Woman doing yoga.

Certain health conditions have clear solutions. For a urinary tract infection, for example, you take an antibiotic. For high cholesterol, you’re told to eat better, exercise more, and perhaps take a statin. But for some common and persistent ills—chronic pain, stress, and insomnia in particular—it can be hard to pinpoint the exact causes and even harder to treat.

“Sometimes [for these] really chronic problems, medicine doesn’t have a very good solution,” says Lisa Schwartz, M.D., co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice.

More on Stress, Pain, and Sleep

That often leads people to look to alternative medicine. In some cases, the options are untested, or even dangerous. (See “Kava” and “Kratom” in our A-to-Z guide.)

But science has shown that several of these treatments, such as yoga, really can help.

Here, some of the most effective alternative therapies for these problems.

Chronic Pain

Meditation, tai chi, and yoga all seem to help back pain, joint pain caused by osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia. Spinal manipulation, performed by a chiropractor or an osteopathic physician, can also help with back pain. Although experts are unsure how it works, acupuncture may be helpful, too. And cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy that’s well-studied and isn’t technically considered alternative, can often help people cope with chronic pain.

Stress

Try mindfulness, which involves staying focused on the moment, without judgment. In one 2017 study, a group of people with anxiety practiced mindfulness techniques—including certain forms of meditation, deep breathing, and yoga—for eight weeks, and another group attended a class on healthy lifestyle habits. The group that practiced mindfulness techniques had lower levels of stress-related hormones.

Learn more about getting started with techniques from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Sleep Disturbances

Your best bet is healthy sleep habits, such as setting a regular bedtime and, at least an hour before bedtime, dimming the lights and turning off electronic devices.

Some evidence suggests that melatonin, one of the most widely used natural products in the U.S., may help adults with specific kinds of sleep problems, such as those related to jet lag or shift work. But for other sleep problems, such as insomnia, melatonin’s benefits have been shown to be minor at best: It might help you sleep just 8 additional minutes and could leave you groggy the next day. Cognitive ­behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which focuses on changing sleep-­disrupting habits, might even be more effective and safer for insomnia than prescription sleep drugs or melatonin.


Guide to Natural Remedies

For more on meditation, yoga, tai chi, melatonin, and other forms of alternative medicines, click on the guide below.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.