiencing. In homeopathic practice, an important part of a homeopathic prescription is a lengthy interview to determine all the symptoms. The homeopathic physician then prescribes the medicine that best matches the symptoms.
  2. The principle of the single remedy states that a single medicine should cover all the symptoms the patient is experiencing: mental, emotional, and physical.
  3. The principle of the minimum dose has two parts. First, the homeopathic physician prescribes only a small number of doses of the homeopathic medicine and waits to see what effect the medicine has. Second, medicine is given in an infinitesimal dose.

Homeopathic remedies are derived from substances that come from plants, minerals, or animals with doses in tiny, minute quantities. Homeopathic remedies are often formulated as sugar pellets to be placed under the tongue; they also come in other forms including ointments, gels, drops, creams, and tablets.  Some forms of liquid homeopathic remedies contain alcohol.  Homeopathic formulas are available for both humans and pets. 

Historically, people have used homeopathy for a wide range of illnesses such as allergies, atopic dermatitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome; pain related to teething, bumps, and bruises, and minor skin irritations.  Homeopathy is also used to treat minor injuries, such as cuts and scrapes and muscle strains or sprains. Homeopathic treatment is typically not considered appropriate for a single modality for the treatment of severe illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, major infections, or emergencies.  There are no known interactions between conventional drugs and homeopathic remedies.

In the early 1900s, Dr. Edward Bach, a bacteriologist and pathologist in England working on vaccines, developed a series of 38 homeopathic remedies from plants and particular flowers that were targeted to a specific mental state or emotion.  The theory was that physical distress could be alleviated naturally when the feelings and unhappiness were treated unblocking the healing potential of the body.  Called flower remedies, these homeopathic formulas are typically sold in the U.S. under the brand Dr. Bach's Original Flower Remedies.  Other homeopathic formulas are manufactured by Boiron, Hyland's, and Nelson's, among others lesser-known, for the United States market.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopathy, or naturopathic medicine, is a holistic system of medicine based on the healing power of nature.  Practitioners strive to find the cause of disease by understanding the body, mind, and spirit and then use a variety of therapies and techniques including nutrition, behavior change, herbal medicine, homeopathy, and acupuncture to enable the person to heal. 

Naturopathy can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was first introduced in the United States in 1902 by a German immigrant, Benjamin Lust, who founded the first school of naturopathy.  Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia license naturopathic physicians.  Naturopathy is focused on primary care medicine and observes these six principles:

  • First Do No Harm - primum non nocere
  • The Healing Power of Nature - vis medicatrix naturae
  • Discover and Treat the Cause, Not Just the Effect - tolle causam
  • Treat the Whole Person - tolle totum
  • The Physician is a Teacher - docere
  • Prevention is the best "cure" - praevenire    

Why this matters:

Naturopathy's focus on whole body wellness, especially in the areas of homeopathy, nutritional and botanical medicines, is synergistic with natural product stores where many of the products that are recommended are sold to customers over-the-counter, without a prescription.  

Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic medicine (also called Ayurveda) is one of the world’s oldest medical systems, originated in India more than 3,000 years ago, and still practiced today.   Its principles about health and disease promote the use of herbal compounds and special diets among other unique health practices.   Key concepts of Ayurvedic medicine include universal interconnectedness (among people, their health, and the universe), the body’s constitution (prakriti), and life forces (dosha), which are often compared to the biologic humors of the ancient Greek system.  Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualized treatments, including compounds of herbs or proprietary ingredients, diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.

No state in the United States currently licenses Ayurvedic practitioners, although a few have approved Ayurvedic schools.   Many Ayurvedic practitioners are licensed in other healthcare fields, such as doctors of medicine, psychology, midwifery or massage, and botanical products based on the Ayurvedic system can be found in the supplement and body care departments of health food and natural product stores.   For example, curcumin or aloe vera (known as kumari in Ayurveda) plays a major role in the Ayurvedic tradition.  Neem, holy basil (tulsi), Bacopa monieri (brahmi), and ashwagandha are the newest botanicals of the Ayurvedic movement in U.S. health food stores.    Supported by studies, ashwagandha, for example, shows particular promise — from helping cognitive function to immunity and even helping the body fight cancer.  Adaptogens, these Ayurvedic herbs are intended to keep the body in a balanced state, more able to resist disease and maintain wellness.

Oriental Medicine & Acupuncture

Oriental Medicine, sometimes called Traditional Chinese Medicine, has been practiced for more than 2,500 years.  Its underlying philosophy is that the body must be balanced between Yin and Yang in order to prevent disease.  Practitioners look at symptoms to identify disharmony and prescribe a variety of treatments including acupuncture, herbal medicine, moxibustion (the burning of mugwort near the skin to facilitate healing), cupping (the use of a glass or bamboo cup as a suction device to stimulate blood circulation), Oriental massage and Oriental nutrition, Tai Chi (a form of physical exercise) and Qi Gong (breathing exercises), meditation, diet, nutrition and lifestyle counseling.

Oriental medicine is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, Thailand, Tibet, India, and the United States.  Only six states do not license the practice of oriental medicine or acupuncture.

Why this matters:

Many, oriental medicine practitioners prescribe herbs that are only sold through their practices.  Nevertheless, some natural product retailers stock widely used products which are formulations from China and imported into the United States.  Because of the unique role health food stores have in communities of alternative medicine, customers will frequently ask store staff for names of location practitioners.  .  


Words to Remember


Are a class of healing plants that help the body adapt to stress and to balance, restore, and protect the body, normalizing physiological functions. It has a non-specific effect on the human stress response and helps to regulate the reaction of the central nervous system and the hormonal communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. Ginseng, holy basil, ashwagandha, Rhodiola, licorice root, and cordyceps mushrooms are all considered adaptogens.



Is a member of the tomato family of plants, commonly known as “Indian Winter cherry” or “Indian Ginseng”, native to India, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Now it is also grown in the United States. It is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda medicine, used for its wide-ranging health and rejuvenating benefits.



Is a perennial, creeping herb native to southern India, and many other countries worldwide. It is an important medical herb known as "brahmi" and used in Ayurveda medicine as a neurological tonic and cognitive enhancer. It is becoming a more popular product among consumers in health food stores.



A botanical oil usually obtained by distillation that has the characteristic fragrance and medicinal properties of the plant or plants from which the oil was extracted.



An aromatic type of basil (Ocimum sanctum or tulasi) that is native to the Indian subcontinent, cultivated for its religious and medicinal purposes and used primarily as an essential oil in the Ayurveda tradition.



A tropical tree known as the Nimtree or Indian Lilac tree (Azadirachta indica) that is used for medicinal products. Neem contains chemicals that might help reduce blood sugar levels, heal ulcers in the digestive tract, prevent conception, kill bacteria, and prevent plaque formation in the mouth.



The sensory system in humans that is used for the sense of smell.



In Chinese culture, yin and yang represent the two opposite principles in nature. Yin characterizes the feminine or negative nature of things and yang stands for the masculine or positive side. Yin and yang are always described in pairs as they are the opposite of each other in nature, but they rely on each other and can't exist without each other. The balance of yin and yang is important.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published