Explains what complementary and alternative therapies are, what they treat, how they are regulated, and how you can access them.
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.
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.”
There are many reasons you might decide to try complementary or alternative therapies. For example:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“Exercise became a big part of my routine to keep anxiety at bay. Along with mindfulness techniques and medication.”
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:
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.
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.
Only you can decide whether a type of treatment feels right for you. But it might help you to think about:
To find a registered therapist you can:
You may also find a recommendation for a local therapist through:
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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