The term holistic refers to the holism philosophy, which asserts that parts of any whole are in intimate connection. As such, holistic medicine is characterized by the treatment of the whole person.
The term holistic refers to the holism philosophy, which asserts that parts of any whole are in intimate connection that cannot be understood without reference to the whole.1 The fundamental concept of holism is that the whole is made up of interdependent parts.2 Therefore, holistic medicine is characterized by the treatment of the whole person, considering physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, environmental, and social aspects of well-being.3 It also considers how the person interacts with their environment.4
In practice, holistic medicine uses a three-pronged approach:
According to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, the principles of holistic treatment are:
Holistic treatment aims to treat the whole person and improve overall wellbeing (rather than a single symptom or behavior). In addition, holistic treatment has no religious affiliation.
The idea of taking a holistic approach to medicine is far from a new idea. Many holistic medicine practices originated in ancient healing systems all over the world. For instance, many Ayurvedic medicine practices predate written records – meaning they are more than 3,000 years old!6
Similarly, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has evolved over thousands of years. Other practices originated from African medicine, shamanism, and Native American culture. Still, other forms of holistic medicine, like homeopathy and naturopathy, emerged out of European practices that began in the late eighteenth century.7
Over time, holistic medicine practices have fallen in and out of popularity. For instance, in the late nineteenth century, technical developments allowed the visualization of bacteria and gave rise to the germ theory of disease, which became the means for constructing new conceptions of disease and health.8 Before that, two notions constituted the holistic view of health. One is that the person was a unified whole, and two, that illness and disease were the product of imbalances in the general harmony between the individual and the world.
It was not until the 1970s that a resurgence occurred (in the U.S.). One 1980 article from the International Journal of Health Services states: “Holistic medicine is an up-and-coming social movement gaining wide popular support, and as such, demands attention from all health workers and policy analysts.”8
Today, a wide range of holistic practices and therapies are available, including:9
The practice of holistic medicine integrates conventional and alternative therapies to prevent and treat disease, and most importantly, to promote optimal health. It includes analysis of physical, nutritional, environmental, emotional, spiritual, and lifestyle elements.10
Holistic drug rehabilitation uses natural, integrated, multidisciplinary techniques that focus on healing the mind, body, and spirit to support each individual’s recovery needs.11
Traditional or conventional addiction treatment programs primarily consist of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches and 12-Step programs, which may vary in effectiveness between individuals.12 After all, one type of treatment rarely suits everyone’s needs – what may work for one individual may not work for another.
More research is needed for better statistics on the effectiveness of holistic medicine in general, let alone in rehab/recovery. For instance, although there are thousands of studies on various dietary supplements, including botanicals, animal-derived extracts, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, proteins, and prebiotics, no single supplement has been proven effective.13
However, holistic healing is increasingly common. A 2017 survey by the NIH found that the number of adults who used meditation in the past 12 months increased more than threefold, from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017.14 Similar trends were observed for use of yoga and chiropractors.
Promisingly, a small 2018 study on the feasibility and effectiveness of a twelve-week yoga intervention as an adjunctive treatment to medication-assisted treatment for individuals with opioid use disorder found that those who participated in yoga classes experienced a lower level of perceived stress at the 90-day mark compared to those who did not.15
It is important to note that holistic medicine can be used in combination with conventional medicine. Holistic medicine is based on the integration of multiple types of medicine (e.g., allopathic, osteopathic, naturopathic, and more), while conventional medicine is based solely on the allopathic type.16
Holistic medicine evaluates the whole person through holistic medical history in addition to physical exams and lab data. Holistic medicine is also often less expensive, invasive, and dangerous than conventional medicine. Thus, by concentrating on individuals and tailoring therapies to individual needs and desires, holistic medicine has the potential to achieve a greater degree of patient satisfaction than conventional medicine alone.
For treatment of mental or substance use disorders, exercise is theorized to provide social and psychological benefits by increasing socialization, improving emotional regulation and stress management, and decreasing sensitivity to anxiety.
Although evidence of exercise’s effect on mental and substance use disorders is inconclusive, the benefits of routine physical exercise for overall health, wellness, and quality of life are well documented. At the least, exercise can be a helpful adjunct therapy to behavioral health treatment, and clients may benefit from participation in a movement-based complementary practice such as yoga or Pilates.
