1 in every 7 Americans will struggle with a substance at some point in their lives. Of those, only 10% will seek treatment for their addiction.

Detoxification is the first step in most addiction treatment programs. After that, there’s a wide range of options to choose from. Holistic addiction treatment is an increasingly popular choice for people seeking help.

But does holistic addiction treatment work? And what does it entail?

We’ll answer all of these questions below. Keep reading to find out if holistic drug rehab is an option for you or your loved one.

Definitions of Addiction

There are two levels of addiction.

Substance misuse is when an individual uses a substance in a way that causes harm to themselves or to other people in their life. This can involve the manner in which they use the substance and the situations in which they use it, as well as the amount and frequency of use.

A substance use disorder is more involved than substance misuse. When the use of a substance leads to clinical and functional impairment, it becomes a substance use disorder. This involves health problems, inability to uphold work and family responsibilities, disability, etc.

To diagnose substance abuse disorders, the following factors are considered:

  • Evidence of social impairment
  • Evidence of impaired control
  • Risky behaviors
  • Pharmacological criteria

The bottom line is, if you or a loved one cannot control your use of a substance, you may require outside support to get your life back on track.

How Addiction Works

When an individual is misusing or abusing a substance, it actually changes the physical and chemical structures in the brain. In particular, the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex are affected. Together, these changes drive addiction and make it difficult to stop.

But why?

Addictive or habit-forming substances make your body crave more drugs. They do this by creating cues, habits, and triggers that convince your brain that you need more.

In addition, the more drugs you take, the more your body relies on it to experience pleasure. Without the drug, your body feels stress and learns that to relive that stress, it needs more drugs.

Lastly, addictive substances affect the are of your brain responsible for self-control. As such, your brain loses its ability for impulse control as well as smart decision making.

Because of all these physical effects, your body becomes reliant upon the drugs. The more drugs you take, the harder it is to stop.

And beyond the physical and chemical changes that drugs create, many addiction and substance abuse problems carry an increased likelihood of developing a behavioral problem. People with substance abuse problems are more likely to have mental health conditions and other pre-existing problems. These underlying issues make recovery even more difficult.

When is it a Problem?

So what makes an addiction an addiction?

At it’s most basic level, an addiction is a problem because the user continues to use the substance despite the negative consequences of their addictive behaviors.

These consequences include negative impacts on relationships as well as the inability to maintain responsibilities for work, school, or family life.

Another characteristic of addiction is that the user continues to use despite the physical and psychological harm it’s causing. Even when negative health issues arise, they continue to use their substance of choice.

What is Holistic Addiction Treatment?

The traditional method for addiction treatment uses the 12-steps of alcoholics anonymous. These 12 guiding principles address addiction, compulsions, and the power of one addict helping another to recover.

Increasingly, rehabs are offering an alternative solution to complement either the 12-steps or other treatment courses they use. One of these alternatives is holistic addiction treatment. This can include everything from yoga to art therapy.

The holistic approach to addiction treatment looks at the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of addiction. They believe that a person’s life and experience is a large part of their addiction and ought to be addressed as part of treatment. As such, holistic treatment addresses the physical addiction but also show people how different practices can help them cope with their issues.

Many holistic addiction treatments are based on cultural traditions. Others help people connect with nature. Just some of these alternative therapies include:

  • Massage
  • Reiki (and energy work in general)
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Herbal medicines
  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Biofeedback
  • Neurofeedback
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Chiropractic

Generally, these are used to complement medical and clinical treatments rather than replace them.

Examples of Holistic Addiction Treatment

Holistic addiction treatment looks at the entirety of a person’s life. They go beyond symptoms and behaviors to treat the person as a whole.

Typically, holistic drug rehab involves the following:

  1. Help with the physical symptoms of addiction and withdrawal
  2. Identify the emotional imbalance that led to substance abuse in the first place
  3. Create a spiritual grounding that outweighs the physical bliss found in drugs
  4. Address eating habits that lead to neurochemical imbalances
  5. Identify environmental factors and contaminants that contribute to the addiction

Below, we’ve identified five of the most popular holistic addiction treatments available. We also explain how these work to treat addiction.

Massage Therapy

When people are going through withdrawal, massage therapy is particularly helpful.

It’s been shown to put people in a better mood and increase the “happy” chemicals in the brain (serotonin and dopamine). It also contributes to relaxation and reduces stress levels. Massage also helps relieve pain and insomnia.

For people in early recovery, increased happy chemicals combat low-energy levels and feelings of depression/anxiety. And of course, relaxation and pain-relief address the physical symptoms of withdrawal.


Yoga involves aligning breath with stretching exercises and other postures. It’s a mind-body practice that has physical as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits.

Yoga has been shown to reduce stress levels. It can even reduce symptoms of pain caused by stress as well as anxiety and/or depression.

But how does this help addicts?

Addiction is sometimes a direct result of stress. Drugs can help a person cope with the stresses of life. It offers a way to self-medicate apart from substances and helps them to escape the pressures of everyday life.

So with reduced stress levels, the compulsion to use drugs is lessened.


