Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2022 | Last updated: April 2022

Complementary and alternative therapies are often used to treat mental health challenges. There are many reasons why people choose alternative therapies for their mental health, including:1

  • Easier access since no prescription is needed
  • Possibly lower cost
  • Personal views on health and life
  • Not satisfied with standard health services
  • Negative side effects from standard medical therapies

What are these therapies called?

The terms “complementary” and “alternative” are often used to mean the same thing. However, these terms mean 2 different things:2

  • Complementary therapies are used in combination with standard health practices.
  • Alternative therapies are used instead of standard health practices.

Other terms you may hear include:

  • Functional medicine
  • Integrative medicine

Functional medicine

Functional medicine is an approach to medicine that focuses on why illnesses occur. Doctors that practice functional medicine look at the root cause of disease, rather than focusing on symptoms.2

Integrative medicine

Integrative medicine brings together standard health practices and complementary approaches. This approach focuses on health and healing instead of disease and treatment.2

Complementary health approaches

These health approaches include natural products, mind and body practices, and other health practices.2

Natural products

These are often called dietary supplements and may include:2

  • Herbs
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Probiotics

Natural products also include things such as:

  • Essential oils
  • Lotions and creams
  • Other body care products

Mind and body practices

Some mind and body practices can be performed at home on a daily basis. Some of these procedures or techniques are performed by trained practitioners. New options for online or app-based products are also available. Some of these practices include:2

  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Meditation or relaxation
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnotherapy

Herbal and dietary supplements

The dietary supplement industry is worth $40 billion dollars, with more than 50,000 products worldwide. Research has been done on a few of these supplements. However, more needs to be learned about their effects, safety, and interactions with mental health medicines.3

Some herbs and supplements may cause serious interactions and side effects. It is important to talk to your doctor before starting any herb or supplement. Make sure and tell your doctor about herbs or supplements you are taking.2,4,5

Research has been promising on the benefits of some herbs and supplements for mental health, including:6,7

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in foods such as fish, nuts, and seeds, these may have health benefits for the brain. More research is needed in order to prove how these may or may not help with mental health.
  • Folate: Also called folic acid or vitamin B9, folate is needed for the body to perform different jobs. The FDA has approved only 1 form of folate—Deplin (l-methylfolate)—for use in the treatment of depression and schizophrenia. Deplin has not been approved as a primary treatment, but rather as an additional form of treatment.

What does this mean for me?

The majority of American adults self-treat with complementary or alternative therapies, with most not telling their doctor. Many therapies can be safely and effectively used with standard medical approaches. Complementary and alternative therapies, like all others, come with risk. People often think that “natural” remedies or herbs are safe, but this is not always the case. All options should be discussed with your doctor.2-6

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