According to the American Holistic Health Association, the majority of illnesses are a result of lifestyle choices. The risks of consuming drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and unprotected sexual activity are widely recognized, but the impact of excesses in things like sugar, caffeine, and negative attitudes is less so.
As a form of exercise, yoga provides the same benefits as exercise. Yoga consists of breathing exercises, different postures, and meditation. Consistent practice can improve the body’s physical wellbeing by increasing flexibility, strength, mobility, and balance, as well as improve mind and spirit by releasing stress, increasing focus, and grounding oneself in the present.17
Research to date suggests that mindfulness-based interventions may help significantly reduce the consumption of several substances (e.g., alcohol, cigarettes, opiates). Such interventions also are used as adjunct therapy aimed at improving health-related quality of life in individuals with substance use disorders interested in self-management strategies.18
Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points on the body, by insertion of very fine, sterile, stainless-steel needles to elicit a predictable physiological response. This stimulus may also be administered to the points using mild electrical stimulation (with or without needles), pressure techniques with the hands (acupressure), or the application of heat by various methods.19
Acupuncture may alleviate physical withdrawal symptoms, aid relaxation, and suppress cravings for substances of abuse.
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) (a certification organization) has certified 19,988 acupuncturists, and twenty-five U.S. states require NCCAOM certification as a prerequisite for state licensure.20
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive, non-medication-based treatment that can help individuals train their brains to manage neurological issues, such as a compulsion to do drugs, caused by structural damage to the brain.
Also known as electroencephalogram biofeedback, neurofeedback begins with a measure of the electrical activity of the brain. Abnormal brain activity can be seen in the “brain maps” produced by computer software. A neurofeedback specialist can then create a targeted training program to remedy inactivity or level out under- or overactivity.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) Wellbeing Initiative takes a holistic approach to achieve health in many dimensions of life.21 By creating balance, embracing support from others, and valuing routines and habits, the wellbeing of the whole person can be improved. Learning life skills in various areas in various dimensions is key to prevent relapse.
Holistic medicine stresses responsibility for self-healing through observation of traditional, common-sense practices, including exercise, healthful diet, adequate sleep, good air, moderation in personal habits, and so on. Traditional addiction treatment advises those recovering from substance abuse disorders to do the same thing, so there is no conflict between the two types of treatment.
For instance, participants in a recent study on a mind-body intervention called Mindful Awareness in Body-oriented Therapy (MABT) as an adjunct to office-based medication (buprenorphine) for individuals with opioid use disorder reported that although they felt the intervention helped to support their treatment, MABT was likely best for patients who were already stable on their medication dose.22
In this sense, holistic and traditional forms of addiction treatment complement each other.23
Detox is a prerequisite of addiction treatment. Detox can take place in a hospital, in a specialized inpatient detoxification unit, or on an outpatient basis with close medical supervision.24 Detox may be achieved after only a few days, or it may take longer than a week.
In many cases, medication is administered as withdrawal management during detox. Depending on the drug of abuse and the severity of dependence on the drug, withdrawal symptoms vary but often include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, and insomnia.25 Medications may be given to relieve these symptoms. It is very important to obtain treatment after detox.
Behavioral therapies are typical during addiction treatment. This type of therapy helps recovering individuals modify their attitudes and behaviors related to drug use, learn healthy life skills, and carry on with other forms of treatment (e.g., medication).
Inpatient care, or residential treatment, is best for those with more severe problems (e.g., co-occurring disorders like depression or anxiety) and who lack stable living or work conditions and limited or no family support in treatment. Facilities offering inpatient care have twenty-four-hour structured and intensive care, including medical services and safe housing. There are usually rules and expectations for both residents and their families. Therapeutic communities, shorter-term residential treatment, and recovery housing are all examples of inpatient care.
Outpatient care is best for those who can live independently and have transportation reliable enough to attend regular appointments and counseling sessions. Most outpatient care programs involve behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, multidimensional family therapy, motivational interviewing, and motivational incentives, in either individual or group settings, in varying degrees of frequency.
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