The American Holistic Health Association (AHHA) defines holistic medicine as a method of treatment that addresses all aspects of a person – mind, body, and soul – and that is typically used to complement alternative or traditional medical techniques. Holistic therapy can be highly beneficial in helping to care for individuals battling chronic disease, those dealing with negative side effects of medications, and for those suffering from mental health disorders, including addiction and substance use disorders.
Holistic means “whole.” The term is not usually meant to be an alternative for other medical or therapeutic methods. Instead, holistic therapy is meant to encompass multiple modalities to ensure that the entire person is treated and not just the symptoms of the disease or condition.
Mental health disorders often have both a physical and psychological component. Holistic therapy, in conjunction with other medical and mental health interventions, may help to improve symptoms and overall wellbeing for the person in need. Holistic therapy does not just work on a person’s symptoms alone; it is intended to improve an individual’s overall quality of life by helping people learn how the environment and lifestyle choices may also impact healing.
Just taking medication for a sickness may not actually treat the underlying issue; sometimes, medication merely addresses the side effects of the condition. Holistic methods can go a step further to actually impact what may have led to the health concerns in the first place and attempt to prevent them from reoccurring. Holistic care simply means that all aspects of a person are addressed in care, and in some cases, holistic care means incorporating natural or non-medicated treatment options, such as massage, acupuncture, and meditation, into the overall treatment plan.
Holistic Therapy Methods
Holistic therapy is often also called complementary, or adjunct, medicine, as the methods used are intended to work in conjunction with more traditional or Western medicinal practices. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), more than 30 percent of American adults use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Therapies under this umbrella include:
- Tai chi
- Diet therapies
- Fitness programs
- Mindfulness techniques
- Breathing techniques
- Energy healing therapies
- Chiropractic care
- Massage therapy
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the use of natural products, deep-breathing exercises, and yoga are some of the most commonly used CAM techniques in the United States, according to data collected in 2012.
Enhancing the Body through Holistic Therapy
Promoting a person’s physical health through diet and exercise can enhance the healing process. Individuals who may have regularly abused drugs or alcohol, for example, are likely to be deficient in certain nutritional necessities. Eating a well-balanced diet, rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and low in processed foods and refined sugars, can help to improve the immune system and rebalance the body and brain.
The journal Today’s Dietician reports that medical nutrition therapy (MNT), a form of holistic medicine, can reduce stress, improve healing, minimize drug or alcohol cravings, and promote healthy weight. Natural products, such as fish oil, chondroitin, glucosamine, or combination supplements, are some of the most commonly used non-mineral and non-vitamin enhancements to a person’s diet, as published by the CDC based on 2012 data. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish oil, may help to level out some of the neurotransmitters disrupted by substance abuse. Science Daily published information on a study that showed fish oil potentially protecting brains from some of the long-term damage caused by chronic alcohol abuse including dementia. Nutrition can play a vital role in holistic therapies.
Physical fitness can improve clarity of mind and provide a healthy outlet to occupy the mind during recovery from both substance abuse and mental health disorders. Fitness professionals can help a person find a program and level of exercise that is beneficial and attainable. A proper fitness regime can improve not only physical health but also mental health as well, as the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that regular and healthy amounts of exercise can help to regulate and enhance moods, reduce anxiety, and minimize stress. This makes exercise a good complement to other therapeutic techniques.
Yoga, a practice that involves physical postures, controlled breathing, visualization, and meditation, may make positive changes to the amount of gray matter in the brain, Scientific American publishes, helping to decrease stress and increase focus and relaxation. The regions of the brain that may be damaged by substance abuse, or that are not as active in someone battling a mental health disorder, may be enhanced through the regular practice of yoga. Yoga doesn’t require any special fitness equipment.
A person may be able to use some of the breathing and visualization techniques anywhere and at any time as needed to help regulate mood and lower stress levels. Practicing yoga may actually increase levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that acts as a natural tranquilizer, helping to quell anxiety and reduce the fight-or-flight stress response that may be the result of an anxiety disorder, Yoga Journal reports. Yoga is a common holistic therapy method that may be highly beneficial when used in conjunction with behavioral therapies and medications for many mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and more.
Healing the Mind and Spirit
The concept behind mindfulness and meditation is to help a person develop a keen sense of introspection and self-reflection. By using breathing and meditative techniques, a person can become more in tune with the way the body reacts to certain stimuli and learn greater self-acceptance. Mindfulness meditation includes focusing on the body, breathing techniques, and thought processes. Psychology Today states that this form of nonjudgmental holistic therapy can be useful in helping people to be less distracted, more in tune with their bodies, and better able to be present in the moment. The concept of mindfulness can help people to be more aware and accepting of themselves and may help individuals to work through complex emotional issues while being able to recognize potential stressors and circumvent them.
Another mindfulness-based meditation technique, Vipassana meditation (VM), can be beneficial as part of a comprehensive treatment program. In one study, VM was practiced by a group of incarcerated individuals. Upon their release, these participants had fewer problems with alcohol, fewer psychiatric symptoms, and functioned better in society than those who didn’t practice the Buddhist-based VM techniques, the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors published.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical technique in which a trained practitioner places long and thin needles into specific points in the body to improve the flow of energy, or chi (also called qi), Mayo Clinic explains. Many energy-flow enhancement techniques are common practices in holistic therapy, as it is believed that blockages of energy may be physical in the body, and the release or activation of these pressure points, or meridians, may promote physical and emotional healing.
Acupuncture may be useful in enhancing connective tissues, stimulating nerve cells, increasing blood flow, and reducing physical pain. Acupuncture may be used along with other medical practices to treat illness and mental health disorders.
Acupuncture may also have a place in detox. The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) advocates for a protocol that places needles into five ear points to support addiction recovery. This use of acupuncture is intended as a complementary treatment method along with therapeutic and pharmacological methods for a full continuum of care. The NADA protocol is not intended to be seen as a “cure” or to be used on its own; it simply serves as part of a larger treatment plan.
Holistic Therapies as Complementary Methods
As the name holistic implies, holistic therapy methods are meant to encompass a variety of methods to help people recover and heal as whole individuals. Enhancing a person’s physical health is directly tied to the person’s mental state of mind and spirituality. By treating the whole person at once, mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health can be improved together.
Anyone can benefit from holistic methods. Many of the techniques used can be practiced outside of treatment and in virtually any setting. For example, learning how to eat healthy and take care of the body physically is a skill that can be carried out throughout a person’s entire life. Complementary therapies, such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture, are best used in addition to behavioral therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI).
Many mental illnesses require the use of medications to manage symptoms of the disorder. While complementary therapies can also be useful, they are not meant to substitute for necessary prescriptions and traditional therapy.