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What is Holistic Addiction Treatment and Does it Work?

This entry was posted in Addiction Recovery and tagged holistic addiction treatment on September 17, 2019 by Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer.

Holistic addiction treatment treats the mind, body and soul of an individual, giving those in recovery from addiction their best chance at sustained sobriety.

Imagine for a moment this scenario: A man is having a heart attack. He calls 911 and is rushed to the emergency room, where the medical team administers life-saving measures. A day or so later, he feels much better, so he turns a deaf ear to the medical professionals who urge him to make changes to his lifestyle and to seek follow-up care upon his release. Instead, he walks out of the hospital to resume living the exact same life he was before the heart attack – smoking, overeating fatty foods, continuing unabated in his high-stress career and topping it off with a sedentary lifestyle.

What do you think his chances are of having another heart attack?

Well, this is equivalent to thinking of addiction as solely a detox issue. How much greater is the chance of relapse if you simply deal with four to five days of withdrawal symptoms, then go right back out on the street? If past trauma, underlying issues, the triggers, the lack of coping skills, etc., are not dealt with? The chance of relapse remains high.

Similarly, addiction therapy that is only centered on treating the addiction can be effective, but it’s much better to involve the whole person in their recovery.

Why not give those attempting to recover from addiction their best shot at it?

What is Holistic Addiction Treatment?

Holistic addiction treatment attends to the mind, body, and soul of the affected individual. Ideally, it includes a range of treatment modalities to achieve a healthier outcome. The premise is that physical, mental and spiritual health is intertwined, and, the healthier an individual is –  in any aspect – the more resilient he or she will be when faced with addiction triggers.

Let’s take a look at several common holistic addiction treatments and examine how they contribute to addiction recovery.


Yoga and Holistic Addiction Therapy

Yoga offers a host of physical benefits.It increases physical strength – something that can be lost during active addiction. It also promotes healthy eating habits, improves balance, flexibility, heart health, and quality of sleep. It reduces inflammation in the body and even chronic pain.

In addition to improving physical health, yoga also has a positive effect on mental health, amplifying the results of traditional group and individual therapy for those recovering from addiction.

For example, studies have shown that yoga decreases stress. How does it do this? By reducing the level of cortisol secretion.

Released by your adrenal glands, cortisol is the hormone that fuels the “fight or flight” response to a critical situation. This can be good when you are faced with a roaring tiger or oncoming traffic, as it enables quick action to avert certain danger.

However, if the release of cortisol in response to stress is ongoing or chronic, it can bring on a host of dangerous consequences, from increased blood sugar levels to a suppressed immune system and, over the long term, heart disease. Combating stress is key to maintaining good physical and mental health.

As well, research has indicated that yoga can address mental conditions such as anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This has been demonstrated in several studies where participants took part in yoga for a period of time:

Spending Time in Nature

Typically, standard addiction treatment takes place inside the four walls of a facility. No matter how well constructed or decorated, though, a building is not a substitute for spending time among nature.

Numerous studies have pointed to the benefits of enjoying the outdoors:


Therefore, holistic addiction treatment should incorporate regular excursions into the great outdoors.


Massage and Holistic Addiction Therapy

In addiction recovery, patients can experience problems with sleep as well as pain, anxiety, agitation and a drop in dopamine. Massage increases the release of feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin while at the same time decreasing cortisol, according to the American Massage Therapy Association.

One of the mechanisms by which massage works is through the stimulation of pressure receptors. This, in turn, enhances vagal activity, which lowers blood pressure and decreases the heart rate, as well as stemming the flow of stress hormones.

In a Nova Scotia Capital District Health Authority study of inpatient addiction treatment patients recovering from psychoactive drugs, those who received three days of chair massage sessions experienced a significantly greater reduction in anxiety versus the control group – and the effects lasted (at least in part) up to 24 hours after the last session. The control group were given a relaxation exercise (sitting in a quiet room, focusing on breathing).

Sometimes sleep – especially quality sleep – eludes those in early recovery. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology found that two 30-minute massage therapy sessions twice a week resulted in an increase in time spent sleeping – and less movement during that sleep as well. Correspondingly, the level of substance P (emitted when you are sleep deprived) went down.

Exercise and Addiction Treatment

On a practical level, an exercise routine can add structure to the days (or nights) and serve as a great distraction from triggers and cravings. Going to the gym to exercise with others can also potentially help build social connections.

There’s more to the story, however. Research in the field points to a protective effect garnered by exercise for those who struggle with addiction. Specifically, exercise seems to lessen the likelihood of becoming drug dependent, curtail the severity of withdrawal symptoms and reduce the chance of relapsing.


