Complementary, alternative and holistic therapy: What’s the difference?

The terms ‘complementary’, ‘alternative’ and ‘holistic’ therapy are often used interchangeably. They are also commonly used alongside each other under the ‘CAM’ (complementary and alternative medicine) umbrella, which can add to the confusion.


Whilst CAM describes treatments that fall outside of those typically used in the mainstream healthcare system, there is some differentiation between these therapies which is important to know if you’re considering trying one for yourself. We’ll take a look at some of these differences here.

What is holistic therapy?

Before we dive into the differences between complementary and alternative medicine, let’s explore what ‘holistic therapy’ actually is.

Holistic therapy refers to the treatment of a person as a whole – rather than focusing on treating individual symptoms. The premise behind holistic therapy is to treat the body, mind and spirit. This philosophy is followed by many complementary therapies, so you may see these terms used mutually.

Holistic therapies don’t disregard conventional medicine. Instead, they are often used alongside the existing treatments offered by a medical professional. This is where ‘alternative’ therapies can differ. 

We are not just our body; we also have an emotional, mental and spiritual body.

Our body knows how to heal itself

What is alternative therapy?

Alternative therapy describes a treatment that replaces conventional medicine. This could be someone choosing to use an energy-based healing system instead of receiving treatment from a doctor/in a hospital, for example.

Experts generally recommend against the use of alternative therapies because there is a lack of evidence-based information that supports their effectiveness and safety. For this reason, alternative practices are rarely used. If you are looking to explore other ways to address your concerns, complementary therapy offers this balance.

What is complementary therapy?

Complementary therapies are used alongside mainstream medicine – they tend to ‘complement’ one another, as the name suggests. In many cases, they actually overlap. For example, many conventional doctors also practise acupuncture.

Although complementary therapies may not be scientifically backed, there is evidence to suggest that they can help provide relief for specific concerns when used in conjunction with treatments recommended by a healthcare professional. Acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain, headaches and relieve pain caused by arthritis, for example. Yoga may be used to help lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as improve overall mood, depression and anxiety.

The NICE guidelines have recommended a limited number of complementary therapies to the NHS, including the Alexander technique for Parkinson’s disease, and ginger and acupressure for people who suffer from morning sickness. 

The NHS specifies that there is no universally agreed definition of what complementary and alternative therapies are. However, it is important to be aware of the differences described above if you’re seeking CAM therapy.

Types of CAM therapy

If you’re considering a holistic approach to healing, it’s worth being aware of the five main groups that these practices are categorised into. These are:

  • Biologically-based – These use things found in nature. An example is herbal medicine.
  • Manipulative/body-based – This describes practices that work with the body, such as massage and reflexology.
  • Mind-body – This refers to any practice that helps relax the body and mind. For example, meditation and yoga.
  • Energy-based – This practice is based on the belief that energy flows through the body and this energy should be balanced. Energy-based therapies include Reiki and therapeutic touch.
  • Whole medical systems – These typically refer to systems that have evolved over time from a diverse group of systems. These include Ayurveda, homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine.

Other terminology 

Above are the most commonly used terms in holistic therapy. There are a number of other names given to CAM therapies which can be overwhelming if you haven’t come across them before.

Here are some other terms you might see: 

  • ‘Unconventional therapies’ – This generally refers to treatments that aren’t used by medical professionals.
  • ‘Integrated care’ This term is predominantly used in the US but is increasing in popularity in the UK. It refers to the use of complementary and conventional medicine together.
  • ‘Traditional medicine’ – This term usually refers to treatments developed in eastern parts of the world, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Sometimes, people might use this term when referring to conventional medicine. Throughout this article, we use ‘conventional medicine’ to mean the standard healthcare used by medical professionals.

Finding a CAM professional 

Chiropractic is the only complementary therapy that is regulated in the UK. This means anyone can practise complementary and alternative therapy, even if they have no qualifications or experience. It’s important to find a professional who has membership with a professional body.

At Therapy Directory, our verified members have provided proof of a relevant qualification and insurance or proof of registration with a professional body, so you can ensure you’re working with an experienced and qualified professional.

Find out more about our proof policy.

We recommend browsing a few of our member profiles to get a sense of how they work and ensure they’re the best match for you and your needs. Once you’ve found a few therapists, simply get in touch to arrange an appointment.

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Written by Emily Whitton
Emily is a Content Creator & Marketing Coordinator at Happiful and a writer for Therapy Directory.
Written by Emily Whitton
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