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Holistic & Alternative Treatments

Medical research has led to an improved understanding of addiction as a chronic illness. This helps clinicians develop science-based approaches to managing the condition and reducing relapse.

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Treating addiction as a medical condition means it is not a moral or personal failing. It is something that can be managed, so the individual can be healthy and happy once the mind and body are free of substances of abuse and patterns of behavior related to substance abuse have been addressed. Alternative medicine promises much the same thing while providing spiritual support for the individual.

Combining alternative medicine and conventional medicine can offer more complete support for the whole person. This is the primary goal of holistic medicine.

Traditional Medicine vs. Alternative

Science-based addiction treatment starts with detox with medical supervision, followed by a rehabilitation program that focuses on therapy. Depending on how long someone has struggled with addiction, approaches to detox and rehabilitation will be different.

Treatment should be tailored to be effective. With this in mind, each client’s personal needs should be addressed. This is where alternative, holistic approaches to addiction treatment help.

man filing out health insurance forms

The current understanding of addiction sees it as a chronic disease, with cycles of compulsive behavior in the form of abusing intoxicating substances like opioids, alcohol, prescription drugs, or stimulants. Addiction is observed in a dysregulation of neural circuitry associated with the reward center, which plays a large role in motivation. Changes to this area of the brain lead to problems with executive functioning, and they eventually lead the person to form habits around substance abuse.

When a person enters treatment for addiction, it is important to find the best ways to help them understand the condition and to create new habits and behaviors that support ongoing physical and mental health. This greatly reduces the risk of relapse back into drug abuse.

Based on scientific research, clinicians have determined that the first step in overcoming addiction is to detox from the substance.

This involves ceasing drug consumption, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms that require medical supervision.

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can ease these symptoms for some drugs, like opioids, so the person can focus on other aspects of recovery. Once detox is complete, or the body has been stabilized with MAT, the person enters rehabilitation, which primarily involves therapy.

Most often, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the therapy of choice, but sometimes, motivational incentives or motivational interviewing is also used. Therapy occurs in both individual and group settings to help the person understand addiction, how this condition manifests in behaviors, and how they can reduce their chances of relapse when they have completed the rehabilitation program.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) defines alternative medicine as approaches to care and support that are used in place of traditional medicine. In contrast, complementary medicine is used alongside traditional medicine.

Integrative health combines complementary and conventional medical practices to support the whole person, including during addiction treatment.

The Most Popular Types of Alternative Medicine in Addiction Treatment Programs

There are several forms of alternative medicine that can support science-based detox and rehabilitation. Here are some of the most popular:

Yoga: The practice of yoga is a form of stretching and strengthening the body, which is based on movements, prayer, and mindfulness practices that started 5,000 years ago in India. Movements through different postures, breathing in specific sequences, and meditation are the three core components of modern yoga. These help to center the mind in the body and in the present moment.Many addiction treatment programs provide yoga as one of several complementary treatment options. The practice helps those in recovery develop a positive relationship with their bodies.It can also reduce stress and anxiety, which are struggles for many people during the recovery process. One of the reasons many people begin to abuse drugs or alcohol is because they struggle with high levels of stress, intense emotions, or mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. Finding new ways to manage these experiences helps to reduce the risk of relapse.

woman doing yoga for recovery
  • Meditation and mindfulness: The current practice of mindfulness is defined as the ability to be fully present — aware of the body, surroundings, and behaviors without reacting or feeling overwhelmed by emotional experiences and distractions. Mindfulness is based on meditation, which has a rich history throughout much of the world.There are seated, walking, moving, or even standing methods of practicing mindfulness. Yoga can be part of a mindfulness practice since it integrates breathing techniques. Overall, meditation is focused on the workings of the mind. The approach is one of natural curiosity without judgment.Regular mindfulness practices have been shown to create lasting changes in the ability to be mindful of one’s surroundings. They have been shown to reduce stress and improve the ability to reactive behaviors.When meditation and mindfulness practices are included in addiction treatment, these separate modules tend to last for about eight weeks, with guided instruction in a group therapy format. During this practice, the counselor or clinician will target specific experiences, like cravings, and lead the group through applying mindfulness to these addiction struggles. Through this guided process, participants learn how to consciously recognize these subconscious or emotional experiences and find healthy ways to deal with them rather than reacting with stress, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors.