At least three studies also showed that exercising can decrease drug dependence:

How could this be? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that exercise is good for all us: It releases a flood of hormones and chemicals in the brain that deliver wide-ranging benefits.

Exercise boosts our motivation and mood with the release of serotonin and dopamine — chemicals which are normally found to be deficient in those with depression. Exercise works so well in delivering these feel-good chemicals that has been shown to be as effective as prescription antidepressants in some studies.

As well, the release of endorphins (one of the many neurotransmitters) diminishes pain, calms anxiety and fear, decreases stress, improves immune response and produces euphoric feelings.

Also released during exercise is norepinephrine. Associated with cognitive control, norepinephrine makes us alert, focused, ready to pay attention and concentrate. It has been proven to help kids with ADHD perform better on tests after just 20 minutes of exercising versus those who spend the time reading, according to a University of Illinois study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.

Finally, exercise increases the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) by up to three-fold. BDNF aids in repairing damaged nerve cells and forming new neural connections – as well as protecting against further damage – and it especially impacts memory function.

Addiction affects brain function – something that newly recovered individuals are attempting to overcome. The release of BDNF could be extremely beneficial here.

For all of these reasons, holistic addiction treatment should include exercise as a critical component of its program.


Nutrition and Holistic Addiction Treatment

Those in the throes active addiction are typically not eating a healthy diet. As the person can forget what hunger feels like, addiction can lead to severe malnutrition. Sometimes hunger can even be mistaken for a craving for a drug.

On top of this, the substances ingested can also themselves affect the body in a negative way, according to Medline Plus. It can be as simple as a decrease in immune system function – where the body can’t fight off infections as well as it used to – or as serious as damage to the body’s organs. It can also affect your mental condition and metabolism.

On the flip side, good nutrition can build the body’s immune system, boost energy levels, protect against disease, and help keep everything functioning smoothly. It is a vital part of the healing process. Good eating habits can protect against relapse.

A balanced diet with proper nutrition improves not just your health but your mood as well which can help prevent relapse. In early recovery, when new ways of living are being established, is the best time to incorporate healthy eating habits.

Music Therapy

Music has the ability to affect us on a deep level. Not surprisingly, the evidence-based field of music therapy has a kaleidoscope of benefits and positive outcomes, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

Performed by a credentialed professional, music therapy can involve a few different modes of treatment. One involves writing and/or composing music, which can facilitate communication, as sometimes people will put into a song what they are uncomfortable verbalizing. Listening to – as well as singing and moving/dancing to – music is also a part of music therapy.


What does the research say?

Various studies point to improvement in increasing motivation to participate and stick with addiction treatment, enabling those in recovery to rehabilitate physically, express feelings and receive emotional support. Music can cut straight to the emotions rather quickly, as the American Music Therapy Association tells us.

Studies have shown that music therapy can also:

There is even evidence to suggest that music therapy results in a shorter treatment period and a better response to treatment provided.

Music therapy can positively impact other medical conditions as well. Patients with dementia, stroke and other neurological disorders experienced enhanced mood, lessened depression and anxiety and achieved a better quality of life, according to a research review published in World Journal of Psychiatry in 2015. Music therapy has also been shown to be helpful with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as well as pain.


Pet Therapy

Also called animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy involves a trained animal in a guided interaction with the patient, all with the aim of aiding in recovery or ameliorating a mental health condition.

Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain and helps with PTSD as well, as well as a provide a variety of other positive mental and physical health effects as reported by UCLA Health.

Petting an animal also causes the release of serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin, all mood-enhancing hormones. Oxytocin may even help the brain heal.

Physically, it can slow the breathing and lower the blood pressure. It reduces stress, and some may find that it even reduce the dosage of medication they need.

When used in therapy, it can help to facilitate communication and break down resistance.

It’s not just good for those with addiction, according to an extensive review of studies on the subject published in scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2012.

One study revealed that of the elderly in a nursing home showed a reduction in depression as well as the feelings of loneliness. For patients with dementia, AAT provides a benefit by increasing social interaction, as well as a decrease in agitated behaviors.

Another study showed that just having friendly dogs around reduced aggressive behavior in first-graders. Other studies suggested having a dog in the classroom can promote better concentration, motivation and attention while at the same time reducing stress in students.

Other benefits have been found for children with autism, people who have experienced heart failure or have had a heart attack, and those with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

Holistic Addiction Treatment is Constantly Evolving

This is by no means an exhaustive list of holistic addiction treatments. As we find out more and more about how we can help people heal, additional treatment modalities will come into play. The point is to be open to new means and methods so that we can best serve the people in our care, and to be willing include evidence-based holistic elements into an individual’s overall addiction treatment plan as indicated.

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