Alternative Treatment Options

Not everyone subscribes to traditional and medical treatments for addictions. Individuals from different cultures and different spiritual faiths may have particular reasons to pursue alternative treatments. For some, natural and holistic approaches to health care are very important philosophically.


Biofeedback is a scientific method of treatment using monitors to provide a person physiological feedback. In the 1950s and 1960s, Neal E. Miller, an experimental psychologist, proposed that a person could be trained to control her autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system.

By watching physiological (respiration, blood pressure, temperature, etc.) feedback on the monitor, a person can adjust her thinking patterns to control her body. This was a controversial idea in the beginning, but time has demonstrated this technique to be effective in treating numerous conditions, including addictions.

Biofeedback helps treat addictions in two ways. First, it trains a person to decrease his anxiety levels. High anxiety is related to increased drug withdrawal severity and lower tolerance for withdrawal symptoms. Second, brain wave biofeedback (or neurofeedback) helps someone learn to alter his brain wave patterns.

Alpha and theta brain waves are disturbed with long-term substance addiction. Brain wave biofeedback can train a person to normalize these brain waves, resulting in prevention of relapses.

What are “yin,” “yang,” and “qi”?

Yin and yang are opposing forces in nature and must be in balance for health and well-being. Concepts associated with yin include negatives, shade, female, cold, inner, and upper. Those associated with yang include positives, bright, male, heat, outer, and lower. Qi is the vital energy flowing throughout one's body, bringing nourishment to body tissues and promoting healthy functioning of internal organs.


Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine developed thousands of years ago. Its effectiveness was recognized by the FDA in March 1996, when acupuncture was approved as a medical treatment in the United States.

Acupuncture entails the insertion of very fine needles plus the application of heat or electrical stimuli into specified acupuncture channels throughout the body. Chinese medical theory proposes that all diseases are caused by disturbances in one's yin, yang, qi (or chi), and blood. The purpose of acupuncture is to adjust and correct these forces and bring them into balance.

In treating addictions, acupuncture reportedly raises endorphin levels, helping an addict to control cravings and withdrawal symptoms such as nausea and the “shakes.” Acupuncture has been used in all stages of addiction to treat barbiturate, cocaine, nicotine, heroin, alcohol, and other addictions with no known side effects. Acupuncture advocates claim that this treatment can help a person maintain abstinence by treating the underlying stress that may have contributed to the development of the addiction.


Hypnosis involves being in a state of focused concentration and relaxation. A hypnotized person is in a trance-like state that enables her to be susceptible to therapeutic suggestions provided by the hypnotherapist. It is unknown exactly how hypnosis works. Some believe it causes the brain to release natural substances such as endorphins that affect the way one perceives symptoms such as pain. Others believe that hypnosis helps a person to unconsciously control physiological reactions such as blood pressure, heart rate, hunger, and so forth.

Hypnosis has been used in the treatment of many disorders and was recognized in 1958 by the American Medical Association as a valid medical treatment. Its primary use in treating addictions has been to help with smoking cessation, although it has also been used to treat addictions to alcohol, other drugs, and food. Some believe that hypnosis does not provide long-term addiction recovery but only temporary and superficial relief.

Many misconceptions exist pertaining to hypnosis, but the truth is that:

  • Hypnosis is not a state of sleep.

  • The hypnotized person is quite able to control his behavior during hypnosis and is very aware of his surroundings.

  • Hypnosis does not increase the accuracy of one's memory.

  • Amnesia after being hypnotized is quite rare.

  • A hypnotized person cannot be forced through suggestion to engage in any activity he feels is wrong.

It is important to know that there are no formal licensing requirements in the United States for hypnotherapists. Therefore, it is very important to research the training, experience, and professional reputation of the hypnotherapist one chooses to use for treatment.


Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils derived from plants and herbs. These oils are either inhaled or applied topically to the skin. The theory behind aromatherapy is that herbaceous essential oils contain naturally occurring chemicals that promote emotional balance, relieve stress, and calm one's spirit.

Aromatherapy is related to flower essence therapy. They differ in that flower essences are likened more to homeopathy, a dilution of the flower essence. Proponents of these types of therapies claim that traditional biomedical treatments for addictions deny the impact of the spirit and soul in healing. Aromatherapy and flower essence therapies promote a spiritual healing that enhances long-term recovery.


The placebo effect is a phenomenon whereby a “fake” treatment with an inactive substance, such as sugar or a saline solution, leads to improvement in a person's health simply because the person expects that to happen. The greater the expectation that the person will benefit from the “treatment,” the more likely that is to happen.


Homeopathy is a type of natural medicine that uses extremely diluted amounts of substances that might actually produce symptoms of the disease being treated if administered in the original concentration. Homeopathic remedies are derived from plants, minerals, and animal sources.

The basic theory of homeopathy is that “like cures like.” Homeopathy doesn't claim to treat chemical dependencies per se. However, it does purport to treat the causes and consequences of addictions, such as pain, anxiety, depression, and restlessness.

Tuberculinum, argentum, nitricum, arsenicum, and other substances are commonly used in treating the effects of addictions. As with other holistic approaches to treatment, the goal of homeopathy is to restore the body's natural balance. The effectiveness of homeopathy is controversial. Critics say homeopathy works because of a placebo effect and has no real medicinal value.

