Complementary and alternative treatments

Some people with mental health problems find it helps to use complementary and alternative therapies. This page explains what complementary therapies are, and how you can get them.

Overview

  • Complementary and alternative therapies are health-related therapies that are not part of mainstream medical care.
  • They are thought to increase wellbeing, aid relaxation, and promote good mental health.
  • You can use complementary and alternative therapies for different mental health needs and symptoms.
  • There is more research into some complementary and alternative therapies than others. This means that there is more evidence that some work than there is for others.
  • Not all complementary and alternative therapies are regulated. It is important to make sure the therapist you choose is qualified.

About

What are complementary and alternative therapies?

Complementary and alternative therapies are not part of mainstream care. This means that you are unlikely to get this type of treatment through the NHS. They can be used to complement your NHS treatment. Or, in some cases, as an alternative to NHS treatment. You may hear them being called ‘holistic treatments’.

Different complementary and alternative therapies may help with different symptoms. They can focus on your physical, mental, or spiritual wellbeing.

Usage

Can I use complementary and alternative therapies for mental health problems?

You can use complementary and alternative therapies with other treatments. There is not always much scientific evidence to say they can help treat mental health problems. But many people find them useful. They may help with the side effects of medication. And with the symptoms of some mental health conditions.

Speak to your GP or mental health team before you try complementary and alternative therapies.

Don’t take complementary and alternative therapies with other treatments without checking with your doctor.

Types

What types of complementary and alternative therapies are there?

There are lots of different complementary and alternative therapies. Below is a list of the ones we talk about on this page.

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Herbal Medicine
  • Homeopathy
  • Massage
  • Meditation
  • Spiritual/ energy healing
  • Yoga

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is based on an ancient Chinese treatment. An acupuncture practitioner will put small, thin needles into your skin at certain points on your body. Practitioners believe the needles can help to start the healing process in your body.

Some acupuncture practitioners say it can be used to treat mental health conditions. There is some research into its uses for depression, schizophrenia, and insomnia. But there is not much scientific evidence to prove that acupuncture is good for treating mental health conditions.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy uses essential oils to improve health and wellbeing. Essential oils are plant extracts. Some oils may be used to treat mental health problems.

You can use aromatherapy oils through massage, in the bath, or by breathing them in. Research has shown that aromatherapy can be useful to treat symptoms of depression. There is some research to show that aromatherapy can reduce anxiety and stress. But these studies are based on small numbers so more research is needed.

Herbal remedies

Herbal remedies are made from plants. Sometimes they are called herbal medicines. Many mainstream drugs and medicines are based on products that come from plants.

You can get herbal remedies in different forms, such as liquid, powder, or cream. A qualified herbalist can prescribe herbal remedies to use alongside other medications and treatment.

When you’re buying a herbal remedy, check that it has a Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) number or a product licence (PL) number on the packet.

A PL number means that medical trials have shown that the remedy works. A THR number is for products where there is less evidence they work. But the THR number shows that they:

  • are safe for most people to take,
  • contain the right ingredient at the right dose, and
  • although it hasn’t been proved they work, pharmacists think it’s believable that they could work.

Some herbal remedies can have a bad effect on a condition that you have. Or on a medication that you take. These are called interactions. You should always talk to your doctor or a pharmacist before taking herbal remedies.

The table below lists some of the common herbal remedies used for treating mental health conditions. And common interactions with other medicines and other frequently used substances.

Name Uses Interactions
St John’s Wort Depression Antidepressants, strong painkillers, the contraceptive pill, some cancer drugs, some epilepsy drugs, digoxin, HIV medicines and some blood thinning medicines.n
Valerian Anxiety Sedatives, alcohol, the contraceptive pill, HIV medicines, cancer treatments, epilepsy medicines, anti-fungal treatments, blood thinning medicines.
Passionflower Anxiety, nervous tension, as a mild sedative Some blood thinning medicines.
Bach Flower Remedies Anxiety, panic, trauma Not known.
Roseroot / Rhodiola Anxiety, tiredness, improving concentration and memory None reported.
Sage Depression and anxiety, improving memory Blood thinning drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and warfarin, antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
Camomile As a mild sedative Blood thinning drugs and the contraceptive pill.

