Learn about the history, benefits and types of holistic and alternative therapies as well as how they’re used.

Holistic therapy and alternative therapy have become increasingly popular in mainstream medicine over the last 30 to 40 years. As demand for these services has skyrocketed, many treatment centers and facilities have begun providing holistic therapies and staff who are trained in integrative health.

What Is Holistic Therapy?

Despite its many names, integrative health, complementary medicine, alternative medicine and holistic medicine all describe similar services. So what is holistic therapy?

Holistic therapy refers to the treatment of a person’s health with regards to their mind, body, spirit and emotional state. Holistic therapy may include non-medicinal treatment methods. It often aims to deliver optimal health by using natural or culturally sanctioned remedies.

Physical, spiritual or emotional imbalances can cause disruptions in a person’s overall health. Holistic remedies seek to achieve or restore balance.

Principles of Holistic Medicine

Holistic medicine is a practice centered around the belief that wellness depends on the whole person. Practitioners of holistic medicine believe that positive changes require high self esteem and that people have the power to heal themselves.

Holistic medicine asks participants to become self-sufficient and self-reliant, but also to know when to ask for help. This help should use a team approach that involves active listening from a therapist or practitioner. Staying connected to others is important and helps create a sense of grounding. The practice also asks people to be forgiving of themselves and to not expect perfection. One of the most critical principles of holistic medicine is this: Holistic practice asks participants to live life consciously rather than on autopilot.

Complementary vs. Alternative Therapy

Though they sound interchangeable, complementary and alternative therapy describe two different approaches to treatment. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the most important distinction between complementary and alternative therapies is:

  • If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.”
  • If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.”

Truly alternative medicine and therapy is not very common, as most who utilize holistic approaches integrate them into conventional treatment. By definition, complementary and alternative therapies are different from conventional medicine. There is not robust evidence that proves their effectiveness or safety (randomized controlled clinical trials are considered the best evidence). However, many people with holistic philosophies use complementary practices along with conventional medicine to improve well-being.

Types of Complementary and Alternative Therapies

There are many different types of complementary and alternative therapies offered for a variety of conditions and purposes. Below are a few common ones.

  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture refers to the insertion of small, light needles into the skin. It is a practice that is at least 1,000 years old. The needles are inserted by licensed acupuncturists into areas of the body called meridians. According to the practice, meridians are focal points for energy within certain body regions. A similar effect can be achieved by running current through the needles (electroacupuncture) or by applying manual pressure to an area of the skin (acupressure). Western researchers believe that acupuncture works by stimulating endorphin production.
  • Massage: Massage therapy is the intentional manipulation of muscles, tissues and joints for the purpose of relieving pain or tension. It is performed in treatment settings by a certified massage therapist. It is common for people to experience both physical and emotional relief from massage therapy.
  • Chiropractic: Chiropractic therapy is designed to treat mechanical (non-infectious, non-systemic) musculoskeletal conditions, especially those of the spine. The most common condition treated by chiropractic therapy is low back pain and the primary chiropractic treatment is spinal manipulation.
  • Exercise: Many forms of exercise can serve as active therapy alternatives. One study demonstrated that individuals with moderate to high levels of regular physical activity were 56% less likely to suffer from insomnia. Other studies have shown a wide range of benefits for physical activity as exercise therapy.
  • Nutritional Therapy: Registered dietitians can assess for drug-food interactions and help people keep track of their food intake. They can help people make healthier grocery and eating selections as well as cook in a healthy and sustainable way, using good nutrition to support mental and physical health.
  • Yoga: Yoga refers to a multidisciplinary practice of mental, physical and spiritual fitness that originated in ancient India. In yoga therapy, a certified yoga therapist applies the practice and techniques of yoga to address specific health conditions and concerns. In this way, yoga therapy is different from simply attending a yoga class.
  • Meditation: Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind for the purpose of religious, spiritual or emotional enrichment. It can take place in many ways, such as in silence, with the use of chants or by using rhythmic breathing.
  • Aromatherapy: This therapy involves inhaling fragrances or essential oils from plants or massaging them into the skin. This can help improve physical or psychological well-being. Common aromatherapy applications include lavender for anxiety relief and peppermint oil as a decongestant and stimulant.
  • Naturopathy: Naturopathy is a system of practice that treats medical conditions using natural elements while avoiding medications and invasive procedures when possible.
  • Homeopathy: Homeopathy states that a substance that would cause illness in a healthy person can cause wellness in an ill person. Homeopathic practitioners believe that dilution of a substance increases its potency.
  • Reflexology: Reflexology is the application of pressure to the hands or feet to produce effects elsewhere in the body.
  • Reiki: Reiki is the practice of moving energy around the body with the use of light touch or hand motions. It is based on the ancient Chinese concept of qi — the universal life energy present in all living things — and its ability to be controlled and harnessed.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is the practice of measuring bodily functions with sensors and using the information to develop awareness and control of these functions at will. Biofeedback therapy uses these measurements along with relaxation techniques to teach the patient to regulate those bodily functions.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis (hypnotherapy when used for therapeutic purposes) is the mind’s ability to dedicate focused attention, eliminate peripheral distraction and be susceptible to suggestion. Hypnotherapy appears to be gaining a strong evidence base for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome.

Holistic and Alternative Therapies in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment

The goal of many holistic and alternative therapy treatments is to restore balance, making them well suited for addiction and mental health treatment. Addiction involves a significant imbalance of energy, resources and priorities. Holistic approaches can be helpful in restoring that balance. Even therapies that do not have a strong evidence basis can help promote wellness in an individual suffering from an addiction, so long as that therapy does not actively cause harm.

The Recovery Village utilizes many restorative treatments, including yoga, exercise therapy, nutritional therapy and meditation. Contact us today to hear about our program offerings.

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Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Kevin Wandler, MD
Kevin Wandler holds multiple positions at Advanced Recovery Systems. In addition to being the founding and chief medical director at Advanced Recovery Systems, he is also the medical director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield and at The Recovery Village Palmer Lake. Read more

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Grundmann, Oliver & Yoon, Saunjun. “Complementary and alternative medicines […]an integrative view.” World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2014. Accessed May 21, 2019.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists. “What is Yoga Therapy?” Accessed June 10, 2019.

Kraftstow, Gary. “The Distinction Between a Yoga Therapy Session and a Yoga Class.” Yoga International, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.