The little secret causing big problems for
so-called “integrative medicine”

5 reasons why CAM therapies may not work for you

When my big medical textbook first came out in 1995, I appeared on Good Morning America with hosts Charlie Gibson and Joan Lunden. They seemed genuinely interested in the book and in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). But Joan quickly put me on the spot on live national TV by asking why acupuncture hadn’t worked for her shoulder pain. She believed it would work. Indeed, it had worked for many of her friends. And she felt that it “should” have worked for her.

Of course, Joan wasn’t the first person to have this question. Or to set his or her hopes on an alternative therapy only to be disappointed when it didn’t work.

I have written and spoken for years to the CAM community about the need to develop scientific ways to predict who will benefit from a given therapy—and who will not. I have presented this concern to the Office of Alternative Medicine at NIH, to the “Bravewell” Collaborative for Integrative Medicine, to many CAM conferences, and to the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine. But it seems no one wants to admit to CAM’s “dirty” little secret…

The reality is that not all CAM therapies work well, or work at all, for everyone.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that CAM is ineffective. Just the opposite, actually. But whether or not a particular therapy will work well for you is another matter entirely.

The good news is, there’s a simple way to find out which therapies are more likely to be successful for you. More on that in just a bit. But first, let’s go over some of the reasons why CAM sometimes seems to have“spotty” results.

Five reasons CAM therapies may not work
in integrative medicine

Western biomedical science has been actively testing CAM for over two decades. And research has proven that many age-old “alternative” and “folk” remedies aren’t just based on superstition. There is real science behind many of them.

However, even remedies that have been proven effective in scientific studies (and in medical practice) aren’t effective for everyone. After
years of research, I’ve pinpointed five reasons for this phenomenon.

Reason #1: Specializing goes against core CAM principles

Let’s face it—a lot of the practice of alternative medicine in the U.S. has been “ego-driven.” And for good reason. For decades, these courageous practitioners have been working against tremendous ridicule, hostility, and even punishments and sanctions by the mainstream academic- government-industrial medical complex. All in a heartfelt effort to make the treatments they believe so strongly in available to the public.

However, despite their claims of holistic healing, the fact is many of these practitioners only offer their own particular “brand” of alternative medicine.

And since they’ve been forced by the mainstream to fight for and defend their preferred techniques, these practitioners often lose perspective on their own limitations. In fact, the “specialized” approach we’ve adopted in this country for both CAM and mainstream medicine usually results in practitioners not having knowledge about, nor giving due respect to, other proven therapies.

Twenty years ago I undertook a thorough search to find the leading national “experts” on different alternative therapies to contribute to my medical textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine (the new, 5th edition of which I’m working on now).

I remember some of these experts being a little argumentative because they didn’t understand why I needed to include different therapies. They were completely convinced that their own particular specialty was always the best choice. For everyone. For every problem. Under every circumstance. Meanwhile, they didn’t actually know much—if anything— about the other CAM therapies available.

There’s absolutely nothing “complementary” about this sort of attitude. And it goes against the very core principles of CAM. (Needless to say, those particular “experts” did not make it into the second edition of my medical text book).

But sometimes, even the practitioners with the best intentions simply don’t have access to all the information they need to offer the best, most complete care. Which brings me to my next point…

Reason #2: “Trade secrets” can be hard to come by

Most CAM traditions also include “trade secrets” (like clinical “pearls” of wisdom in the western biomedicine) that are passed down orally within families or communities of healers. These are techniques that can only be learned over time, working closely with the healing “masters.”

Acupuncture is a good example. In California, a physician can become a licensed acupuncturist via a six-week acupuncture course. But someone with this limited amount of training would never have the wealth of knowledge of a sixth-generation Chinese acupuncturist. (And as any resident of Chinatown will tell you, they would never go to one of these “six-week wonders” in a white coat.)

So sometimes, when acupuncture doesn’t work, it’s because the acupuncture practice or practitioner simply doesn’t draw on all the ancient knowledge that Chinese medicine offers to deal with “difficult cases.” (In fact, there’s an entire Chinese classical medical treatise on this subject. Unfortunately, many Western acupuncturists don’t even know
about it, let alone refer to it.)

Of course, this lack of knowledge is unintentional. But there have been some deliberate changes to various CAM therapies in this country that may have negatively impacted their effectiveness.

Reason #3: Watered-down, Westernized, “adapted” versions may be less potent

If you’ve ever been to China or India, you undoubtedly noticed that, in many cases, the cuisine is vastly different from the Chinese and Indian food you find in this country. Indeed, many of the traditional dishes of these cultures have been adapted and “watered down” to suit the American palate.

