Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

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Jump to: Do they work? | Regulation | Health and safety risks | Resources

What are Complementary and Alternative Medicines?

The terms complementary therapy and alternative medicine or therapy are often used as if they mean the same thing. They may also be combined into one phrase – complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs).

Complementary medicines or therapies are used alongside conventional medicines or treatments.

Alternative medicines or therapies are used instead of conventional medicines or treatments.

Examples of complementary and alternative therapies

  • Acupuncture
  • Alexander technique
  • Aromatherapy
  • Ayurvedic medicine
  • Bowen technique
  • Buteyko
  • Chiropractic
  • Chinese medicine
  • Feldenkrais
  • Gerson therapy
  • Herbal medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Iridology
  • Kinesiology
  • Magnet therapy
  • Meditation
  •  Myotherapy
  • Naturopathy
  • Ozone therapy
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki
  • Tissue Salts therapy
  • Urine therapy
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements
  • Yoga, tai chi and qi gong

Do they work?

Scientific studies have found that some complementary and alternative medicines of therapies (CAMs) are effective, but many are unproven or ineffective.

Some complementary or alternative therapies can be unsafe or cause harmful side effects. For example, the herb Feverfew can cause uterine contractions and possible miscarriage in pregnant people[1], and Vitamin C supplements are unsafe for people with haemochromatosis.

Some complementary therapies interact with conventional medicines, which can make your treatment less effective or harmful. For example:

  • Vitamin C supplements can interfere with some chemotherapy treatments.
  • St John’s Wort can reduce the effectiveness of some pain medications and some chemotherapies (such as tamoxifen). It can also make a wide range of medications less effective or potentially harmful, including contraceptives, antidepressants and HIV treatments[2].
  • Ginkgo and chamomile may increase the risk of bleeding in people who take blood-thinning (anticoagulant) medicines such as warfarin and anti-inflammatory medicines such as aspirin and ibuprofen[3].
  • Echinacea, milk thistle and chamomile can interfere with how the liver processes medications and increase or decrease the effects of some medications[4].

Complementary therapies and conventional medicine

Conventional medicine is based on rigorous science and evaluation. Historically this has not been the case for complementary or alternative therapies. Some complementary therapies have been tested in good quality scientific trials, but most have not.

Conventional medicine and complementary therapies can often be used alongside each other. However, it is important to tell your doctor and your complementary practitioner about all the medicines, treatments and remedies you use.

Use of complementary therapies

Complementary and alternative medicines or therapies (CAMs) are used by about two thirds of people in Australia[5]. The most frequent users of CAMs in Australia are women with a chronic condition.

Most CAMs are considered safe when conducted by a trained and experienced practitioner. However, there may be times that a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you, such as if you are receiving chemotherapy.

Many people think CAMs are safe because they are based on ‘natural’ products, but this is not always true, particularly if ingredients are used in amounts that are different to what would be ‘natural’.

Complementary herbal medicines and supplements can cause harmful effects in some people.  There have been instances of allergic reactions, heavy metal contamination, poor quality control in production, undeclared active ingredients, and use of toxic or unsafe ingredients.

It is safest not to use herbal medications if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or trying to become pregnant[6].

Clinical trials are important

Without clinical trials, we can’t know whether a CAM actually works and if there are any short and long-term risks with the treatment. Sometimes the research that has been done doesn’t meet Australian standards for clinical trials so the treatment can’t be shown to be effective or safe.

The safety and effectiveness of CAMs continue to be studied, by places like the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.


Regulation of complementary medicines in Australia

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is part of the federal Department of Health and regulates all medicines in Australia, including complementary medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements. A branch of the TGA, called the Office of Complementary Medicines, oversees the recall of faulty or dangerous CAMs.

Under Australian law, complementary medicines are assessed for the safety and quality of ingredients, but not always for whether they work (efficacy). Only complementary medicines that are deemed ‘high risk’ are assessed for efficacy. The TGA does this by looking at data from clinical trials supplied by the manufacturer.

The TGA considers complementary medicines to include:

  • Medicinal products that contain herbs, certain vitamins or minerals
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Homoeopathic medicines
  • Certain aromatherapy products
  • Traditional medicines such as traditional Chinese medicines, ayurvedic medicines and Australian Indigenous medicines.

Some naturopaths, herbalists or Chinese medicine practitioners make their own herbal preparations. These preparations are not checked by the TGA and it is not possible to be sure what is in them, or in what amount, and most importantly, whether they are safe.