Herbal Therapy

Herbs are natural plant substances that have effects on physiological functioning. Herbology is the use of herbs to treat illness, including addictions. Herbs as adjuncts to treating addiction primarily help in detoxification and treating symptoms that make for a more comfortable withdrawal period. Strengthening the body with herbal treatments during recovery may promote prevention of relapse.

Common herbs used to detoxify and strengthen the liver include milk thistle, goldenseal, dandelion, bupleurum, skullcap, valerian, passionflower, chamomile, and ginkgo. Herbs that may strengthen the immune system include Siberian ginseng, American ginseng, and astragalus.

These are just some examples; many more herbs have been suggested as helping in the treatment of addictions. One should consult a knowledgeable herbologist to find the right combination of herbs that may be helpful in treating a person's particular symptoms.

Wisdom dictates that one should consider the following guidelines in using herbs:

  • Do not use unidentified herbs.

  • Do not use narcotic herbs or plants.

  • Use only recommended dosages of herbs.

  • Use mildly toxic herbs, such as belladonna, only under a physician's supervision.

  • Do not take combinations of herbs at the same time without professional supervision.

  • If an extreme physical reaction occurs as the result of taking herbs, contact one's physician immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.


Drug and alcohol addictions are notorious for leading to malnutrition and chemical imbalances in one's body. Nutritional therapy in the treatment of addictions is designed to restore the body's balance of amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.

The body requires proper nutrition to enable it to naturally produce neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphins. Throughout this book, it has been emphasized how important these chemicals are in the regulation of mood and behavior. The amino acid tyrosine is a precursor needed for the production of norepinephrine and the amino acid tryptophan is a precursor needed for the production of serotonin. Vitamin C is often helpful to moderate physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal and detoxification.

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, often develops in alcoholics, and amphetamine and heroin addicts and may cause depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and mood swings. This condition may be treated by a professional with nutrients such as niacin, chromium, and magnesium after detoxification. Nutrients that are beneficial in detoxifying and strengthening the liver and digestive tract include Vitamin C, selenium, zinc, chromium, and acidophilus.

Calcium, magnesium, and DL-phenylalanine relax and strengthen the nervous system. The B vitamins are often deficient in individuals who have used excessive amounts of sugar, caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs. Potassium deficiencies are also common.

A healthy, well-rounded diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, and quality proteins is always a good idea. To get started on the path to healthy nutrition when recovering from addictions, it is quite helpful to consult with a nutritionist who specializes in working with recovering addicts.

Meditation, Guided Imagery, and Yoga

Meditation is often combined with deep breathing practices and is intended to help a person quiet her mind. The purpose of meditation is to create an environment of peacefulness and quiet that allows one to get in touch with the soul and spirit. Guided imagery is different in that there is a specific focus that a person dwells on to achieve peacefulness.

Yoga is a technique that uses various physical postures and controlled breathing to increase flexibility, calm the mind, improve concentration and focus, and build patience. These therapies are very helpful adjuncts for an addict dealing with the stress of detoxification, withdrawal, and recovery.

Creative Arts Therapies

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that has been practiced in India for over 5,000 years. Ayurveda is based on the belief that all disease begins with an imbalance or stress in a person's consciousness. Lifestyle interventions and natural therapies are used to prevent and treat diseases.

What are creative arts therapies? Dance, music, drama, poetry, writing, movement, and visual arts such as painting, coloring, and ceramics are the most common examples of creative arts therapies. Many addiction treatment programs, both inpatient and outpatient, incorporate some or all of these therapies as enhancements to other forms of treatment.

Creative arts therapies serve many valuable purposes in treating addictions. First, they provide a relaxed atmosphere in which someone can reconnect with his inner self, begin to define himself in a healthier manner, and get in touch with his spirituality. Creative arts therapies allow an individual to express difficult and painful emotions in a variety of ways.

Not everyone is comfortable expressing these situations verbally. Someone who has been mired in an addictive lifestyle may be out of the habit of enjoying life, and creative arts therapies can help.

Outdoor Therapy

Outdoor therapy uses experiences in nature to assist an addict struggling to achieve a sober and healthy lifestyle. Backpacking, white-water rafting, rock climbing, and learning survival skills are coordinated to help the addict develop self-confidence, responsibility, social skills, and a healthy lifestyle of exercise and nutrition.

Trained addiction counselors accompany the group into a nature setting, providing individual and group counseling as part of the program. These programs often last three to six weeks and may be covered by insurance if they are accredited. Both adult and adolescent programs have been developed.


Animal or pet therapy is yet another alternative form of treatment for recovering addicts. Interacting with animals tends to lower one's heart rate and blood pressure, increase endorphin levels, decrease stress levels, and provide a sense of calm well-being. Equine therapy in particular is a well-established form of outdoor experiential therapy.

Self-Help Options

Many of the treatment options outlined in this chapter may be done on a self-help basis. An initial consultation with a professional to get one started may be helpful and encourage confidence that the addict can indeed do things to promote her own recovery. Certainly, educating herself by reading informative material in books, the Internet, and professional journals will prepare a person to understand and implement what is needed for recovery.

Taking the initiative to join a support group can help one to develop a sense of camaraderie in this process. Online support groups are also becoming quite popular and have the advantage of being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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