Need support now? Help is available. Call, text, or chat 988outbound call

Complementary and Integrative Medicine

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Complementary and integrative medicine has become more popular in the United States in recent years. The idea behind these methods is that there are many ways to treat the same health issue. Combining traditional and nontraditional treatment options may be a benefit for people with major depressive disorder (MDD).1-3

Traditional versus contemporary medicine

Western, or conventional, medicine is considered traditional. These are treatment options prescribed by your doctor. An example of traditional medicine would be antidepressant drugs. Psychotherapy also is a traditional option for MDD because it is has been scientifically proven to help people with the condition.2-4

Contemporary medicine – sometimes called “nontraditional” medicine – refers to other methods people use to help with their symptoms. These include things like vitamins and supplements, mind-body techniques, and more. Contemporary medicine is sometimes called complementary or alternative medicine (CAM).2,3

But the word “nontraditional” can be misleading. Some nontraditional options have been used for a long time, and many people have found benefits from them. An example of this is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which dates back hundreds of years. TCM uses herbs and other natural products to treat illnesses. Some of the principles of TCM have been used to create drugs we use today.2,3

Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine

The terms “complementary,” “alternative,” and “integrative” medicine all have slightly different meanings. The differences between them are important. Generally, the definitions are:2,3,5

  • Complementary medicine – Using nontraditional treatment options along with a prescribed treatment plan. An example of this would be practicing yoga and also taking antidepressant drugs.
  • Alternative medicine – Using nontraditional treatment options instead of traditional ones. An example would be using supplements to treat depression rather than prescribed antidepressants. For some health conditions, this may be possible. But in other cases, alternative medicine can be ineffective or even dangerous.
  • Integrative medicine – Combining nontraditional and traditional treatment options to create a well-rounded plan. Aspects of integrative medicine plans include mind-body practices, diet changes, drugs, surgeries, fitness plans, and more. Many experts think integrative medicine is best for treating potentially long-term conditions like MDD.

Safety considerations

The best treatment approach varies from person to person. It also depends on how severe symptoms are. Some people have mild symptoms of depression that can be treated with mind-body techniques and therapy. Others have more severe symptoms that may require antidepressant drugs.4

Complementary and alternative options can carry their own risks, though. And stopping or changing a traditional treatment on your own can be dangerous. Before starting or stopping any treatment, talk with your doctor. Tell them about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you take. This includes over-the-counter drugs.2-4

Communicating openly about any new treatments you are interested in or changes in your lifestyle can help keep you safe.2-4

Vitamins, herbs, and supplements

The amount of research into vitamins, herbs, and supplements for the treatment of depression is increasing. But evidence about potential benefits is mixed. Some options are safer than others.1,6,7

Vitamins, herbs, and supplements studied for the treatment of depression include:1,7

  • Vitamin D, B6, B9 (folate), and B12
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • St. John’s wort
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Saffron
  • Curcumin
  • Traditional Chinese herbs
  • Probiotics
  • S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe)

Supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way other drugs are. This means that no outside agency confirms the ingredients or suggested dose. Supplements may not contain what they claim to. They may have more or less of a certain ingredient. They may have contaminants that can be dangerous, too.2,3

Some supplements and vitamins also can interact with other drugs you are taking. This can lead to serious side effects. In some cases, it can even become dangerous. If you have a question about a vitamin or supplement, check with your doctor before starting it. They can help determine whether it is safe for you to take.2,3,6

Mind-body therapies

Mind-body therapies are meant to strengthen the connection between the body and the mind. They involve things like visualization, controlled breathing, and repeated body movements. Many of these therapies may help improve mood and reduce stress. This can be helpful in managing the symptoms of MDD.1-3,8

Common mind-body therapies that may be used by people with depression include:1,3,6-8

  • Acupuncture
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness or meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Guided imagery
  • Hypnotherapy (hypnosis)
  • Tai chi
  • Massage
  • Biofeedback (learning to better control your response to different situations)
  • Dance or music therapy
  • Aromatherapy (using smells to impact mood)

Like with supplements, talk with your doctor about any mind-body therapies you are interested in trying. Some have safety considerations. An example is acupuncture, which needs to be done by a trained professional using clean supplies to reduce the risk of infection.3,6

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes are part of a well-rounded MDD treatment plan as well. These habits can help keep your body healthy while you live with a mental health condition. Some options, like exercising, also may have a direct impact on mood.4,9,10

Lifestyle changes that may help people with depression include:1,6-11

  • Drinking more water
  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Exercising several times a week
  • Cutting back on alcohol
  • Quitting smoking or recreational drugs
  • Practicing good sleep habits
  • Maintaining a routine or schedule

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.