Alternative medicine has a major presence and persuasive attraction in the industrialized western world. The extent to which these practices have clinical efficacy according to biomedical criteria is a matter of ongoing research and debate. It may be that independent of any such efficacy, the attraction of alternative medicine is related to the power of its underlying shared beliefs and cultural assumptions. The fundamental premises are an advocacy of nature, vitalism, "science," and spirituality. These themes offer patients a participatory experience of empowerment, authenticity, and enlarged self-identity when illness threatens their sense of intactness and connection to the world. A discussion of these themes may enable conventionally trained clinicians to better understand their patients' attraction to and acceptance of alternative medical therapies.