Acupuncture and Addiction

A woman sitting in the lotus position with her legs crossed.Today, there appears to be new hope for those who suffer from addictions to substances harmful to their health. Acupuncture is rapidly increasing in popularity as an effective aid in the control of many addictions—from serious ones involving alcohol and hard drugs to relatively less serious ones involving nicotine and overeating.

There is strong physiological evidence supporting the use of acupuncture in this area. Research has shown that acupuncture can raise the level of endorphins in the nervous system. Resembling opiates in structure and function, endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Their level is also increased by endurance exercises, and they are responsible for the phenomenon called “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria experienced by long-distance runners who have crossed the five-mile line. It seems that raising the level of endorphins in the nervous system can alleviate the cravings and withdrawal symptoms experienced by people giving up smoking or drugs. Some researchers also believe that the desire to eat is also mediated by the endorphin level in the brain, which would explain why acupuncture helps dieters to control their appetites.

Chinese Medicine has its own explanation of how acupuncture works.

Chinese medical theory is based on the concept of yin and yang, which are dynamic and complementary opposites observed in all the processes of nature. In a healthy individual, yin and yang are in relative balance. Addicts often suffer from a deficiency of yin. Chinese medical theory, which comprehends the body metaphorically, relates yin to substance, quiescence, and the element of water. Yang relates to function, activity, and the element of fire. Yin nourishes, and yang consumes. When yin, or the water element, is deficient, fire is not held in check and rages out of control. Since it is the product of a deficit, it is called empty fire because it has no substance to fuel it. On a psychological level, such an imbalance creates feelings of emptiness and desperation. Physiologically, it manifests as frenetic hyperactivity. The addict is driven to use and abuse, but the drug exacerbates the fire and further depletes the yin; hence, the feeling of power he or she gains is exaggerated and merely temporary, leading to even more desperation.

The treatment involves nourishing the yin by treating points on the outside of the ear. Short, thin, sterile needles are inserted at three to five points. Patients sit or lie comfortably for about forty-five minutes. The treatments often have a profoundly calming effect on the mind and body, creating feelings of peace and well-being. Three of the five acupuncture points strengthen the liver, kidneys and lungs, which are the major organs of elimination. They have often grown weak in addicts because they have been subjected to the daily burden of eliminating an excess of toxins from the body.

People addicted to hard drugs are advised to receive daily treatment until they are clean. They then receive treatments a couple of times a week for a while to help them to remain so. Alcoholics also require daily treatments during the initial period of treatment. To ensure long-term abstinence, both groups are encouraged to seek counseling and participate in a support group.

Interestingly, alcoholics receiving acupuncture during the withdrawal period rarely experience seizures.

A woman sitting in the lotus position with her legs crossed.

Smokers are in a different category because nicotine is a much milder drug. It does not produce the dramatic effects of hard drugs, though it is probably just as addicting in a more insidious way. Smokers do not generally need daily treatments and can usually kick the habit in a shorter period of time. After one or two treatments, the craving for nicotine is usually sharply reduced. After four or five treatments spread over a two-week period, seven out of ten patients will have managed to quit. Others will have drastically cut down on the number of cigarettes smoked daily. The same five points on the ear are used. Smokers need not come in daily, so after each treatment, small pellets or press tacks are taped over these points, and the patient is sent home with instructions to press on them frequently. This pressure creates a mini-stimulus, which helps to keep the endorphin level high.

Acupuncture is effective for many other conditions as well. Acupuncture has a 3000-year old history and has only recently been found to be useful for addictions. The World Health Organization lists over 40 disorders that respond favorably to acupuncture. Among these are chronic pain, injuries, back and neck pain, chronic fatigue, headaches, depression (mild), stress disorders, hypertension, insomnia, digestive disorders, pre-menstrual syndrome and other women’s problems, constipation, allergies and the common cold.

Written by: Sandra M. Longworth R.Ac, R. TCMP – Registered Acupuncturist and Registered Traditional Chinese Practitioner