There are many traditional methods to combat alcohol abuse, such as rehabilitation, medication, psychotherapy, and 12 steps programs. Yet, given the limited success of these options, alternative medicine is receiving newfound attention. Indeed, herbal supplements, also known as botanical medicine or phytotherapy, are the most ancient form of healthcare known to humankind. In fact, herbs have been used in nearly every culture in history as an integral part of the practice of medicine and healing.
The word drug actually derives from the old Dutch word droog meaning ”to dry” — as pharmacists, physicians, and ancient healers often dried plants for use as medicines. Even today, about 25% of all prescription drugs are still derived from trees, shrubs, or herbs. The World Health Organization notes that, of 119 plant-derived pharmaceuticals, about 74% are used in modern medicine in ways which correlate directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures.
The earliest known texts, with instructions on how to use herbs as medicines, were written by the Chinese around 2800 BC. It is believed that Shen Nung wrote The Great Herbal (Pen Ts’ao) around this time. In this text he cites some 350 plants, many of which are still being used today. Over in India the first Sanskrit medical texts, Caraka Sambita and Sushrata Sambita, similar in age to the Chinese texts, describe the use of 700 plants. Three primary herbs are listed here as having been studied in relation to alcohol addiction.
Many conventional medicines also are derived from herbs such as aspirin, codeine, ephedrine, morphine and quinine, among others. Even the contraceptive pill was originally derived from the Mexican yam. Altogether, there are an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 plants on earth today but only about 5,000 have been extensively studied for their medicinal applications.
One reason for the lack of herbal medical studies may be that herbs, by their very nature, cannot be patented. Hence, drug companies cannot hold the exclusive right to sell a particular one and as a result are not motivated to invest in testing or promoting them. Yet, herbs are readily available everywhere, and many have been studied for their effectiveness in alcohol addiction.
Kudzu (Pueraria Lobata) is an herb that is cooked with food in China, and is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. Its use dates back to an ancient Chinese text entitled Ben Cho Gang Mu (Li, 1590–1596 AD). It is a naturally growing weed, and its root contains three major isoflavones: puerarin, daidzin, and daidzein. Kudzu was introduced in North America in 1876 in the Southeastern US. It was initially used to prevent soil erosion, and it spread quickly overtaking farms and buildings.
Preliminary research suggests that heavy drinkers who take kudzu extract consume less beer when given an opportunity to drink. So kudzu may minimize the chance that a slip will result in a full relapse by reducing total alcohol intake and binge drinking patterns. Yet, kudzu does not seem to decrease the craving for alcohol.
Women with hormone sensitive conditions should avoid kudzu. Some of these conditions include breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. Kudzu may increase the risk of bleeding when used with other drugs that have antiplatelet or anticoagulant effects.
Another promising herb is milk thistle (Silybum marianum), which has been used for centuries in Europe as a remedy for liver problems. This herb has the remarkable ability to protect the liver from damage resulting from alcohol and other poisonings. Milk thistle safeguards the liver and stimulates secretion of bile. It has been used in the treatment of hepatitis and jaundice, plus in conditions where the liver is under stress from infection, excess alcohol, or chemotherapy.
Milk thistle is also known for its ability to clean and rejuvenate a damaged liver. It is widely used to treat alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic fatty liver, liver cirrhosis, liver poisoning, and viral hepatitis, as well as to protect the liver from the effects of liver-toxic medications.
The active ingredient in milk thistle is silymarin, a substance contained in the seeds. Clinical research suggests that when taken orally, milk thistle may be beneficial for decreasing mortality and improving liver function tests in patients with alcoholic liver disease. Silymarin has successfully opposed alcoholic cirrhosis in baboons and was found to be effective against various liver injuries in rodents. Silymarin was studied under controlled conditions in primates, and was found to oppose the alcohol-induced oxidative stress and to retard the development of alcohol-induced hepatic fibrosis.
In human patients with alcoholic liver disease, controlled trials with silymarin showed beneficial effects such as improved survival. Silymarin has been studied most exhaustively in alcohol-induced liver diseases. Total mortality was lower in silymarin-treated patients compared with those receiving placebo. Therefore it may be useful as an adjuvant in the therapy of alcoholic liver disease.
Milk thistle may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold, and daisies. Women with hormone sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids should avoid it. Milk thistle should not be taken with glucuronidated drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), atorvastatin (Lipitor), diazepam (Valium), digoxin, entacapone (Comtan), irinotecan (Camptosar), lamotrigine (Lamictal), lorazepam (Ativan), lovastatin (Mevacor), meprobamate, morphine and oxazepam (Serax).
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) is a woody, hairy, climbing vine. The European world did not learn about it till after the Spanish conquest of America. In 1569, Spanish explorers discovered passionflowers in Peru and called them granadillas (small pomegranates). They believed the flowers symbolized Christ’s passion. Native Americans used them primarily as a mild sedative, and knew these plants by various names¬ such as maracock. The sedative and sleep-inducing effects of passionflower were described as early as the 17th century. The first reports of the analgesic effects of passionflower came from North America in 1867.
Although several species have been used for its sedative effect, including Passiflora quadrangularis, only Passiflora incarnata is processed into medications and teas on a broad, economic scale. It is typically used for insomnia, gastrointestinal upset related to anxiety or nervousness, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and symptoms of opiate withdrawal. GAD is the most common anxiety disorder. Its primary symptoms are anxiety, motor tension, autonomic hyperactivity, and cognitive vigilance.
In a study on passionflower and anxiety, the medication Oxazepam showed significantly more problems related to job performance impairment than passionflower. Results suggest passionflower is an effective agent for the management of GAD, and its low incidence of job performance impairment, compared to Oxazepam, is a distinct advantage. Hence passionflower shows promise as an aid for anxiety associated with alcohol recovery.
More than 500 species of passionflower have been identified, and more than 400 artificial hybrids have been created. In 1995, Germany’s Commission E approved passionflower as an over-the-counter drug for states of nervous unrest. Its worldwide clinical applications are evident in that Passiflora incarnata is cited as an official plant drug in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia 1983, the United States Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia 1981, the Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia of India 1974, and in the pharmacopoeias of Egypt, France, Germany, and Switzerland. In the US, passionflower is listed on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list.
Another therapy clonidine medication has been utilized as the main protocol for opiate detoxification for several years. Yet, clonidine has its limitations, including lack of efficacy for mental symptoms. However, recent studies have shown clonidine and passionflower together are significantly superior to clonidine alone in the management of mental symptoms. These findings suggest passionflower can be an effective agent in the management of opiate withdrawal.
Altogether, the recent findings on the effectiveness of herbal supplements in treating alcohol addiction are promising. Ultimately, a comprehensive approach to recovery — including traditional medicine and nontraditional techniques — offers the greatest chance for a complete recovery. When you consider the lack of successful alcohol recovery programs available, all viable options must be utilized in order to help millions who are suffering worldwide.