Holistic Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Options

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction treatment as a combination of maintenance medications and behavioral therapies, with the focus predominantly leaning toward behavioral therapy. Maintenance medications work well to help people overcome abuse of substances like opioids, but there are several substances of abuse, like cocaine and marijuana, that do not have drugs that can help an individual taper off physical dependence. For most people, detox followed by rehabilitation, which focuses on behavioral therapy, is the primary route to overcoming addiction.

NIDA also states, in their Principles of Effective Treatment, that no single treatment is appropriate for everyone. While therapy is important to guide the individual toward a better understanding of their behaviors, many people can benefit from complementary and alternative therapies alongside behavioral therapy and prescription medication. This leads to a holistic approach to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) for 2014 found that 27 million people, ages 12 and older, abused an illicit substance in the month prior to the survey, with opioids and marijuana driving the numbers up. As more people struggle with substance abuse, addiction, and co-occurring mental and addiction disorders, it is more important than ever for rehabilitation programs to offer as many options as possible to help new clients overcome drug and alcohol abuse and stay healthy.

What Is Holistic Rehabilitation?

The term holistic medicine means that practitioners approach their clients with the goal of treating the complete person – body, mind, emotions, and spirit. This helps the individual achieve optimal health because they are being completely taken care of.

Practitioners of holistic medicine believe that a person is made up of several parts – the soul, the mind, and the physical body – and when one of the components is unhealthy or out of balance, then the whole person becomes ill in some way. To bring balance and wellness back to a person, their entire person must be treated. Proponents of holistic approaches to treatment often criticize “Western” medicine for being too focused on physical treatments, especially potent prescription drugs, while failing to focus on the person’s emotional satisfaction or mental health.

When conventional medical treatment, like prescription medication or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is combined with nontraditional or non-Western approaches, this group of treatments is referred to as complementary. When non-mainstream practices are used instead of conventional medical practice or guidelines, this is referred to as alternative. Incorporating mainstream healthcare with holistic, nontraditional therapies is considered integrative. An addiction rehabilitation program that applies holistic or integrative treatment approaches to traditional rehab can be considered holistic rehabilitation.

How Does Holistic Medicine Work with Rehabilitation?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (CAM), managed through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), offers help finding holistic health practitioners, governs these organizations, and gathers statistics on how these treatments are applied. According to a study completed in 2008, about four in 10 adults, or about 38 percent of the adult population in the US, uses complementary, integrative, and/or alternative medical treatment. About one in nine, or 12 percent, of children in the US receive care through these holistic medical approaches.

Complementary and holistic approaches to treatment include non-prescription, non-vitamin and non-mineral, supplements, and mind and body practices, which use movement and mediation, breathing practices, or relaxation techniques together. In the survey, CAM therapies included:

  • Acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • Biofeedback
  • Chelation therapy
  • Chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation
  • Deep breathing
  • Dietary therapies like Atkins, Pritikin, Zone, and Vegetarian
  • Energy healing/Reiki
  • Guided imagery
  • Homeopathic treatment
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Movement therapies, including Feldenkrais, Pilates, or Trager psychophysical integration
  • Natural products like herbal supplements
  • Naturopathy
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Qigong
  • Tai chi
  • Traditional Healers like Botanica, Espiritista, and Shamanic traditions
  • Yoga

Among these, natural products were the most common, with close to 18 percent of survey participants using herbs and nonmineral supplements to treat ailments. Close to 13 percent used deep breathing, 9.4 percent used meditation, 8.6 percent saw chiropractors, 8.3 percent received massage therapy, and 6.1 percent used yoga for holistic health purposes.

The most common application for CAM therapies were pain issues: musculoskeletal problems, back and neck trouble, and joint pain. Holistic approaches were also popular among those seeking help for anxiety and insomnia. Fewer people between 2002 and 2007 used holistic remedies to treat infectious diseases like colds and flus.

The Effectiveness of Holistic Treatment to Overcome Addiction

As listed above, there are dozens of kinds of complementary, holistic treatments that can be added to behavioral therapy and prescription medication in addiction rehab programs. Few programs use every single treatment, and the focus will likely be on taking fewer substances and improving physical and mental health. Some people may choose a rehabilitation program based on a favorite kind of holistic approach to treatment, but for those who do not know much about these kinds of options, it is important to know how effective they are to treat certain kinds of addiction.

