13 Valuable Holistic Treatments for Addiction - Page 2

By Jeanene Swanson 09/08/14

The Fix lists some holistic alternatives that are playing increasingly important roles in addiction treatment.

Holistic Addiction Treatment

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Hallucinogenic Substances

Nearly 40 years after recreational use of hallucinogens was made a crime, addiction research is showing that three of these drugs—namely LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA—can be useful in treating substance use disorders. Moreover, the South American plant medicine ayahuasca is gaining popularity among some therapists even while rarely being used in test conditions. (Because many clinics outside the U.S are treating addicts with another plant medicine, ibogaine, it is reviewed here separately.)  

A dozen or more studies of LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy) are ongoing in the U.S., Britain, Israel and Switzerland; a handful of others have recently concluded. Most of the patients involved in these studies are veterans with PTSD, the terminally ill who are afraid of death, people with treatment-resistant depression, and alcoholics.

Psychedelics-based approaches are reported to improve mood and help people open up and change their self-limiting and negative beliefs along with their moral values. In part, the sense of a supportive "divine order" that can be experienced using these substances under properly-guided “journeys” can alter reactivity and increase an individual’s sense of safety in the world. People with substance use disorders and their counselors report reduced cravings and an increased motivation to stay clean.

On a neurobiological level, because many hallucinogens have chemical structures similar to those of natural neurotransmitters, these drugs act on brain cell receptors that are thought to play a role in addictive behavior. Brain imaging techniques have shown a reduction in blood flow in areas involved in processing emotions and higher thinking—it is thought that hallucinogens “open the mind” by reducing anxiety and depression, as well as dampening down ruminative and self-focused thought patterns. Drawbacks to experimenting with these drugs to treat addiction disorders can include bad trips and flashbacks.


While acupuncture as a helpful treatment for addiction has less of an evidence base than meditation (though a strong one for dealing with pain), it has grown in popularity for treating addiction and related emotional imbalances such as anxiety and depression. In the 1970s, Michael Smith of New York’s Lincoln Hospital developed a five-point acupuncture protocol that focused on the ear alone. Called the Acu-detox method, or National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol, the auricular acupuncture treatment has been shown to be primarily effective in treating cravings during opiate withdrawal.

“Anecdotal evidence abounds that acupuncture can make detoxification less painful, help control cravings, and decrease anxiety, among other benefits,” addiction specialist David Sack says. “The studies that exist have been hampered by poor controls and small study sizes.” Sacks notes that a 2003 WHO report showed a therapeutic effect of acupuncture on alcohol dependence and detoxification, and on opium, heroin, cocaine, and tobacco dependence, and called for further studies to prove clinical efficacy.

As with all forms of acupuncture, the technique stimulates specific acu-points on the body. The best-known method is penetration by thin needles; others include application of heat, pressure, or laser light and may be accompanied by cupping therapy. A form of complementary and alternative medicine in the West, acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In TCM ideology, stimulating specific acupuncture points corrects imbalances in the flow of a body energy form called “qi” through channels known as meridians.

Among several theories about how acupuncture works are these: it modulates neurotransmitters; it stimulates the endocrine system, resulting in relaxation; it stimulates circulation and tends to reduce inflammation. As a whole, a TCM program stimulates the body to correct itself through restoring balance in what TCM considers to be the five body systems: heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and digestion. Advocates argue it gives recovering addicts the ability to process material that may be at the root of their addictions.

Claudia Voyles, an acupuncturist and clinical supervisor at AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine in Austin, Tx., says that while addiction is not an actual diagnosis in TCM, acupuncture can help addicts. “Sometimes I am supporting the withdrawal process, minimizing the symptoms and craving," she says. "Sometimes we are working on the underlying complaints [or] triggers—stress, anxiety, depression, history of trauma [or] abuse. People in recovery…often have chronic pain or other imbalances that will undermine their recovery [or] quality of life if not addressed.” 

According to Margot Chambers, a California state-licensed TCM doctor and head of a rehab facility pain management program, acupuncture is only effective as part of a comprehensive treatment program. In fact, she says, TCM is actually a five-pronged treatment system that incorporates nutrition, herbs, acupuncture, a type of massage called Tui na, and a type of meditation called qigong. Chambers believes that making lifestyle changes is the most important in effecting healing, and number one on her list is nutrition. “I can put needles in someone all day long, but [not] if you keep eating fast food,” she says. “The treatment will last, but it won’t last as long as it should if it’s interrupted by toxins.”

Animal Contact / Pet Therapy

As an assist to more traditional types of addiction treatment, animal/pet therapy works by helping recovering addicts focus outside of themselves in the care of someone else—or “something” else, in this case. Its advocates in the rehab community believe that by caring for a dependent creature, a person in recovery discovers the nurturing side of himself and thereby cultivates a deeper sense of what it means to be nurtured.

Evidence suggests there are are many benefits to spending quality time with pets or companion animals. These include lower stress levels, a reduction in anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and heart rate, higher self-esteem, and even a reduction in the severity of painful physical symptoms of illness.

Equine therapy, for instance, originally started as a program that used riding horses as a therapy for individuals with physical disabilities. Since then, many recovering addicts (and their therapists) claim to have benefited from interactions and bonding with horses—which appears to build confidence, trust, patience and self-esteem. Horses are naturally responsive and have some similar interactive communication styles to humans, such as nuzzling.

Gardening / Horticulture Therapy

Technically known as horticulture therapy (HT), gardening is used to promote well-being. The therapy is now utilized in a wide range of treatment settings including prisons, psychiatric hospitals, mental health programs and addiction rehab. By offering a recovering substance abuser a caregiving role, gardening provides a sense of purpose, similar to animal therapy.

Evidence shows that gardening can have a positive effect on a range of problems, including reducing aggression, lowering cortisol levels, improving self-esteem, helping people to feel less anxious, reducing the severity of depression, and improving concentration in people who are depressed.

Virtual Reality Therapy

Virtual reality therapy, or VRT (sometimes called “immersive multimedia”), is a form of exposure therapy that uses virtual reality technology to simulate real-life experiences. Pilots, for instance, are trained with it, and for some time it has been used to treat patients with anxiety disorders and phobias, specifically as a treatment for PTSD. Now, newer applications are allowing it to be used for treating addiction and other behavioral problems, in part because of its ability to generate virtual sensory experience for all five senses.

At the University of Houston, for example, researchers are building realistic virtual worlds that re-create triggers, as a way to help participating addicts beat cravings for nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and heroin. The treatment can be likened to exposure therapy, in which addicts are deliberately triggered while being guided by a counselor. VRT is considered by its adherents, with some supporting evidence—to be more effective than encouraging addicts to avoid the people, places, or things that can trigger a desire to use.

Art-Based Therapy 

Considered an activity-based therapy like animal therapy and gardening, this can include art or music therapy or certain construction projects. In all instances, this type of treatment encourages the addict to get outside herself through the process of nurturing or creating. It can build self-esteem and self-confidence. Studies have shown that art therapy can reduce relapse rates for several psychiatric disorders while music therapy can lower depression, stress, anxiety, and anger in patients attending rehab for substance abuse. 

Jeanene Swanson is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the science of nicotine addictionerasing your traumas and alcoholism and genetics.

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Jeanene Swanson is a science journalist who specializes in mental health and addiction. As a science writer with a background in biotechnology, she enjoys turning complex subjects into stories that everyone can understand—and apply to their lives. You can find Jeanene on Linkedin.