Alternative therapies for mental health problems: 6 options
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Complementary therapies such as yoga, dietary supplements, and animal therapy may help individuals cope with the symptoms of certain mental health disorders and improve their quality of life.
Traditionally, doctors treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a combination of medications and psychotherapy. Mental health problems are common, with 21% of adults in the United States experiencing mental illness in 2020. Alternative treatments beyond the standard approaches may help more of these individuals manage their symptoms.
People living with mental health issues may find the following alternative therapies helpful. However, a person should check with their doctor first to ensure these approaches are suitable.
This article looks at various alternative therapies for mental health problems and the benefits and risks.
Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that began in ancient India and consists of a series of movements and physical poses. As yoga focuses the mind, doctors may recommend it for people living with depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Yoga is generally safe, with few risks besidesTrusted Source fatigue and breathlessness, although this may depend on an individual’s fitness level. Possible benefits of yoga includeTrusted Source:
- increased flexibility
- better balance
- lower stress
- enhanced quality of life
- better body weight maintenance
- improved immunity
High quality studies exploring the value of yoga as a therapy for mental health problems are lacking. Some studies Trusted Source offer moderate evidence of the beneficial effects of yoga compared with regular care.
However, the benefits of yoga appear limited compared to those of breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, and aerobic exercise. That said, doctors may consider it a worthy complementary treatment for individuals with depressive disorders.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that may ease mental health symptoms and boost heart health.
Omega-3s may help individuals with a range of mental health issues, including:
- bipolar disorder
- cognitive impairment
- seasonal affective disorder
Although evidence supporting this use of omega-3s is slim, the risk is minimal. Some studies found promising evidence for omega-3 supplementation to treat depression and stabilize moods, while others found no conclusive evidence of its value.
However, doctors may consider using omega-3s to supplement antidepressants and other mental health medications.
Cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES)
CES uses a small electrical device to stimulate the brain with a current below 4 milliamps, which a person cannot feel.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes CES as a class III device that people can use to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. However, experts are unsure how CES works on the body. One theory is that the electrical current increases serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and other neurotransmitters, which helps stabilize emotions.
People require a prescription for a CES device, but they can use it at home without a doctor’s supervision alongside their other treatments.
Side effects are rare and typically mild, although pregnant individuals may need to avoid using the device. Also, people with bipolar disorder should use CES with caution, as it could worsen their condition.
Experts consider CES promising but not proven. However, as the device has no drug interactions and minimal side effects, CES is a reasonable option if an individual’s symptoms do not respond to other treatments.
Kava, also known as kava kava or Piper methysticum, is a plant native to the islands of the Western Pacific, where people have used it in traditional medicine for centuries. It is popular in the United States, with around 1% Trusted Source of the adult population using kava to reduce stress, anxiety, and inflammationTrusted Source.
This plant extract may help people with mild to moderate anxiety disorders, and using kava for anxiety in the short term could be effective. Some research indicates that kava is superior to a placebo and recommended to treat anxiety. It may be a suitable alternative to antidepressants in individuals with mild to moderate anxiety.
Additionally, kava may help with memory, sleep, and substance use disorders. Addiction rehabilitation programs in New Zealand have used kava with a 90% success rate.
However, there are reports of liver toxicity and side effects such as:
Therefore, people with liver disease or those taking medications metabolized by the liver should ask their doctor’s advice before beginning treatment with kava.
Professionals may use dogs, horses, and other animals to help individuals with mental health issues. Some research Trusted Source suggests that animal-assisted therapy can reduce emotional and psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.
Examples of animal therapy include equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP). This horse-based therapy aims to improve people’s emotions and behaviors by teaching them to care for and ride horses. As prey animals, horses are highly vigilant and sensitive to people’s emotions.
Therapy sessions harness the horses’ natural sensitivities. Participants must maintain self-awareness and use the horse’s behavior for feedback as they focus on building a connection based on mutual understanding.
Although rigorous scientific proof is scarce, some small studies show that equine therapy may ease anxiety, depression, and impulsiveness.
Allergies, infections, and animal-related accidents are some of the risks of animal therapy. However, simple hygiene protocols minimize the likelihood, and evidence suggests the benefits outweigh the risks.
More commonly called SAMe, this naturally occurring chemical resides in every cell of the body and is critical for more than 200 metabolic pathways.
SAMe is a prescription medication for depression in some European countries, and in the United States, people can purchase it without a prescription. People can use SAMe alone or alongside other antidepressant medications.
It appears beneficial as a depression treatment, works rapidly, and does not cause weight gain, sexual dysfunction, or sedation like some other prescription antidepressants. In addition, older adults and those on medications that compromise liver function tolerate SAMe better than other antidepressants. Therefore, some experts believe it should be the alternative medicine of choice.
However, in common with other activating antidepressants, SAMe can worsen anxiety and panic. Therefore, if individuals have signs of mania or bipolar disorder, SAMe may be unsuitable or require the simultaneous use of mood-stabilizing drugs.
There are also several creative therapies that people with mental health conditions may benefit from.
Complementary and alternative therapies for mental health problems include yoga, electrical stimulation, and dietary supplements, such as omega-3s and kava. These approaches may increase feelings of well-being, reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of depression, and aid relaxation.
Doctors may recommend these therapies for people who have no symptom relief using traditional medications or psychotherapy. They may suggest that people try them alongside their usual medications or as a replacement for them.
Although there is some evidence to support the benefits of these therapies for mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, research is limited and often of low quality. As a result, many aspects remain unclear, and further, large-scale studies would help determine the true benefit of these alternative therapies.
Before trying alternative therapies for mental health problems, an individual should first discuss them with their doctor to see if they are suitable options.