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Understanding Holistic Rehabs: Are They Right for You?

Holistic treatment attempts to address a client’s needs in an overall fashion. This involves interconnecting all important components of an individual as opposed to treating only the disease. 

Holistic treatment attempts to address the person in terms of their physical aspect (their body), spiritual aspect, and cognitive aspects (the mind, including intellect and emotions).


Holistic rehabs focus on interventions that are most often referred to as complementary or alternative types of treatment.

These treatments may not consist of formal medical practices, psychotherapy practices, or other standardized practices associated with the treatment of substance abuse. Instead, they may incorporate elements of philosophy and even religion into the treatment regime.

There are many different types of holistic interventions.

A few of the more common techniques used in holistic rehabs include:

  • Acupressure & Acupuncture
  • Types of energy work like Reiki
  • Different forms of massage
  • Neurofeedback and biofeedback techniques
  • Yoga, martial arts like tai chi, and different forms of meditation
  • Nutritional therapy and herbal medicines


The main issue with many of these treatments for substance use disorders is that they lack empirical evidence (research-based evidence) to support their use, especially use as mainstream or a first-line approach to the treatment of substance use disorders.

  • A well-cited review investigating the utility of acupuncture found that it does not matter where acupuncture needles are placed on an individual. Individuals will often report feeling better and their symptoms improve regardless of placement.
  • Another well-cited research study regarding Reiki has indicated that it has little to no treatment utility. Reiki involves laying hands on someone or massaging them and transferring energy.
  • Recent studies investigating the use of yoga treatment for substance abuse are notorious for poor quality and have significantly mixed results.
  • Nutritional therapy for the treatment of substance use disorders has no direct empirical evidence to support its effectiveness as a first-line approach for substance abuse treatment unless a person is severely malnourished. However, good nutritional practices can support empirically validated substance use disorder therapies.


It is important to understand that research studies do not suggest that holistic interventions like yoga or nutritional therapy have no benefit, but the research indicates that their effectiveness to alter issues with addictive behaviors is not consistent with the notions of effective treatment. 

They may have general benefits that can complement substance use disorder treatment, but these interventions themselves are not sufficient as the main methods of intervention for substance abuse.

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Many of these treatments are described as complementary oralternative interventions, indicating that they are not designed to be first-line approaches to treatment. Instead, they are designed to be used in addition to standard approaches to treating substance use disorders. Thus, attending a completely holistically oriented rehab program may shortchange an individual in terms of their potential recovery.

These programs are often surprisingly expensive, and insurance companies generally do not cover the costs of their interventions. For instance, acupuncture treatment for substance abuse is rarely, if ever, covered by insurance companies. It will often be very difficult to get coverage for other forms of holistic therapies, resulting in a rather large financial obligation for interventions that lack research evidence for their effectiveness.

Any facility can claim to provide holistic treatment interventions even if it provides no holistic treatments at all.

It is important to investigate the types of interventions a rehab facility utilizes. Ensure the facility provides a combination of holistic interventions and empirically based treatment interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, and medically assisted treatments.


Despite a lack of empirically based evidence for their use, holistic interventions may offer some advantages when incorporated into a treatment program that utilizes evidence-based treatment.


  • Clients in these programs enjoy many of these interventions, such as yoga, meditation, and martial arts like tai chi
  • Using many of these interventions can break the monotony of the traditional rehab schedule.
  • Including holistic treatment, interventions might attract individuals who otherwise might not be interested in conventional substance use disorder treatment and make them more willing to participate in treatment.
  • Holistic treatments can be used to strengthen the working alliance or bond between treatment providers and clients in treatment. This relationship is one of the most important factors in determining a successful treatment outcome.


Again, when an intervention is listed as being empirically validated or has empirical evidence to support its use, it means that the intervention has sufficient research evidence to suggest that it can be effective in addressing a particular disease, disorder, or situation. However, just because an intervention is an empirically validated intervention does not guarantee that the intervention will provide the type of results a person is seeking. 

Empirically based treatments offer the best possible hope and conditions to allow an individual with a certain condition or disorder to address their problem. Because these treatments have the most solid form of support for their use, they are the preferred approaches to addressing the specific condition in question.


Even if many of the holistic treatment interventions lack empirical evidence for their use in the treatment of substance use disorders, this does not mean that they do not provide benefits or will not result in improvement for some people.

For instance, many non-empirically validated treatments may produce benefits through placebo effects, which are non-specific effects that occur as a result of of intervention.

Placebo effects most often occur for conditions or situations that are highly subjective, such as the experience of pain, issues with anxiety or mood, and other subjective qualities like increasing self-confidence.

Assorted herbs, minerals, and oils on a wooden table

Many of the interventions used in holistic rehab programs, like yoga, meditation, and other techniques, do have empirically documented health benefits that can help to increase an individual’s overall sense of well-being.


There are important things to consider when looking at holistic rehab treatment facilities:

  • Does the treatment facility combine empirically validated treatment interventions with complementary and alternative treatments (holistic treatments)?
  • Are the holistic interventions the types of activities you are interested in participating in?
  • Do you have any physical restrictions that limit your ability to participate in these activities?
  • How much of the treatment costs will be covered by your insurance?
  • What do other clients say about the program?
  • What do other clients say about the program?
  • Is research-based evidence available regarding the specific types of holistic treatments the facility offers?


A holistic rehab program that is not consistent with the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s outline of effective substance use disorder treatment should be avoided.

The best program will combine the use of medical treatments (medications), substance use disorder therapy (group and individual sessions), and holistic interventions, so it is balanced and practical.


(N.D.). Principles of Holistic Medicine. American Holistic Health Association. Retrieved February 2019 from

(September 2017), The Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. National Institute of Health. Retrieved February 2019 from

(March 2009). Sham Acupuncture may be as Efficacious as True Acupuncture: A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Retrieved February 2019 from

(June 2008). Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials. International Journal of clinical Practice. Retrieved February 2019 from

(February (2014). Alternative and Complementary Therapies in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, Addictions, and Substance Use Disorders. In Eating Disorders, Addictions and Substance use Disorders. Retrieved from

(March 2015). Does Your Health Insurance Cover Alternative Medicine? U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved February 2019 from

(June 2009). The Frequency of Prayer, Meditation and Holistic Interventions in Addictions Treatment: A National Survey. Pastoral Psychology. Retrieved February 2019 from

(January 2018). Principles of Effective Treatment. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved February 2019 from

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