Complementary medicine: Holger Cramer investigates what really helps

A year ago, Prof. Dr. Holger Cramer took up the new professorship for research in complementary medicine approaches at the University of Tübingen and the Bosch Health Campus. Having gained experience with yoga himself during his studies, he is now scientifically investigating how effective these and other non-conventional treatment methods are.

Alexandra Wolters | September 2023
RBIM_Holger Cramer 2
Beate Armbruster / Universitätsklinikum Tübingen

Holger Cramer is not a yoga teacher, however, many call him the yoga professor of Germany. When the psychologist hears this, he has to smile – and puts it into perspective: “In the German-speaking world there are not this many scientists who do research on yoga.” And there is hardly anyone of them who appears that often as him in the media when it comes to yoga. The articles and interviews are not about how yoga exercises are done best, but about the effectiveness of yoga. Holger Cramer has been scientifically researching various complementary medicine approaches for many years, for example meditation and acupuncture. "These methods are not, or not yet, part of standard medicine, and what they usually have in common is that they are based on a different model for the development of disease and health,” explains the scientist.

For me as a scientist, the need arises to research which health expectations can really be upheld and where there may even be dangers.

There is a great demand for acupuncture, yoga and herbal medicine in Germany. About half of the adult general population uses complementary medical methods. “For me as a scientist, this results in the need to research which health expectations can really be upheld, for which diseases an effect can be shown and for which not, and where there may even be dangers.” During his psychology studies, Cramer himself experienced positive effects from the yoga he practiced. His neck pain subsided, which also led to his PhD thesis on “Yoga for chronic neck pain” at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He remained there for 13 years, most recently as Research Director at the Department for Internal and Integrative Medicine, until his appointment to the University of Tübingen and the Bosch Health Campus (BHC) in 2022.

Close exchange with the clinical departments

Here Cramer took over the newly created professorship for research in complementary medicine approaches. It is the first research professorship in the field of complementary medicine at a German state university. In the first five years, the professorship will be funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Subsequent financing will be borne by the state of Baden-Württemberg. A special feature of the professorship is the function as a bridgehead between the Institute of General Practice and Interprofessional Care at the Medical Faculty of Tübingen and the new Robert Bosch Center for Integrative Medicine and Health (RBIM) at the BHC. “Here in Stuttgart, my research group and I benefit from the clinical research environment as well as the many opportunities for cooperation, for example with the Dr Margarete Fischer-Bosch Institute of Clinical Pharmacology and the Robert Bosch Center for Tumor Disease, as well as the clinical departments," Cramer says. The Department of Naturopathy and Integrative Medicine of the Robert Bosch Hospital (RBK) forms the clinical part of the RBIM.

We are investigating if yoga has a positive effect on fatigue, a common symptom in post-COVID syndrome.

His work schedule includes numerous studies and analyses. How do non-pharmacological procedures affect health? How do yoga or acupuncture influence side effects of cancer therapies, chronic pain or depression? One of the first studies at the BHC is about the effect of yoga on the post-COVID syndrome. According to the latest estimates, this affects up to ten percent of those infected. “We are investigating if yoga has a positive effect on fatigue, a common symptom in post-COVID syndrome, compared to standardized health education,” says Cramer. For projects in the field of cancer therapy, the scientist has established a collaboration with the Department of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Medicine at the RBK. There are already promising studies that show strong efficacy for acupuncture or yoga, for example, in supportive cancer care as well as for improving mental health. This is an area where Cramer and his team plan to conduct further clinical research and to create stronger evidence so that effective procedures can find their way into hospital and practices.

In order to bring this evidence into medical care, the psychologist also relies on the development of medical guidelines, such as the S3 guideline “Complementary Medicine in the Treatment of Oncological Patients”, of which he is a member of the steering committee as a chairman of the German Society for Natural Medicine (DGNHK). Cramer: “This is the first guideline that specifically deals with complementary medicine. It thus provides recommend actions where and how certain complementary medicine approaches can be integrated into existing concepts, and where not.”

Interlinked all the way to Australia

In Germany, research into complementary medical methods is still a small field. Therefore, an international connection is very important for Cramer. As Adjunct Professor of the Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, President of the International Society for Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine Research and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, he is often on the go, on network meetings or congresses. He regularly travels to Australia and the USA. At the moment, however, he is mainly in Tübingen and Stuttgart, where he feels very much at home, having grown up in the Ruhr area. “I have never hiked as much as I did in my first year in Swabia,” says Cramer, raving about his almost daily commute from the south of Stuttgart to the campus at Burgholzhof: “I walk through the vineyards to work. This is great, and it always feels a bit like a holiday.”