Does Holistic Addiction Therapy Work?

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Holistic addiction therapy, alternative, complementary, integrative—whatever you want to call it—medicine has always been a bit of a controversial method to treating any medical concern, let alone substance abuse. When it’s being displayed as trips to the day spa and drinking lots of fruity drinks, it’s easy to roll your eyes whenever someone says the key to true healing is through “mind, body, and spirit.” Still, is there more than meets the eye when it comes to a holistic approach for substance abuse treatment or is it simply a marketing tool to attract people in desperate times to a glorified vacation home?

Still, is there more than meets the eye when it comes to a holistic approach for substance abuse treatment or is it simply a marketing tool to attract people in desperate times to a glorified vacation home?

What is Holistic Addiction Therapy?

Holistic medicine is defined by the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine (AIHM) as “the art and science of healing that addresses the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.”

Within the practice of holistic medicine are several conventional and alternative therapies used to treat illnesses of all kinds, including substance use disorder and addiction, and to restore the body to its optimal health in its three forms: physical, mental, and emotional. Following the notion that each aspect of a person’s health affects the other, holistic addiction therapy serves under the belief that merely treating a disease individually without addressing the body as a whole will not eliminate the overall issue.

Common holistic therapies include:

Back when it used to be referred to as “alternative medicine” in the ’90s, holistic medicine and therapeutic practices sparked controversy for their “far-out” methods and beliefs in the medical field, despite encompassing safe and appropriate modalities of diagnosis and treatment. Nowadays, however, some medical professionals and the public have become more receptive to incorporating holistic therapies with traditional medicine for full-body recovery and lifestyle education.

“I don’t like the term ‘alternative medicine,’” said Mimi Guarneri, the cardiologist and researcher who founded AIHM. “Because it implies, ‘I’m diagnosed with cancer and I’m going to not do any chemo, radiation, or any conventional medicine, I’m going to do juicing.'”

An aspect of holistic medicine that people neglect is that these therapies and treatments are meant to serve as a complement to conventional medicine. In the substance abuse treatment world, holistic addiction therapy can help re-educate clients on how to properly take care of themselves in mind, body, and spirit, but they would still have to go through traditional medical detox and rehab for their addictions as well.

Is There Any Evidence That This Works for Addiction Treatment?

Some naysayers would claim it doesn’t, arguing that holistic methods can’t necessarily be proven to work despite treatment centers across the United States advocating their success in relapse prevention. Others would claim that any supposed success is attributed to what is called “the placebo effect,” a psychological phenomenon in which a fake treatment improves a person’s health simply by their own belief and expectation that it will.

Yet, about four in 10 US adults use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as found in the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, with women and adults over the age of 50 being some of the largest demographics who incorporated holistic methods into their health plans. In 2010, the survey updated its rates on these demographics, showing that just more than half (53 percent) of people age 50 and older reported using CAM at some point in their lives while 47 percent reported CAM use within the past 12 months.

That’s a lot of people partaking in something that may or may not be working.

So why are so many people going forward with holistic medicine and therapy if there’s no concrete evidence that it works? The issue lies in how you would define the industry, the practitioners, and the effects of holistic addiction therapy. Similar to how substance-abuse treatment cannot have a truly defined “cure” for every person, holistic medicine works under the same principle. The methods used are catered to the intrinsic nature of each individual, centered on how to balance their needs with whole-body solutions—and doctors know this, hence why holistic addiction therapy is regarded as a complementary practice to conventional medicine.

In “The Evolution of Alternative Medicine” by The Atlantic, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz points out the difficulty in defining integrative holistic health:

“At this point it’s really a self-declaration,” said Nancy Sudak, the chair of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, in the article.

“And nobody has a tool kit that includes absolutely everything. It largely depends on who you are as a practitioner.”

Aside from these variations, there’s another reason it’s hard to define integrative health: It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its practitioners are part of the same medical establishment as other doctors, going to the same conferences and publishing in the same journals. They’ve influenced and been influenced by major trends in medicine, such as the movement toward patient-centered medicine, or the backlash against the overuse of drugs and surgery that the New Yorker writer Atul Gawande calls “the epidemic of unnecessary care.”