Homeopathy

Homeopathy is based on the idea that a substance that causes certain symptoms can also help to reduce those symptoms. Substances are watered down and shaken. Homeopathy practitioners believe that the substance will be more effective to treat symptoms if it is watered down by a large amount.

There has been a lot of research on the effectiveness of homeopathy. There is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition.

The NHS does not recommend using any homeopathic treatments.

Massage

A massage therapist will use their hands to rub your body to help get rid of tension and help you to relax. There are different types of massage, including the following.

  • Swedish massage. Using long kneading strokes, rhythmic light tapping strokes, and movement of the joints to relax muscles and relieve tension.
  • Shiatsu massage. Pressure is put on certain points to help balance your energy.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness is a type of meditation. It is when you focus on your mind and body. It is a way of paying attention to the present moment.

An example of mindfulness would be to focus on your breathing. Think about how it feels when you breathe in and out.

When you practice meditation or mindfulness you learn to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings. Once you are more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can learn to deal with them better.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a combination of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends MBCT to help people with a history of depression to stay well.

A course of MBCT should last for 8 weeks. You will usually have MBCT in a group. Each session is 2 hours long. You should have 4 follow-up sessions in 12 months after the end of your therapy.

You can also get mindfulness courses through:

  • self-help guides,
  • books,
  • mobile apps,
  • podcasts, or
  • YouTube videos.

There may also be classes in your local area.

You can find out more information about CBT in ‘Talking Therapies’ by clicking here.

Spiritual and energy healing

Spiritual or energy healers believe that ‘energy’ in your body affects your mental and physical health.

Reiki is a well-known energy healing therapy in England. A therapist puts their hands on, or above, your body in certain places. They believe that they can channel energy into you to help healing. You keep your clothes on while they do this. You can sit or lie down.

There is not much research into the effects of Reiki on mental health. But research has shown that it may help with symptoms of depression. It may also help feelings of stress, anxiety, and insomnia.

Yoga

Yoga is an exercise. It focuses on breathing techniques, strength, and flexibility to improve your mental and physical wellbeing. There is some evidence that yoga can help to reduce depression and stress.

You may be able to find yoga classes at your local community centre. Or at your local gym.

Access

Where can I get complementary and alternative therapies?

The NHS does not usually offer complementary and alternative therapies. You may be able to get complementary and alternative therapies through a:

  • private therapist or practitioner
  • health spa,
  • mental health charity, or
  • an alternative therapy centre.

How do I choose a practitioner or therapist?

Complementary therapists do not have to register with a professional body to treat people.

But you should check if a private therapist is registered with a professional body, like the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). This is because therapists registered with the CNHC have to stick to Codes of Conduct, Ethics, and Performance. There is also a complaints procedure you can follow if you’re not happy with how you’ve been treated.

The CNHC was set up by the government, and they’re accountable to parliament.

Many types of therapies have their own professional body. They set standards for their therapists to follow. They hold registers for qualified practitioners. There is a list of professional bodies in the Useful Contacts section at the bottom of this page.

Think about the following things when you choose your therapist.

  • Compare the cost of therapies, and make sure you are not being over-charged.
  • Ask the therapist about their qualifications, membership of a professional body, and how long they have been practising.
  • Always make sure they have the right insurance. Therapists should have insurance before they can become members of the CHNC or other professional bodies.
  • Choose a complementary therapy that suits your needs. Other people may tell you what has worked for them. But remember that the results may be different for you.
  • Know what to expect. Research the therapy.
  • Ask the therapist about how the treatment works and whether it could have any negative effects.
  • Remember, no reliable therapist should claim to be able to cure severe mental illness.

Ask your doctor or nurse for their advice. They can tell you whether the treatment could affect your medication. And they can tell you about any good or bad effects the therapy might have on your condition.

How much do complementary and alternative therapies cost?

Private therapists can be expensive. They can charge any price. Usually they will charge around £40-£70 per hour.

You can ask your GP or your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) if the therapy is available in your area. You can find your local PALs on the NHS website here: www.nhs.uk/Service-Search/Patientadvice-and-liaison-services-(PALS)/LocationSearch/363

You may be able to get low cost or free complementary and alternative therapies. But this is unusual. You can use an internet search engine, like Google, to see what is available in your area.

Further reading

Complementary and alternative medicine
The NHS has information on their website about complementary and alternative therapies.