Regulation of complementary therapists

In Australia, State and Territory governments regulate complementary therapists. This means that the laws differ between the states. If a consumer complains about the care they receive from a CAM therapist, the police, the courts or a health review board can investigate. In the ACT, all health care workers, including complementary therapists, must follow the Code of Conduct for Health Care Workers and may be investigated by the ACT Human Rights Commission.

The complementary therapy industry in Australia is largely self-regulated.  Many complementary therapists are affiliated with a professional association which usually have minimum training and professional standard requirements. However, membership is usually voluntary, which means there is no legal obligation and little regulation of the claims made by practitioners or the treatment they provide.

How to choose a complementary therapy provider

It is a good idea to choose a therapist who is registered with a regulatory body or professional association. This means that they will have met the standards of practice and education required by that organisation.  Either before or during your first visit with your practitioner, ask about their training and qualifications.

Be cautious of any complementary or alternative therapy practitioner who advises you to stop your conventional medical treatment.

Some ways to find a reputable practitioner include:

Health and safety risks of complementary therapies

Most complementary and alternative therapies (CAMs) are considered to be safe when conducted by a trained and experienced practitioner. However, there may be times that certain therapies may pose higher risks for you, such as if you are pregnant, undergoing chemotherapy, or taking antidepressants.

Many people believe that CAMs are safer than conventional medical treatments because they are more ‘natural’. This is not necessarily true. Complementary therapies can cause harm and be unsafe. For example:

  • Standards of care – because there is little regulation of complementary therapists in Australia, there is no legal requirement for complementary therapists to be qualified.
  • Indirect harm – relying on CAMs could delay getting a formal diagnosis and medical treatment. In the case of serious illnesses, such as cancer, a delay can mean that you need more serious treatment, have serious complications or receive treatment too late.
  • Side effects – CAMs can cause unpleasant or potentially dangerous side effects. For example, the herb Feverfew can cause uterine contractions and possible miscarriage in pregnant women.
  • Drug interactions – CAMs can interact with over the counter and prescription medications. For example, St John’s Wort increases the risk of dangerous side effects with some antidepressants.
  • Financial harm – you are wasting your money if the complementary medicine isn’t effective or actually harms you. The TGA and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) regulate health claims made by Australian companies, but there is no protection under Australian law if the product is bought from a company or individual outside Australia.

Buy Australian-made complementary medicines

Complementary medicines made in Australia are subject to strict product safety and quality regulations. This may not be the case in other countries.

Look for Australian-made products that are marked ‘Listed Aust R’ or ‘Registered Aust R’, which means these product were manufactured in a laboratory licensed by the TGA:

  • Listed – this means the product is considered low risk and has been assessed for safety and quality.
  • Registered – this means the product is considered higher risk and has been assessed for safety, quality and how well it works. The TGA assesses efficacy and safety by looking at data that is provided by the manufacturer.


Cochrane Summaries: Independent high-quality evidence summaries for health care decision making summaries.

Better Health Channel has information on specific therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and reflexology.

The ANU has information about alternative therapies for the treatment and management of depression.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) Complementary and Integrative Therapies Group have released a comprehensive position statement on the use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients. You can download a copy here (pdf, 263kb).

CAM Cancer provides health professionals with high-quality, evidence-based information about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) for cancer. It provides evidence-based information on a wide range of therapies.

The Medical Journal of Australia has a narrative review on What risks do herbal products pose to the Australian community?

The Cancer Council of NSW has information and resources on Complementary therapies.  This includes a downloadable guide to Understanding Complementary Therapies.  

Healthdirect has information on CAMs.

The Quackwatch website looks at the evidence and issues relating to different therapies.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration website has information on complementary medicines

The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in the United States has information on specific herbs, botanicals and other products.





[4] Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, 2019, Adverse reactions to alternative medicines.

[5] Steel, A., McIntyre, E., Harnett, J. et al. Complementary medicine use in the Australian population: Results of a nationally-representative cross-sectional survey. Sci Rep 8, 17325 (2018).

[6] Muñoz Balbontín, Yolanda MD, MSc; Stewart, Derek PhD; Shetty, Ashalatha CCST; Fitton, Catherine A. MSc; McLay, James S. FBIHS Herbal Medicinal Product Use During Pregnancy and the Postnatal Period, Obstetrics & Gynecology: May 2019 – Volume 133 – Issue 5 – p 920-932 doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000003217

Last Updated on 31 January, 2024.