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About complementary and alternative therapies

Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, what they treat, how they are regulated, and how you can access them.

What are complementary and alternative therapies?

Complementary and alternative therapies cover lots of different treatments. These include body-based therapies, meditation-based therapies and herbal remedies, among others.

The NHS offers some of these. Others are based on different ideas of healing and wellbeing than those we normally hear about in the UK.

See our page on types of complementary and alternative therapies​ for more information about some of the different types.

What's the difference between a 'complementary' and an 'alternative' therapy?

Whether a therapy is 'complementary' or 'alternative' will depend on how you use it as part of your treatment.

In general:

  • 'Complementary' describes treatments which you may use alongside other treatments.
  • 'Alternative' describes approaches that replace the treatments offered by your doctor.

One person might use a certain therapy as complementary alongside things like medication, while another person might use the same therapy as an alternative to medication.

There are some misconceptions about complementary and alternative therapies. Some people think they don't work properly, are a scam, or have no evidence behind them. This is not always true, but the lack of information and clinical research on them can make it difficult to know which ones might work for you.

“As advised by my doctor, I take an SSRI antidepressant every day, in conjunction with supplementing iron, B vitamins, no alcohol before my cycle and avoiding caffeine as much as possible.”

Why might I try them?

There are many reasons you might decide to try complementary or alternative therapies. For example:

  • You don't want the treatment your doctor has offered, such as psychiatric medication or talking therapies.
  • You've already tried the treatments your doctor has offered and they haven't suited you. For example, you haven't found a psychiatric medication that works, or it's caused unwanted side effects.
  • You're on a waiting list for treatment, but you need help to manage your symptoms right away.
  • You want more options to try in addition to the treatments your doctor has offered.
  • You don't agree with your doctor's approach and you want to take another approach to looking after your mental health.

Whatever your situation, if you have any worries about your mental health you can seek advice from your GP.

“When I could no longer take SSRI antidepressants due to side effects, I tried St John's wort as an alternative. It's definitely helped with my depression and my mood has lifted quite a lot.”

Can they treat mental health problems?

Complementary and alternative therapies can be used as a treatment for both physical and mental health problems. Different therapies are used for different mental health problems.

In general, there is more research on these therapies for sleep problems, depression and anxiety. But there has been some research on how certain treatments might help other mental health problems.

Our page on types of complementary and alternative therapies has more information on what each treatment might help with.

I noticed that a large part of my anxiety was down to the fact that I wasn’t breathing properly. Yoga helped with this immensely.

Do they work?

As with all therapies, different things work for different people.

There's not much clinical evidence for these therapies, so your GP isn’t likely to prescribe them. But a lot of people do say they find them helpful in managing mental health symptoms, so in this sense they can work.

Some research into how they work suggests this could be showing the placebo effect. This is when we feel better after taking a remedy because we expect it to make us feel better. This effect can happen with sugar pills that have no active ingredients. But it can apply to other treatments as well, including prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

Whether or not a remedy has a clinical effect doesn't always matter – the outcome of feeling better can be very real and meaningful in our lives.

For more on the effectiveness of different therapies see our pages on:

“Exercise became a big part of my routine to keep anxiety at bay. Along with mindfulness techniques and medication.”

Are they safe?

Most complementary and alternative therapies are considered safe when provided by a trained and experienced practitioner.

However, there may be times when a certain therapy may carry higher risks for you, and would not be recommended. For example, if:

  • you are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • you are receiving any other treatments that could interfere with the therapy
  • you have a physical or mental health problem that could be made worse by the therapy
  • you are about to have surgery or another medical procedure.

Before you start any new treatment it is a good idea to talk through any safety concerns with your doctor and your treatment provider. This is especially important if you're already taking any kind of medication.

If you are considering taking a herbal remedy, see our information on when herbal remedies might be unsuitable for you. Remember that your local pharmacist can also give you advice about prescription and over-the-counter medications.

How are they regulated?

There's no compulsory regulation for most complementary healthcare practitioners in England and Wales, so it is possible to practise without regulation.

However, there are several kinds of voluntary organisations that practitioners can choose to register with:

It's always a good idea to choose a therapist who is registered with a regulatory body or professional association. This means they have met the standards of practice and education required by that organisation.

For guidance on the regulation of herbal medicines, see our information on how herbal remedies are licensed.

What else should I consider before starting a therapy?

Only you can decide whether a type of treatment feels right for you. But it might help you to think about:

  • What do I want to get out of it – is it realistic?
  • What does it cost – can I afford it?
  • How long will it take – have I got enough time? Is it open-ended or time-limited?
  • Will I have to travel?
  • Have I got any health problems that would affect me being able to do the therapy?
  • Am I receiving any other treatments that would affect me being able to do the therapy?
  • Could this therapy be adapted to meet my needs?
  • Would someone I trust be able to come along with me if I didn't feel comfortable going on my own?

Finding the right therapist

As with any kind of therapy, it's really important to find someone you feel confident and safe with. Whatever the kind of therapy or medicine they practise, if you don't like or trust that person you're less likely to have a positive experience.

As a good starting point, your practitioner should be able to give you straightforward answers to your questions about:

  • what qualifications they have
  • what professional bodies they're registered with
  • their past experience of using the therapy for your specific problem
  • what risks might be involved, and what you should do if you experience any negative effects
  • what procedures they have in place for making a complaint
  • proof of insurance
  • any other concerns or questions you have about the therapy.

If you don't feel able to ask these questions of them beforehand it might help to write them down in an email, or ask someone you trust to come along to support you.

Where can I get complementary and alternative therapies?

To find a registered therapist you can:

You may also find a recommendation for a local therapist through:

  • alternative therapy centres
  • health spas
  • your local Mind branch
  • your GP practice
  • your local community centre.

Can I get them through the NHS?

While there are some complementary and alternative therapies available through the NHS, you can't always get them for mental health problems.

This is because there is currently not enough evidence to show how effective they are for mental health, so the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the organisation that produces guidelines on best practice in healthcare - cannot recommend them.

However, NICE does recommend that healthcare professionals take your values, thoughts and preferences into consideration when they are planning your treatment. This means that, while a treatment might not always be available on the NHS, your doctor should still be able to talk to you about alternative options and how they might interact with other treatments, so that you can look for them outside the NHS if you want to.

To find out what the NHS is able to offer you locally, it's a good idea to make a GP appointment and ask your doctor directly.

What if they don't work for me?

Although some people find that complementary or alternative therapies can be helpful, not everyone does. If you've tried something and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself.

Managing a mental health problem can be really difficult, especially when you're not feeling well. It can take time and may not be straightforward. But many people find that when they find the right combination of treatments, self-care and support, it is possible to feel better.

See our pages on seeking help for a mental health problem for other options you could explore.

This information was published in January 2022. We will revise it in 2025.

References and bibliography available on request.

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