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Complementary and Integrative Health

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2023

Complementary therapies and an integrative health approach are often used to treat mental health conditions. Complementary therapies include nontraditional therapies – such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga – that are used in addition to conventional medical treatments (like prescription drugs).1,2

Integrative health is an approach that brings complementary and conventional medical therapies together in a coordinated way. This approach aims to treat the whole person, rather than specific parts of the body. It often addresses the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of health.2

Complementary versus alternative medicine

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

  • Complementary medicine: Therapies that are used in combination with conventional medicine.
  • Alternative medicine: Therapies that are used instead of conventional medicine.
  • Examples of complementary therapies

    These therapies often include mind and body practices and dietary supplements.2

    Mind and body practices

    Some mind and body practices can be performed at home on a daily basis. Some of these methods 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
    • Qigong
    • Exercise
    • Meditation or relaxation
    • Acupuncture
    • Hypnotherapy

    Dietary supplements

    Dietary supplements used in mental health treatment may include:2

    • Herbs
    • Vitamins and minerals
    • Probiotics

    The dietary supplement industry is worth 40 billion dollars, with more than 50,000 products worldwide. Research has been done on a few specific supplements, and some have shown promise for mental health. They include:1,3,4

    • 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, only as an additional form of treatment.

    However, more needs to be learned about the effects and safety of supplements, as well as their interactions with mental health medicines. Also, supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way other drugs are. This means that no outside agency confirms the ingredients or suggested dose.5

    When are these therapies used?

    There are many reasons why people choose complementary 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 does this mean for me?

    The majority of American adults self-treat with complementary or alternative therapies, with most not telling their doctor. Many of these therapies can be safely and effectively used along with standard medical approaches. But they, like all health treatment approaches, come with risk.4-6

    People often think that “natural” remedies are safe, but this is not always the case. Before beginning any type of new therapy for your physical or mental health, talk to your doctor.4-6

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