Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

With over 400 types of mental health therapy available and many specialties in modern medicine, it can seem that the options are endless. Clients can choose between a wide variety of treatment types, including Western medicine, Eastern techniques, and alternative healing options. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies describe a wide range of treatments outside of those often accepted by Western or conventional medicine. Though they might not be the standard treatments used by your doctor or therapist at institutes of health, some clients find them effective, and they may be worth considering as an addition to current care.

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Different types of medical and mental healthcare

Before choosing a medical care treatment that works for you, knowing more about how these treatments are defined can be beneficial. 

What is complementary and alternative medicine? 

CAM stands for complementary and alternative medicine. CAM approaches are not mainstream medicine or commonly accepted forms of treatment, but many CAM options have been evaluated in research studies by national institutes that show they are considered safe for specific conditions or symptoms. These treatments are typically administered at a wellness center or alternative health care clinic.

Common types of complementary and alternative medicine therapies include the following: 

  • Acupuncture
  • Essential oils 
  • Massage of the soft tissues
  • Body movement
  • Mind-body therapies (including Yoga and Tai Chi)
  • Light therapy
  • External energy (including those relating to energy fields and energy flow)

Mainstream and conventional medicine

Mainstream, or traditional, medicine refers to treatments approved by the majority of health care systems and mental health organizations. These treatments often go through a research phase with clinical trials and are slowly introduced into clinical practice before being widely accepted. 

What qualifies as mainstream medicine may change from year to year. For example, there was a time when cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was not yet accepted as a mainstream option before more research was performed. However, CBT is now one of the most popular and effective approaches used in mental healthcare. 

Western approach

The term ‘Western medicine' is used similarly to mainstream medicine. The difference is that mainstream refers to what is most common, while Western medicine refers to a specific type of medicine. In Western medicine, healthcare professionals treat patients with medication, surgery, radiation, or other invasive procedures that may target different parts of the body. 

Alternative medicine complementary therapies may be used alongside Western medicine. In some cases, your doctor, nurse, therapist, or other health care providers may suggest and supervise these complementary therapies. However, some people complement their mainstream treatments with other methods on their own. For example, cancer patients undergoing cancer treatment, like chemotherapy, might also choose to take herbal medicine or eat a healthy diet to relieve side effects. Some herbal remedies may help with nausea, a symptom that certain cancer treatments may bring about. These remedies would be used in conjunction with more conventional medical strategies to treat cancer in an effort to make the patient more comfortable.

Alternative approaches

While CAM therapies are often implemented in addition to mainstream treatments, many alternative therapies are used instead of mainstream medicine. An alternative treatment might include, for example, a client choosing take herbs like St. John's Wort or other dietary supplements in addition to medication. Some health professionals, psychiatrists, and psychologists may be willing to work with you if you choose this approach. 

Integrative methods

Integrative therapies combine therapies for a client based on their symptoms, desires, and concerns. Rather than focusing on one type of treatment for every problem, the integrative health therapist or doctor uses what seems best for the individual under specific circumstances. They may use any combination of new, standard, old, or ancient medical treatments and ingredients, or counseling methods. Integrative therapies can often be used alongside conventional medical products and techniques.


CAM therapies and alternative treatment examples

Complementary and alternative medicine may be used for many medical or mental health conditions, although it may not be as effective in some cases. Those with a life-threatening illness or chronic diseases may try complementary and alternative medicine treatments if they don't want to face invasive treatments. They may also choose complementary and alternative medicine when nothing else has worked. 

However, complementary or alternative approaches can be used by a majority of people with various circumstances. Many clients find that their tolerance to medication changes with time. Complementary medicine and holistic treatments may boost the effectiveness of their current medical option. Others might try these therapies or treatments to connect with their bodies. 

Complementary and alternative medicine fields can include the following: 

  • Homeopathic medicine
  • Naturopathic medicine
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Ancient Indian practice
  • Ayurveda and ayurvedic medicine

Specific approaches that might be used within these disciplines can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Acupuncture
  • Aromatherapy
  • Biofeedback therapy 
  • Chiropractor treatment 
  • Herbal medicines
  • Hypnosis 
  • Guided imagery
  • Magnet therapy
  • Massage therapy 
  • Meditation
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Osteopathic manipulative therapy
  • Qi gong
  • Reflexology
  • Reiki
  • Special diets
  • Spiritual healing
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

CAM therapies in mental health

Complementary and alternative therapies in the mental health field may not be as heavily studied as others. However, many previously considered alternative psychological treatments are now in mainstream use. Support groups were once considered complementary and alternative approaches. They are now often considered a necessary and beneficial part of treatment, as they provide clients with a support and accountability system that may improve a person’s health and mental well-being.