Like yoga, meditation involves mindfulness. This practice involves maintaining an in-the-moment awareness of thoughts, sensations, feelings, and environment. It means experiencing these moments with a passive and non-judgemental mind.

Also like yoga, meditation reduces stress, meaning that it provides a tool for controlling stress and, therefore, the impulse to use drugs as a form of self-medication.

Beyond its effect on stress, mediation can make your brain more healthy. When your brain is healing from damage caused by drugs, this is an invaluable asset.

Equine Therapy

Equine therapy connects people with emotions they didn’t know were there. This is because horses are able to sense deep human emotions such as fear, anger, and mistrust. This helps the individual recognize and deal with the emotions that underlie their addictions.

For many people in early recovery, equine therapy bridges the gap between the individual and their feelings. Discovering those emotions and working through them is a key aspect of addiction treatment.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is another form of holistic addiction treatment that allows the individual to face the underlying issues that contribute to their addiction. Art therapy can also:

  • Make people more open to receiving treatment
  • Make people aware of the extent of their addiction
  • Provide a means for expressing emotions in a healthy way
  • Facilitate communication with peers and open the door for relational connections
  • Decrease feelings of shame

Taken together, these benefits motivate a person to change. It allows them to explore their inner selves and gives them an outlet for expressing their feelings as part of their journey to recovery.

Why Holistic Addiction Treatment?

For some people, the 12-step program doesn’t work. Combining the 12-steps with a holistic treatment can increase the individual’s chances of success. Or, for those completely opposed to the 12-steps, holistic addiction treatment offers an alternative.

Holistic addiction treatment focuses on the connection between a person’s mind, body, and spirit. Addiction itself involves all three of these aspects.

By strengthening these connections in healthy ways, the need to self-medicate is greatly reduced. After holistic addiction treatment, the individual has the tools and practices they need to stay strong in their recovery.

Things to Consider

When choosing holistic addiction treatment programs, keep these items in mind.

  1. The term “holistic” is not regulated in any way. This means that any facility can claim they use “holistic” approaches without actually doing so. You have to do your research and ask the right questions. Find out what therapies are offered, which professionals provide these therapies, what their qualifications are, and ask about any success stories they can share.
  2. Ensure that the facility you choose offers holistic therapy along with medical or clinical evidence-based treatments. Holistic addiction treatment is a compliment to conventional therapies, not a replacement.
  3. Remember that everyone has different experiences and needs. A treatment that works for one person might not work for another. Figure out what you need from your treatment and choose what works best for your life. Remain open to new experiences and how they can positively impact your life.

You should prepare yourself to experience bigger changes than simply getting off drugs or alcohol. Because it treats the entire person, holistic treatment usually involves a lot more than detox and therapy.

Your treatment facility will likely offer other life skills workshops and guidance. This involves nutrition, exercise, spirituality, and team activities. They might also teach things like resume writing, community building, and life skills such as professional communication.

Together, these activities treat the addiction and give the individual the best chance of success outside of rehabilitation.

Critiques of Holistic Treatment

Critics of holistic addiction treatment argue that there’s no research to back up its success. In truth, there’s been very little research conducted on the effectiveness of holistic treatment for addiction. The research that has been done is inconclusive and provides little insight into the efficacy of holistic approaches to drug and alcohol addiction.

However, there’s plenty of research on practices like yoga and meditation. This research provides evidence that these practices are beneficial for both the mind and body of healthy individuals. While there’s little research connecting these benefits directly to addiction and recovery, we can assume that addicts experience similar benefits to healthy individuals.

Additionally, holistic addiction treatment offers an alternative for people who aren’t interested in conventional treatments. This gives them an alternative they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, meaning that someone who might not seek traditional treatment now has an option for getting better.

Importantly, a big part of successful recovery is satisfaction with treatment. For those who are attracted to alternative treatments, they’ll experience more satisfaction with this sort of approach. Because they’re receptive to the approach, the chance of successfully recovering is higher.


It’s worth mentioning that a holistic drug rehab still involves detoxification. This is likely the most important part of recovery because it cleanses the body of the substance(s) being misused or abused. It’s the most necessary step in getting and staying sober.

For this reason, all holistic treatment programs offer detox prior to starting treatment. When detox is complete, then the treatment program begins. It’s not until the body has withdrawn from the drug that specialists can help identify the reasons for addiction and begin a course of recovery.

Some drugs are uncomfortable to detox from. In fact, some are downright dangerous. If you’re detoxing from one of the following, you might require medically-assisted detox:

Because of the nature of these drugs, medications may also be prescribed. How your detox is managed depends on how long you’ve been addicted, the substance you’re addicted to, as well as your own individual health and well-being.

Do You Need Professional Help?

Addiction is a complicated phenomenon. It involves physical changes in the brain as well as underlying behavioral and emotional issues. It’s a disorder that results from a disconnect between a person’s mind, body, and spirit.

Holistic addiction treatment recognizes that addiction involves the entire individual. It has to do with their experiences and their life as a whole. That’s why it doesn’t just treat the symptoms of drug addiction – it gives people an opportunity to discover the reasons for their addiction and gives them tools to cope with their life.

If you think you might have a problem with a substance, we encourage you to read our blog to find out more about your treatment options.