  • Acupuncture: This ancient practice comes from traditional Chinese medicine. Very thin needles are strategically placed in the skin at pressure points in the body. This is designed to balance the flow of energy or life force through the body’s meridian points.Western approaches also claim that acupuncture can stimulate the nerves, connective tissue, and muscles to improve health and connection between the mind and body. Currently, acupuncture is applied as complementary treatment for the following conditions:

    • Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
    • Postoperative nausea
    • Dental pain
    • Headaches, including migraines or tension headaches
    • Back pain, especially lower back pain
    • Neck pain
    • Menstrual cramps
    • Arthritis and osteoarthritis
    • Respiratory disorders like allergies
  • Studies on applying acupuncture as a complementary treatment during addiction recovery show that the practice can suppress drugs’ reinforcement of maladaptive behaviors by modulating brain chemistry, especially dopamine and serotonin. While this may not work for everyone and may be detrimental for people who have abused injection drugs like heroin, it can be a good option for recovery in cases when talk therapy and moving the body do not help to reduce the person’s distress.

    Fitness and exercise: Creating a stronger body can help to stabilize brain chemistry and reduce the harmful effects of substance abuse, which may include weight gain or muscle weakness.A small study on exercise on 38 participants who struggled with some type of substance abuse found positive results. Exercising three times per week for six months improved most of the participants’ health. In a follow-up a year later, 10 participants reported that they had decreased their substance abuse, and 5 reported continued abstinence from drugs and alcohol.Exercise practices can help to distract from cravings while adding structure and routine to one’s daily schedule. Going to group exercise classes, like yoga or cycling classes at a gym, can help to build positive social connections too, which supports ongoing recovery.

    woman running
  • Biochemical restoration: Struggling with drugs and alcohol imbalances brain chemistry, but it can also lead to an imbalance in other physiological systems, such as:

    • Hormones
    • Blood sugar
    • Adrenaline
    • Amino acids
    • Nutrition

    Heavy metals and other toxic substances can build up in the body too. These require time and effort to flush out, while keeping glands, the digestive system, and the circulatory system healthy.

    Some treatment programs offer laboratory tests to determine if those in treatment need nutritional support, including additional vitamin and mineral supplements, to reverse these imbalances. When the body has fewer nutritional deficiencies and fewer hormonal or blood sugar imbalances, cravings may become less frequent and intense, which helps people to avoid relapse.

    • Neurofeedback: Also called electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback, this therapy helps addiction recovery and mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder. It has also been used to treat people struggling with concussions.The person is linked to a computer that reads their active brainwaves, through EEG. With a little explanation, these signals can help a person recognize areas of irregularity or distress and allow them immediate feedback to regulate and improve their brain functioning.Typical neurofeedback sessions occur once a week over 20 weeks, though some programs may offer fewer or more frequent sessions, and some people may find they need more than 20 sessions total.Neurofeedback works well for many people since they have a visual representation of their brain’s activity that they can see changes in as they practice relaxation or other techniques. This practice is not considered a cure. It is one of several therapeutic tools that complements cognitive behavioral therapy or other forms of therapy.

    Other Treatment Approaches

    While the above listed treatments are some of the most studied, applied, and effective, other alternative forms of medicine or counseling are also increasingly important in recovery. These include:

    • Art therapy, which uses a wide range of creative practices to ease stress and improve acceptance of treatment.
    • Equine-assisted therapy and other forms of animal therapy, which provides a way for those in recovery to “get out of their heads” and focus on something else in the present moment.
    • Massage therapy, which uses human touch and muscle relaxation to boost mood, decrease pain, and create a sense of connection.
    • Guided imagery, which is a form of meditation.
    • Other nutritional therapy, which may include cooking classes.

    Not every treatment program offers these options, but as medical research shows the effectiveness of alternative medicine in reducing stress, balancing brain chemistry, and improving overall health, many programs are adding some sessions to their regular therapy schedule.

    If you think alternative treatments to overcome substance abuse and reduce the risk of relapse might support your other efforts in detox and recovery, you can seek out a program that offers these options. Be sure to ask about integrative health and alternative medical practitioners’ credentials. There are several organizations that offer training and certification to individuals, and accreditation to institutions that provide alternative medicine, so you can know you are in good hands.

    It is important to use the standard model of addiction treatment as the foundation of recovery. But adding alternative medical approaches and complementary medicine can support the process by reducing stress and improving focus on the present.

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