Website: www.nhs.uk/conditions/complementary-and-alternative-medicine

Useful contacts

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
This is an independent regulatory body set up by the government. They set professional standards and a code of ethics that complementary therapists have to follow. They keep an independent register of qualified therapists, and can investigate complaints.

Telephone: 020 3668 0406
Address: 46-48 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1AW
Emailinfo@cnhc.org.uk
Website: www.cnhc.org.uk

The Aromatherapy Council
A UK professional body that sets and maintain education standards for aromatherapy professionals.

Website: www.aromatherapycouncil.org.uk

The Association of Natural Medicine (ANM)
The ANM is a membership body for complementary therapists. Registered therapists must show the ANM that they have the right qualifications and experience to be a therapist. They also run training for therapists.

Telephone: 07596 427084
Address: 27 Braintree Road, Witham, Essex, CM8 2DD
Email:a-nm@hotmail.co.uk
Website: www.associationnaturalmedicine.co.uk

Association of Reflexologists (AoR)
This is a membership body for reflexologists. To be a member, therapists must show they have the right qualifications and experience to practice.

Telephone: 01823 351010
Address: Victoria House, Victoria Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 3FA
Email: info@aor.org.uk
Website: www.aor.org.uk

The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC)
A self-regulatory body of therapists who practice traditional acupuncture in the UK.

Telephone: 0208 735 0400
Address: 63 Jeddo Road, London, W12 9HQ
Email: info@acupuncture.org.uk
Website: www.acupuncture.org.uk

British Complementary Medicine Association
An international umbrella organisation for therapists and their clients.

Telephone: 0845 345 5977
Address: BCMA, P.O. Box 5122, Bournemouth, BH8 0WG
Email: office@bcma.co.uk
Website: www.bcma.co.uk

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council
This is an independent regulatory body set up by the government. They set professional standards and a code of ethics that complementary therapists have to follow. They keep an independent register of qualified therapists, and can investigate complaints.

Telephone: 020 3668 0406
Address: 46-48 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1AW
Email: info@cnhc.org.uk
Website: www.cnhc.org.uk

Complementary Medical Association
This is an international association for complementary therapists. They promote ethical, responsible and professional complementary medicine.

Telephone: 0845 129 8434
Email: via form on website: www.the-cma.org.uk/contact-us
Website: www.the-cma.org.uk

The Complementary Therapies Association
An association that represents sports, spa and complementary therapists in the UK and Ireland.

Telephone: 0207 518 0323
Address: Room 2T.07, 17 Hanover Square, Mayfair, London, W1S 1BN
Email: info@ctha.com
Website: www.ctha.com

Federation of Holistic Therapists
A professional membership association for therapists in the UK and Ireland. Therapies include sports and remedial therapies, complementary healthcare, and holistic beauty treatments. Therapists must hold recognised qualifications to register.

Telephone: 023 8062 4350
Address: 18 Shakespeare Business Centre, Hathaway Close, Eastleigh, Hampshire, SO50 4SR
Email: info@fht.org.uk
Website: www.fht.org.uk

The National Institute of Medical Herbalists
A UK professional body representing herbal practitioners. You can search for qualified herbalists on their website. They also have an information service for professionals and the public about herbal medicine.

Telephone: 01392 426022
Address: Clover House, James Court, South Street, Exeter, EX1 1EE
Email: info@nimh.org.uk
Website: www.nimh.org.uk

The Shiatsu Society UK
A non-profit organisation that represents practitioners and promotes professionalism.

Telephone: 01788 547900
Address: 20-22 Wenlock Road, London, N1 7GU
Email via website: www.shiatsusociety.org/contact
Website: www.shiatsusociety.org

UK Reiki Federation
They are a UK professional body representing Reiki practitioners. You can search for a practitioner in your area.

Telephone: 0203 432 6287
Address: Suite 437, 4th Floor, Davis House, Robert Street, Croydon, CR10 1QQ
Email: enquiry@reikifed.co.uk
Website: www.reikifed.co.uk

The Alliance of Registered Homeopaths (ARH)
An organisation of qualified homeopaths which has a Code of Ethics and Practice

Telephone: 01825 714506
Address: Millbrook, Millbrook Hill, Nutley, Uckfield, TN22 3PJ
Email: info@a-r-h.org
Website: www.a-r-h.org

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