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Alternative Therapies Overview

Alternative and complementary therapies are treatments for health promotion, disease prevention or disease treatment which fall outside of the boundaries of conventional Western medical practices. According to the CDC’s most recent survey data, 38% of adult Americans now make use of at least some form of alternative or complementary therapy. Learn more about alternative therapies that can really work to help you overcome addiction or substance abuse and to improve mental health and/or reduce symptoms of mental illness.

Complementary and alternative therapies for mental health and addiction can be used instead of or in conjunction with more conventional therapies. .

  • Complementary therapies are those which are practiced in conjunction with more conventional western medical therapies (For example, mindfulness mediation for depression combined with antidepressant medications.)
  • Alternative therapies are those which are practiced to remedy a mental or physical health problem (or to promote health) in place of more conventional western medical therapies (using acupuncture to help you quit smoking, instead of using a nicotine patch, for example.)1

Some different types of alternative and complementary therapies include:

  1. Mind/Body Therapies – Using practices that influence the workings of the mind to improve the functioning of the body and to improve well being and mental health. Examples include yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and others.
  2. Herbal or Natural Products – The use of vitamins, minerals, probiotics and other dietary supplements for health promotion and disease prevention
  3. Manipulative Therapies – The manipulation and movement of the bones and muscles, such as in massage or chiropractics as a way to relieve pain; or as with many types of massage, to increase well being and relaxation and to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.  

As medical practices and understanding evolve over time, many therapies which were once considered very alternative get absorbed into the western medical cannon. Many therapies exist in a sort of gray area between the two classifications and practitioners do not always agree about how to classify any given therapy – the lines between alternative and Western/medical aren’t clearly drawn and they are moving all the time!

Examples of Complementary and Alternative Therapies Used to Treat Mental Illness and Addiction

  • Acupuncture – Traditional acupuncture, acupressure and electrical acupuncture are used as complementary and alternative treatments for conditions such as pain management, opiate withdrawal symptoms management, smoking cessation, PTSD and many more
  • Ayurvedic Medicine – Practitioners of Ayurveda use this traditional system of Indian medicine to promote mental and physical health
  • Chamomile – Research on chamomile as a therapy for generalized anxiety disorder shows that using chamomile extract is associated with a decrease in overall anxiety scores.
  • Ibogaine – An African hallucinogen used for thousands of years in shamanic rituals and now used to treat opiate and other addictions.
  • Kava – An herbal tonic from the South Pacific that can be used to lessen feelings of anxiety. Kava is associated with some side effects, some of which can be quite serious.
  • Meditation – Myriad research studies have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation does very good things for mental health. Meditation is used as an effective therapy against anxiety disorder, depression, stress, pain, addiction and many others.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – In addition to being very good for your heart health, there is evidence that these fatty acids may also relieve symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety. Studies have also shown that people with insufficient omega 3s in their diet are at greater risk to commit suicide.
  • St John’s Wort – St John’s Wort is used to treat depression. It has been quite heavily studied and some studies have found that the herb provides significant symptoms relief, while others have found it provides limited benefit.
  • Tai Chi – Research has shown that Tai Chi works well as a complementary treatment for major depression and that practitioners of Tai Chi can expect to benefit from decreased depression and anxiety and improved overall mood and self esteem.
  • Yoga – Research shows that yoga practice can have a beneficial effect against depression and stress.

How Many People Are Using Complementary and Alternative Therapies?

According to survey data taken from the CDC’s 2007 National Survey on Health (the most recent year survey which contained questions on complementary and alternative therapies) 38% of Americans adults and 12% of American children use some form of complementary of alternative therapy. The most commonly used alternative and complementary therapies are:

  • Natural products, which are used by 17.7% of adults
  • Deep breathing exercises, which are done by 12.7% of adults
  • Meditation, which is done by 9.4% of adults
  • Chiropractic therapies are used by 8.6% of adults
  • Massage is used by 8.3% of adults
  • Yoga is done by 6.1% of adults
  • Progressive relaxation exercises are done by 2.9% of adults
  • Guided imagery exercises are done by 2.2% of adults
  • Homeopathic treatments are used by 1.8% of adults2

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