Complementary and alternative therapies are increasingly being used for the treatment of mental health concerns, in addition to their use for physical ailments.1 Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.”
While they are often discussed together, there is one important distinction between complementary and alternative therapies. Complementary therapies are used in combination with traditional health practices, while alternative therapies are used instead of traditional health practices. Another term that is frequently used is integrative medicine, which involves bringing together conventional and complementary approaches.2
Categories of complementary and alternative therapies
The NIH has classified the different types of CAM therapies into five categories:
Alternative whole medical systems, which includes traditional Chinese, homeopathic, naturopathic, and Aryuvedic medicine
Mind-body interventions, such as meditation, prayer, and art, music, and dance therapy
Biologically based therapies, including herbs, foods, vitamins, and other dietary supplements
Body-based and hands-on methods, such as chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation
Energy therapies, like Reiki, therapeutic touch, tai chi, qi gong, and electromagnetic field exposure3
Reasons for using CAM
There are many reasons why individuals choose to use complementary and/or alternative therapies for their mental health, including:
Easier access (including lower cost) to complementary or alternative therapies
Individual philosophical approaches towards health and life
Dissatisfaction with conventional health services
Unsatisfactory relief of symptoms with conventional therapies
Intolerable side effects with conventional therapies4,5
Researchers estimate that up to two-thirds of people with mood disorders like depression do not achieve remission with conventional medications like antidepressants, leading many people to explore integrative approaches to mental health. In addition, many experts believe that certain integrative treatments should be considered for all people with depression, including exercise, sleep hygiene, stress management, light therapy, and nutrition.4
Herbal and dietary supplements for mental health
Dietary supplements or “natural products” are the most commonly used CAM therapy,3 and several have been studied in clinical trials for their effectiveness in treating mood disorders. St. John’s wort has been shown through clinical research to be effective in treating mild to moderate depression.1 In clinical trials, St. John’s wort was superior to placebo and comparable to tricyclic antidepressants and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common antidepressant). St. John’s wort has fewer side effects than prescription antidepressants, although it can cause some interactions when used with other medications.4
Another supplement that has shown some results in depression is SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine). SAMe is a compound that occurs naturally in the body. In clinical trials, supplements of SAMe performed better than placebo and matched the performance of tricyclic antidepressants.4
In anxiety, kava has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms, although there is some concern of liver toxicity with kava. (As with all dietary supplements, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about everything you are taking, as some supplements may have negative or serious interactions with prescription or over-the-counter medications.)1
Acupuncture for mental health
Acupuncture is a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and involves the use of thin needles placed in specific areas on the body to balance the energy in the body, known as chi or qi. Acupuncture can have positive effects on many aspects of wellbeing, such as mood, anxiety, pain, and sleep symptoms. Not everyone experiences a benefit with acupuncture, but it has been shown to be safe, well-tolerated, and effective for depression.4
Stress management for mental health
Chronic stress can contribute to mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and stress management approaches can reduce the negative effects of stress and improve overall wellbeing. Stress reduction techniques include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, biofeedback, gentle movements like tai chi or qi gong, prayer, spending time in nature, or listening to music.4
Considering complementary and alternative therapies for mental health
While there is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to mental health, CAM therapies provide another option for people who are wanting relief from symptoms and an increase in wellbeing. Many CAM therapies can be safely and effectively integrated with traditional medical approaches, however, all therapies and potential therapies should be discussed with a healthcare professional.
Van der Watt G, Laugharne J, Janca A. Complementary and alternative medicine in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Curr Opin Psych. 2008 Jan;21(1):37-42. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e3282f2d814.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/integrative-health. Accessed 9-18-17.
Ventola CL. Current Issues Regarding Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in the United States: Part 1: The Widespread Use of CAM and the Need for Better-Informed Health Care Professionals to Provide Patient Counseling. Pharmacy and Therapeutics. 2010;35(8):461-468.
Vora, E., Aloysi, A. and Zhuk, R. (2016) Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Psychiatry, in Mount Sinai Expert Guides: Psychiatry (eds A. B. Simon, A. S. New and W. K. Goodman), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118654231.ch46.
Wu P, Fuller C, et al. Use of complementary and alternative medicine among women with depression: results of a national survey. Psychiatric Services. 2007 Mar;58(3):349-356.