The same thing has happened with some of the techniques used in traditional healing practices. Without question, there has been some “editing” of practices that may be considered too harsh or uncomfortable in the west.

Ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine is a good example. In the 1960s, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi intentionally made some modifications to some traditional Ayurvedic practices in order to make them more palatable and “friendly” to the west. While this helped introduce the benefits of Ayurveda to the west, the good Maharishi left us with a less than fully potent set of practices.

Similarly, some of the more strenuous and uncomfortable aspects of Yoga have been omitted in Western practice. And while it makes Yoga more accessible and attractive to the mass markets as an exercise, it clearly limits its potency as a therapy.

Reason #4: Limited access = limited healing

Another way we limit the potency of CAM in the west is by offering it only on an outpatient basis.

One or two short treatments per week can’t always achieve the benefits of the sort of residential care CAM programs available in other cultures (equivalent to “hospitalization” in the western sense).

These natural “cure” programs aren’t limited to a single CAM technique. Instead, they address
every part of a patient’s well-being. Sleep, exercise, diet, and other aspects of health—in addition to specific healing therapies.

So, while we acknowledge the benefits of CAM in helping to “manage” many chronic conditions, we are not able to observe the full curative powers of many of these therapeutic programs.

But there’s one more factor to consider in explaining the apparent “ineffectiveness” of some CAM therapies. And this one may very well be the most important of all.

Why too many research studies cast doubt on CAM

Speaking of getting “watered down,” this phenomenon occurs frequently when mainstream scientists set out to research age old healing traditions with modern medical research studies.

These studies “shoe-horn” healing modalities that are meant to be tailored to each individual. Squeezing them into completely artificial circumstances which don’t accurately evaluate the potential of these sorts of therapies.

The fact is, most modern research studies are designed to test drugs, not healing.

Reason #5: Treatment effectiveness depends on your unique personality type

CAM simply does not work in the “one size fits all” mold of pharmaceutical-based Western medicine. CAM emphasizes that each person is an individual, and should be treated individually.

So, how do you find out which therapies will work for you? Well, it all starts with taking a closer look at your unique personality type.

Put your personality to the test

You’ve probably heard of the Myers Briggs scale. Many corporations use this personality test (using the science of “psychometrics”) to help determine whether someone is best suited for a particular position in the workplace.

After years of reviewing the research, I have found that a variation of this sort of personality testing can also help predict who will respond best to what types of therapies.

The first step is to pinpoint your emotional boundary type.

Working with a psychometrics researcher, Michael Jawer, I’ve published two books about this, The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion and Your Emotional Type: Key to the Therapies that Will Work for You. You can find both of these books at

Together, Michael and I developed what we call a “personality boundary survey.” But rather than classifying your personality type, taking this survey can help you determine your emotional boundary type. Which, in turn, can help you determine your individual style of healing.

This survey is based on the original Boundary Questionnaire (BQ) developed by Ernest Hartmann, M.D., a researcher at Tufts University, starting in the 1980s. The full version consists of 146 questions grouped into a dozen categories.

You can take the shorter 18-question version of the full survey. These questions will give you a good sense of your overall boundary or emotional type. (You can find the full version in my book Your Emotional Type, co-authored by Michael Jawer.)

It’s important to note that you may be “thin” boundary in some respects, and “thick” in others. Moreover, where you fall on the boundary spectrum is not fixed for life. You may develop thinner or thicker boundaries as you get older as a result of your unique personal experiences.

You can also become thicker or thinner depending on the medications you’re taking or how tired you happen to be. Still, as a general personality trait, your boundary type won’t vary too much from day to day, or year to year.

The right treatments for your
individual emotional type

In true complementary fashion, the real secret to getting effective CAM treatment for any ailment is to look at all the tendencies together. What CAM therapies work best for that particular condition?

Then which of those therapies work best for you?

Unfortunately I just don’t have the space to get into all of the details here. (Much more is available in
my book with co-author Michael Jawer Your Emotional Type.) But here is a quick glance at seven top therapies and where they fall along the boundary spectrum:


This picture shows the treatments that are most specific to THIN boundary conditions on the left,
with those most specific to THICK boundary conditions on the right.

In terms of general treatments for your boundary type, the most strongly specific treatments for thick personality boundaries (in this order) are: Guided Imagery, Relaxation & Stress Management, Meditation & Yoga.

For Thin boundary types, hypnosis is the therapy of choice (if it’s effective for your particular condition), followed by acupuncture.

Biofeedback is equally specific for thick or thin boundaries.

These seven therapies are well- established, safe, and effective treatments that are already widely available. Of course, there are many others to choose from, and you can find more detailed information in my book.

In the meantime, before you consider using any complementary or alternative medicine therapy, find out your emotional boundary type first and tell your health practitioner.