Much has been made about the organic and consequence-free nature of holistic medicine, but how does that apply to holistic drug addiction treatment? There is a lot to know about the pros and cons of complementary and alternative medicine, and how this impacts an effective substance abuse recovery program.

What is Holistic Medicine?

Holistic treatment is a form of holistic medicine, which is an expression of health care that considers every facet of the person — their physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological selves — when devising a treatment plan for an ailment. Holistic health seeks to redress any imbalances in a person’s life and sees this act as the primary way to restore well-being.

To do this, practitioners of holistic medicine might use everything from conventional forms of medicine to complementary and alternative medicines if they believe that these approaches will restore balance across a person’s physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional health. Instead of a simple pharmacy prescription, a doctor will assess diet, sleep habits, any sources of stress, and any spiritual practices, although pharmaceutical products may nonetheless play a role in treatment.

Overall, holistic medicine will seek to induce lifestyle changes rather than only addressing the primary symptoms of distress.

Holistic Treatment

It is from this that holistic drug treatment is developed. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthexplains that such treatment plans combine physical, mental and spiritual modalities into one treatment plan, as opposed to standard treatment plans where they are connected but distinct.

Holistic medicine and treatment are based on practices that are inspired by natural healing or derived from non-Western cultural traditions. These can include:

  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Yoga and other forms of meditation
  • Reiki and energy manipulation
  • Massage
  • Herbal medicines
  • Biofeedback and neurofeedback
  • Nutritional therapy

While some of these approaches have been adopted and adapted by traditional rehabilitation programs, their use in a holistic treatment context focuses on how best they can treat the whole person instead of only an isolated element of a person’s behaviors or distress.

Using Holistic Medicine in Addiction Treatment

Using some form of holistic treatment in standard drug recovery is not unusual. Pastoral Psychology wrote that 58 percent of a number of surveyed addiction treatment facilities offered meditation as part of their program. Harvard Health has written of yoga reducing stress, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. Scientific American has covered how yoga helps the development of grey matter in regions of the brain that regulate mood, which has led to many treatment centers including meditation and yoga in their practices.

Holistic drug treatment is designed to work with the entire spectrum of the causes and effects of addiction. These include:

  • Physical symptoms of substance abuse and withdrawal.
  • Emotional stress and imbalance that might precipitate substance use.
  • Neurochemical imbalances as the result of an unhealthy diet.
  • A spiritual void that the person tries to fill with drugs or alcohol.
  • Imbalances in the person’s environment and living situation.

In most cases, practitioners of holistic medicine will use conventional therapies in addition to complementary and integrative practices (hence the respective terms, complementary and integrative). Treatment facilities that offer holistic drug treatment will likely employ Reiki, acupuncture, or yoga therapies in combination with the kind of evidence-based treatment seen in more contemporary rehabilitation centers.

Does Holistic Medicine Work?

There is not much research on the effectiveness of different holistic therapies for substance abuse treatment, but there have been examinations about complementary and integrative practices in general.

“Alternative medicines are popular, but do any of them really work?” asked the Washington Post in 2013, and the answers were not encouraging. A study of the effects of ginkgo biloba, which has been claimed to treat dementia, on 2,800 patients with Alzheimer’s disease found that the patients did not experience any improvements to their memory. However, a 2010 study in the BMC Geriatrics journal noted that the effects of ginkgo biloba were “more effective than placebo,” but the actual effect size was difficult to determine when compared to other dementia drugs.

The Post also wrote about St. John’s wort, a flowering plant that has been touted as a treatment for depression and a safer alternative to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. In two years, 11 academic medical centers studied 200 people who had received either St. John’s wort or a placebo, and researchers found no difference in the reported rates of depression.

A more recent investigation found that St. John’s wort for “mild and moderate depression is superior to placebo” in improving symptoms, but it is not notably any different from standard antidepressant medication. Perhaps encouragingly, it has fewer side effects than antidepressants.

The Problem With Alternative Medicine

In 2010, Psychology Today wrote of “the problem with alternative medicine.” Even as many experts in the medical field are skeptical about the benefits of holistic drug treatment, there is nonetheless the understanding that it might make some people more receptive to the idea of addiction treatment in general. The belief that a treatment will work can be beneficial in and of itself, reports NBC News, and this is not a bad thing.

Holistic drug treatment can appeal to those who might otherwise not believe that conventional addiction programs can help them. Presenting a regimen that includes acupuncture, massages, yoga, and mindfulness could potentially make jaded and distrustful individuals more willing to try research-based treatments, such as medication-assisted treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy.

Additionally, if people are made comfortable by the use of holistic therapies, they can create a richer treatment and recovery experience for themselves. Even as the rehabilitation process throws up new challenges and obstacles, the fact that clients are given the space to work with complementary and integrative treatments that make sense to them carries significant long-term implications for their mental health.

Because of this, it is entirely possible for holistic drug treatment to be an effective complement to research-based programs. Some clients might not ascribe any importance to alternative therapies like yoga or meditation in their recovery. For many others, offering a spiritual component to treatment might be the key that unlocks their complete engagement with the treatment.

What to Know About Holistic Treatment

While holistic drug treatments may not be “evidence-based,” there is nothing to stop rehabilitation facilities from using the term, even if the facility chooses not to offer any such treatments or if the facility does not ascribe any esoteric element to their effectiveness — for example, hosting yoga classes that are divorced from the Hindu origins of the practice.

For this reason, a person looking for a holistic addiction treatment program will have to research their options thoroughly. This will entail having conversations about what therapies are offered, if the practitioners are licensed in complementary and integrative medicine, and if the facility is accredited with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This will help the person make the best determination about whether a given treatment center has the full range of treatments in which they’re looking.

Within the medical community, there is no consensus on how effective holistic drug treatments are for long-term addiction recovery. What gives the movement some weight is research, such as that published in Psychiatric Services saying that a person’s happiness with treatment is what keeps them engaged with the practices and helps them cope with relapse triggers.

Even if doctors are skeptical about the effectiveness of alternative treatments, the person’s happiness and willingness to stick with the program — and, as a net effect, boost their mental health and coping skills against addiction — make up the bigger picture. Most doctors, however, will insist that holistic therapies should not be practiced alone and instead should augment standard addiction treatment methods.

Will Insurance Pay For It?

Since many of the treatment methods used in a complementary rehabilitation program are considered alternatives to the evidence-based treatment that insurance companies prefer, only certain health insurance providers will recognize holistic addiction programs and reimburse policyholders for them.

Some forms of alternative treatments, like chiropractic and acupuncture treatments, tend to be covered by a wide (or wider) range of providers. Other methods, like biofeedback or Reiki, have much-reduced coverage or no coverage at all. Additionally, coverage might depend on the licensure of the practitioners and the accreditation of the facility, and this could differ across state lines.

For all the potential benefits of a holistic treatment program, it is essential to do the necessary research to find out how much of the program a health insurance provider will cover or if any coverage is offered at all. U.S. News & World Report explains that this entails calling providers, calling insurance companies, asking lots of questions, and getting as much information as possible before making a decision about whether to entrust recovery to a holistic drug treatment provider.

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