The A-Z of wellbeing



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Know your chi from your chakra: our no-nonsense guide to alternative health

  • Acupuncture
    Alexander Technique
    Indian head massage


    What is it?
    Anyone anxious about alternative health won’t relish the thought of being pricked with needles. Actually, the sticking-in bit is fairly painless and once they’re in place you can’t feel them. You may need one session or a course of up to six depending on your problems.

    Acupuncture is more than 5,000 years old and is probably the most popular form of Chinese medicine practised today. There are two basic theories about why it works (and it often does, in no time at all). The first is all about chi (the energy force that flows through your body). The paths chi travels down – called meridians – can get blocked. Needles placed on specific acupuncture points free up the chi. The other explanation, from orthodox ‘Western’, medicine, is that the needles release endorphins which help your body to heal itself.


    Is it safe? There is no official licence to practise acupuncture in the UK – meaning anyone can do it. Always ask to see a practitioner’s qualifications and insurance, and check that they employ single-use disposable needles.

    Does it work? Arthritis, back pain, nausea, asthma and post-operative dental pain are among the conditions for which there is a reasonable amount of evidence to show that acupuncture can help. A 2000 House of Lords Select Committee study on complementary and alternative medicine placed acupuncture in Group 1: those therapies which could back up their claims with evidence and professional organisation.

    British Acupuncture Council (020 8735 0400/

    Alexander Technique

    What is it? Neither exercise nor therapy, Alexander Technique (AT) is best described as ‘psycho-physical re-education’. It’s about recognising the habits that cause unnecessary tension in the body (such as when we sit, stand or run) then establishing conscious control over them. FM Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor, discovered he was becoming hoarse because he was putting too much strain on his vocal cords by using his body in an unhelpful way. The technique he developed allows us to discover a more free way of moving by unlearning bad habits. Obviously this process can’t be achieved immediately. It’s usually introduced in small-group, half-day workshops, with individual lessons to follow. Musicians, artists and sportspeople are among those who have benefited.

    Is it safe? AT is regulated by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). All its members undergo a three-year training course and you can find a qualified teacher through its website. Look for the letters MSTAT after a name.

    Does it work? Alexander Technique is a gentle, subtle approach which takes time to learn and needs to be practised constantly. The House of Lords study placed AT in Group 2: therapies where supporting evidence was lacking but which could safely be used to complement – though not replace – conventional medicine.

    STAT (0845 230 7828/


    What is it? It seems as though every other shampoo in Boots has the ‘aromatherapy’ tag. In fact, there’s more to it than a nice smell, with a history of treating ailments stretching back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. However, 1928 was the turning point: French chemist and perfumer Rene Gatterfosse burnt his hand, thrust it into a vat of lavender essential oil and was amazed at how quickly the skin healed without scarring. Generally inhaled (to ease congestion), dropped in the bath for relaxation and reinvigoration, or applied to the skin during massage, aromatherapy oils can also be used to soothe aches and pains, colds and small cuts. Always dilute essential oils, ideally with a colourless carrier oil.

    Is it safe? There is no statutory regulation of aromatherapy so it’s important to choose a practitioner carefully. The Aromatherapy Consortium represents 14 professional associations, their accredited schools and 7,000 practitioners. The letters AOC after a name means the practitioner is registered with the Council. It is important to check which oils might not suit you, especially if you are pregnant.

    Does it work? There’s nothing more relaxing than an aromatherapy massage, though evidence of its effectiveness is largely anecdotal. Trials have shown that tea-tree oil is effective in treating thrush, while another demonstrated that massage with lavender oil was more beneficial than plain oil massage in reducing blood pressure and heart rate. The House of Lords study placed aromatherapy in Group 2.

    Aromatherapy Consortium (0870 774 3477/


    What is it?
    The main tenet of homeopathy is ‘like cures like’, so a sick person is treated with a very dilute substance which, if given to a healthy person, would trigger similar symptoms. This theory has been used over the centuries in many cultures and remains popular with the royal family.

    Homeopathy is one of the most common complementary therapies, especially when used in conjunction with other forms of healthcare. For instance, it’s an effective tool for recovery after an operation, as well as proving increasingly popular alongside dentistry and veterinary treatments. A first consultation will be a thorough 90 minutes, delving into your medical history in detail. This way, an accurate picture of the state of your general health, as well as the specific ailment, can be built up in order to find the best individual remedy for you.

    Is it safe? Although some of the substances used in homeopathy are toxic, the degree of dilution renders them perfectly safe. Homeopathy is well regulated through the British Homeopathic Association, which has a register of more than 1,300 practitioners (health professionals who have undertaken basic postgraduate training can use the letters LFHom), and the 1,000-strong Society of Homeopaths (RSHom). Some homeopaths are attached to an NHS GP clinic, while a GP can refer you to one of five NHS homeopathic hospitals.

    Does it work? Despite its apparent high status within the world of complementary medicine (the House of Lords study placed it in Group 1), there remains considerable debate about how a substance diluted so much can possibly promote healing. Homeopaths insist that the active substance leaves a ‘memory’ on the water molecules.

    British Homeopathic Association (BHA) (0870 444 3950/
    Society of Homeopaths (0845 450 6611/

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