Many of the alternative therapies listed above can also benefit mental health and may be used to restore balance to one’s sense of mental wellness. For example, yoga, which has been used for centuries worldwide, has been found effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in clients. A few standard CAM therapies that might be used in mental health treatment include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Prayer
  • Dance therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Regression therapy
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Light therapy 
  • Physical therapy

Using a complementary or alternative approach

Since complementary therapies are used along with conventional treatments, your doctor may stay informed about your progress. They might connect with your complementary treatment provider or offer safety tips for specific techniques. 

However, some doctors may not approve of alternative approaches, and some may be unsafe. Consider the following points when considering alternative therapies or treatments. 


Before partaking in a counseling or medical treatment, it can be beneficial to research whether it is safe and backed by scientific evidence and studies. In addition, if you are experiencing a medical condition or disease, talking to a doctor or holistic professional about the effectiveness of the treatment for your condition can be beneficial. You may also want to look at literature by professionals in the field (an example being expert in alternative medicine Dr. Andrew Weil). Do thorough research and talk to a pediatrician before giving a child any herbal remedies. 

Some treatments may not be healthy in specific quantities or if misused. For example, large doses of vitamins could put your system out of balance, causing nutritional excess and affecting your body’s nutritional well-being. In addition, herbal remedies may have side effects and cause allergic reactions. If you're taking mainstream medication, herbal medicines can interact with your current medications, causing them to be less effective or causing unwanted side effects. Talk to a doctor before starting, stopping, or changing herbal or modern medication. Any two substances you put in your body may have the potential to interact negatively, regardless of whether they are natural or not. 

Before choosing a method, consider making a pros and cons chart for using it. Be wary of any method that promises a “cure” for what you are experiencing. If you disagree with modern medical practices, speaking to an alternative practitioner who has graduated from medical school but understands safe alternative practices may benefit you. Self-medicating with any substance can have dangerous consequences. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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Considering doctor supervision 

If you're unsure about the safety of alternative treatment, work with a doctor or therapist as you attempt the treatment. They can monitor your overall health, including vitals, symptoms, or concerns, and note if any unwanted psychological side effects have occurred. You can also consider asking these professionals for a referral to alternative medical treatments. 

For example, a therapist may believe that a client with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would benefit from massage therapy. However, due to ethical guidelines, a mental health provider may be unable to offer this service. Instead, they can refer their client to massage therapists in their area while continuing to offer talk therapy. 

CAM therapy and therapists

Since CAM therapies may be controversial, you might feel hesitant or nervous talking to a doctor or therapist about them. However, having a conversation and being upfront about your health choices can offer the following benefits: 

  • Learning more about how CAM practices work
  • Getting a professional's opinion on the therapy you're considering
  • Finding out whether the doctor or therapist is qualified to offer the treatment 
  • Finding out whether insurance will cover it
  • A referral to someone with positive reviews who offers this type of therapy 
  • Potential supervision or monitoring while you partake in the CAM treatment 
  • Adjustments to current therapies to coordinate better with a CAM you're using 

If you believe this type of therapy would be helpful for you, let your doctor or therapist know why. You can ask them what they know of the treatment and if they have any safety tips unique to your symptoms. If the doctor or therapist says you should not partake in the treatment, ask them for information on why it might be harmful. 

A caring professional can ensure that consumers understand the risks and benefits of a treatment they're considering. They can't stop you from partaking in treatment, but allowing them to explain each side may be beneficial. However, consider visiting with a different professional if you feel disrespected or disregarded. 

Counseling options

There are many alternative forms of mental health treatment available, one of which is online therapy. Although many clients now use online formats, they may take some adjusting to at first, and people may be unsure about their effectiveness compared to in-person therapy. 

However, studies show that treatments like internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy can be more effective than in-person options. One study evaluated prolonged exposure to stress and found that clients who used internet-based CBT had more favorable outcomes than those who didn't in reducing stress levels. 

Stress can be one problem that counseling may help with. Stress may come from a number of sources, including the workplace. Those experiencing work-related stress feel (in some cases but not all) that they may be overwhelmed by the search for an in-person therapist. Part of this stress may result from the worry they might not be able to fit treatment into their schedule. Through an online platform like BetterHelp, you can set your preferences for treatment when you first sign up and get matched with a mental health professional that fits those preferences. For flexibility, you can also choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions.


Complementary and alternative therapies may come with various risks and benefits. When you find a therapist to help you, you can sort out the helpful from the harmful and pursue the approaches from alternative to mainstream that best suit you and your needs.

If you're still looking for more resources on CAM therapies, check out the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The National Institutes of Health is also a resource for diving into what certain studies suggest for treating particular conditions. Consult with a doctor or mental health professional before trying any new treatment. 
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