Ask any doctor and they’ll strongly discourage you from seeking holistic addiction therapy as the single solution for a medical ailment, but ask them if it’d be good to try out a holistic approach alongside a conventional treatment plan and a good amount of them will say sure, “Why not? Go for it.”

It all comes down to how you measure success. When it comes to substance abuse, the lifelong mission for a recovering person is relapse prevention. And for those who continue to “fail” at maintaining sobriety and find themselves in a constant cycle of rehab and relapse, conventional methods for treating addiction don’t always cut it, which brings up the original question: can holistic addiction therapy be an effective complementary treatment method for substance use addiction?

To Answer Your Question, Yes. It Can.

People who brush off holistic addiction therapy as some hippie mumbo-jumbo exhibit a misunderstanding of how integrative health can benefit and reshape a person’s lifestyle. Substance abuse goes beyond a physical dependence on alcohol and/or

Substance abuse goes beyond a physical dependence on alcohol and/or drugs but also presents itself as a mental and spiritual addiction as well. Even after a person goes through a physical detoxification and traditional talk-therapy during rehab, there is still a 40-60 percent relapse rate to face. In holistic practice, there is an understanding that alcohol and drug toxins remain in the body long after detox and slowly release themselves into the bloodstream, causing cravings. This is why relapses are common within the first six months of recovery.

With holistic techniques, a client can reform their unhealthy lifestyle and begin a gradual progression toward optimal health. Recovering persons, in particular, can benefit greatly from meditation/mindfulness, yoga and other exercise routines, and nutritional therapy because each technique involves learning how to address an issue and finding a solution rather than ignoring it. When cravings for past vices begin to occur, recovering individuals can utilize their holistic therapies, establishing control and balance within themselves.

A study by the Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors at the University of Washington in Seattle monitored 286 people who had successfully completed substance-abuse treatment and randomly assigned them one of three relapse prevention programs to participate in: the standard 12-step program, a relapse prevention program that was cognitive-behavioral based, and a holistic program that combined conventional relapse prevention teachings with mindfulness techniques.

After a year of observation, the mindfulness-based relapse prevention group would outperform the 12-step program and conventional relapse prevention program, recording only about eight percent of participants who reported heavy drinking/drug abuse in the mindfulness group while the other two programs reported about 20 percent.

Sarah Bowen, the researcher who led the study, pointed out a significant observation about mindfulness techniques that could be applied to other holistic therapies: the techniques were more applicable and adaptable to clients in their lives than traditional relapse prevention.

“In a relapse prevention group, the skills are very specific,” Bowen said in the report. “I think sometimes what happens is the skills are so specific to certain situations they may not generalize to what happens when you’re out of treatment.”

In 2010, an article published by the American Family Physician detailed studies which showed that “yoga increases the levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain.” This marks it as a significant tool to treat those suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, and substance abuse. Individuals battling against dual-diagnosis substance abuse tend to have low levels of GABA, but with incorporating yoga into their everyday lifestyle, their mentalities gradually begin to change as discipline and impulse control develops.

“Yoga treats the biology and the psychology of an addict,” said Mary Margaret Frederick, Ph.D., a New York City addiction psychotherapist. “Addicts are profoundly out of control internally. They have knee-jerk panic reactions and tempers. The will and determination yoga requires helps people regain control over their body and their mind,” she said in the article.

Holistic addiction therapy can help recovering individuals in a variety of ways. From bringing more nutrients to the body and building strength through nutritional therapy to shedding light on underlying issues within the psyche in art and music that wouldn’t otherwise be found in traditional talk-therapies, an individual can explore any route of holistic medicine alongside conventional substance-abuse treatment to pinpoint the root of their addictions. Clients are in need of reevaluating their lives, bodies, and spirits to create a healthy foundation to grow from.

Need Help From Addiction? Give Us a Call

If you feel holistic therapies could be beneficial to treating your or a loved one’s substance-abuse addiction, Pathway to Hope offers treatment plans that combine holistic approaches and conventional methods. Our addiction specialists are available 24-7, ready to assist you immediately. Click or call us today at 844-557-8575.



Staff Writer

Pathway to Hope employs a diverse staff of writers that share a common passion for helping those who are struggling with substance abuse find the care they need. With years of experience in the substance abuse treatment industry and decades of experience in writing and research, our team of writers constantly strive to present accurate and helpful information that is easily digestible and encourages people to seek help.

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