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Is Holistic Rehab Effective?

Holistic rehab is such a broad umbrella term that talking about whether it is effective or ineffective can be difficult. The reality is that holistic treatments are underresearched and arguably underregulated, but some have enough evidence supporting their use that holistic rehab may be beneficial, as long as more conventional techniques are also used.

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What Is Holistic Rehab?

Very broadly, holistic rehab refers to a rehab approach that has a wider focus than traditional rehab, attempting to address the needs of a person’s entire body and mind. What this generally means is combining traditional, evidence-based rehab treatments with other treatments intended to help improve a person’s physical and mental health. 

A holistic approach to rehab may combine traditional treatments with meditation, stress management, yoga, tai chi, hypnosis, and more. This type of rehab often qualifies as integrative medicine, meaning they may involve treatments outside the mainstream of conventional medicine, but that are still used in combination with more mainstream approaches.

Importantly, not all holistic treatments are equal. Medical treatments should never ignore available medical evidence, and treatments that are proven to be ineffective or dangerous should be avoided. 

Likewise, the origins of a particular treatment are generally irrelevant. A treatment being Eastern or Western is largely irrelevant. All that matters is whether it works. 

Are These Treatments Effective?

The reality is that holistic rehab, and holistic treatments in general, should be more rigorously researched. This is especially true considering the wide variety of approaches that can fall under the holistic umbrella.

The Need for Evidence

With that said, a 2011 study found some advantages to substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery services provided by the Native American Health Center to urban American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIs/ANs) that utilized traditional healing practices of those communities combined with evidence-based practices. 

Many experts remain highly critical of the modern approach to holistic treatments, even while acknowledging some of the techniques often employed in these approaches may have some, or at times significant, evidence supporting their ability to help in treatment. The primary criticism generally comes down to safety and efficacy. 

A treatment being employed should have evidence — ideally strong evidence — suggesting it can help a person in some understood way. For example, in the case of rehab treatments, a treatment should be shown to help the patient’s mental or physical health or help them resist the urge to use drugs. 

We should also understand the risks of a treatment, if any are present. The risks of some treatments aren’t always obvious, especially if they have some long-term impact on a person’s health that may only become obvious years later.

With the above in mind, discussing whether holistic rehab is effective is difficult. Careful attention must be paid to what available evidence suggests about the treatments used, and more conventional treatments that are more strongly supported by available evidence should still be used. 

In this situation, it seems likely that this type of rehab can be at least as effective and possibly more effective than a purely conventional approach. However, more research should still be conducted.

Evidence for Specific Treatments

Some treatments the American National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) broadly supports the use of at this time include the following:

  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Even then, these treatments are generally noted as possibly helping in certain scenarios based on the available research. NCCIH often admits on their site when discussing these types of treatments that we don’t fully understand why many of these treatments may help, even when research seems to show they do produce positive outcomes.

Who Might Benefit From Holistic Rehab?

If a person has found conventional rehab less effective than they hoped or already has an interest in holistic practices, such as meditation or tai chi, they may find holistic rehab to be an appealing alternative to a purely conventional approach. 

As long as the treatment provider has experts aware of what available treatment research says about different approaches, and those experts still use more conventional approaches where appropriate, holistic rehab is unlikely to do harm. Its different treatment approaches may benefit the patient and make managing the addiction easier. The key is the combination of traditional and alternative treatments.

Alternatives to Consider

The most obvious alternative to consider over holistic rehab is conventional rehab. Mainstream treatments are mainstream for a reason. Doctors recommend the treatments that have the most evidence supporting them and that they genuinely feel have the best chance of producing a positive result for the patient. 

Even if you found conventional rehab ineffective in the past, you may want to consider just using a different treatment provider and seeing if their treatment feels like a better fit for your needs. Not all treatment providers are equal in quality, and some may just have slightly different approaches that work better for different patients, even when broadly using the same mainstream treatment approaches.

If a particular therapy in holistic rehab interests you, such as meditation or yoga, you can incorporate this into your recovery plan. Many people find these positive practices add benefits to their recovery, helping them to better achieve a sense of balance and overall well-being.

Updated April 24, 2023
  1. Promoting the Holistic Approaches in Rehabilitation and Health. (December 2015). Iranian Rehabilitation Journal.
  2. Complementary, Alternative, or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name? (April 2021). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
  3. Holistic System of Care: Evidence of Effectiveness. (2011). Substance Use & Misuse.
  4. Complementary and Alternative Healthcare: Is It Evidence-based? (January 2008). International Journal of Health Sciences.
  5. Integral Healthcare: The Benefits and Challenges of Integrating Complementary and Alternative Medicine with a Conventional Healthcare Practice. (October 2009). Integrative Medicine Insights.
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