  • CAM and quitting smoking:The CAM organization gathered evidence about holistic approaches to smoking cessation and found that mind/body practices seem to work the best when a person is trying to end a nicotine addiction. Mindfulness meditation, yoga, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and other relaxation techniques may be the most effective to help people quit smoking. There’s no evidence that acupuncture helps people quit smoking long-term, although the treatment does show some short-term success. Dietary supplements also do not appear to work. This suggests a link between stress and nicotine cravings.
  • Prayer, meditation, and holistic interventions:Pastoral Psychology published a study in 2009 examining the prevalence of prayer and meditation in rehabilitation programs. Twelve-Step programs were included in the prayer category, so the study found that 91 percent of addiction treatment programs endorsed prayer as a form of therapy to overcome substance abuse. Another 58 percent used meditation in the course of addiction treatment, and 33 percent used a self-designed holistic technique, which may include nutrition, meditation, and movement programs. There were no results on how effective these options were, but the study showed that there is demand for complementary treatments among drug and alcohol treatment programs.
  • Yoga:The concept behind modern yoga practice, especially when it is applied in therapeutic scenarios, is that the gentle exercise helps to strengthen the body, focus the mind on the body’s movements, and calm the individual through meditative motion. Yoga Journal reported on several findings in an article about the practice in addiction treatment; for example, a 2007 pilot study reported that yoga increased the amount of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, which involves part of the brain targeted by benzodiazepines and alcohol, too. By increasing GABA neurotransmitters, yoga can help to reduce anxiety, insomnia, and some depression symptoms.

    Another study examining the relapse rates among incarcerated populations working to overcome alcohol use disorder or cocaine addiction found that yoga helped to reduce relapse. Inmates who struggled with alcohol addiction consumed an average of eight drinks per week after taking an vipassana yoga class while those who attended traditional 12-Step rehabilitation consumed 27 drinks per week; those struggling to overcome crack cocaine, who participated in a yoga-based meditation class, abused the drug once every 10 days on average while those who did not attend the class abused the drug once every five days on average.

  • Mindfulness:A 2009 survey of several mindfulness meditation interventions for substance abuse treatment found that most of these surveys reported at least moderate positive improvement among participants. Craving severity typically decreased in one study, and others found that participating in mindfulness meditation improved relapse rates, especially among those with co-occurring anxiety, stress, cravings, and depression. Mindfulness was found to alleviate many symptoms associated with these conditions, which improved long-term outcomes. Reducing these symptoms is known to reduce rates of relapse among most people recovering from addiction.
  • Nutritional counseling:This approach may or may not include dietary supplements of some kind, but more rehabilitation programs are now acknowledging the extent to which substance abuse harms the body. For many, a diet higher in vital nutrients will help them feel better and may reduce cravings. Nutritional counseling can address both immediate withdrawal symptoms and long-term health concerns through cooking classes, specific dietary requirements, and high-quality foods. For example, people withdrawing from opioid addiction may experience abdominal cramps and diarrhea; consuming more fiber will help to regulate their body in the short-term and helping them plan balanced meals can take stress out of a week in which access to healthy food may be limited. Alcohol abuse also notoriously reduces the amount of thiamine, or B12, that a person’s body absorbs; adjusting foods to include this vitamin will be an important part of both short-term and long-term recovery.

Questions to Ask Holistic Practitioners and Rehab Facilities

NIDA offers a list of questions to ask when seeking a facility to overcome drug addiction and substance abuse.

  1. Does the program use treatments that are backed by scientific evidence? While holistic therapies are just now receiving scientific attention and study, some of them appear to have success; a rehabilitation program may offer these to complement medical treatment.
  2. Does the program tailor treatment to each individual’s needs? This may include access to holistic therapy for some.
  3. Will treatment be adapted as the client’s needs change? For example, taking yoga classes right after detox may be too much for the person’s body, but a few weeks into treatment, physical movement and meditation may be more beneficial.
  4. Is the duration of treatment sufficient? NIDA recommends those overcoming addiction remain in treatment for 90 days. Access to holistic treatments, including meditation and nutritional counseling, can help client retention.
  5. Are there several treatment options, including peer support? Holistic approaches to treatment include the support of others going through similar recovery efforts, as this offers emotional support.

Similarly, CAM provides a list of six important things to consider when finding a holistic healthcare provider.

  1. Start by talking to a doctor, physician, nurse, or other medical provider. Accredited, evidence-based medicine combined with holistic treatments can benefit the individual while alternative medicine is not as effective.
  2. Learn as much as possible about the practitioner’s credentials, including education, training, and certifications. This is sound advice not just for holistic health, but for rehabilitation programs as well.
  3. Talk to the holistic care provider about how they will work with existing medical treatments, including therapists, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, and medication management for substance abuse.
  4. Explain all health conditions to the holistic practitioner and ask about their training in this field. For those in recovery from substance abuse, working with professionals who are trained to, or have experience working with, people in recovery can be very beneficial.
  5. Health insurance may not cover holistic treatments, just like it may not cover the full cost of rehabilitation programs. Contact the insurance company to discuss these treatments and also ask about sliding scale or payment plan options.
  6. Keep all healthcare providers informed about all treatments. This helps to reduce the risk of treatments overlapping each other, working against each other, or causing harmful side effects.


Further Reading