The family of drugs loosely known as “narcotics” includes chemicals in the opiate family, such as heroin, along with cocaine and variations of methamphetamine (“speed”). All of these drugs produce intense psychological symptoms during withdrawal, and most cause physical symptoms as well, making them some of the most addictive substances known.
The process of overcoming narcotic addiction involves short-term assistance to ease the immediate withdrawal period, long-term psychological work to induce behavior change, and, in some cases, maintenance treatment with long-acting narcotics such as methadone. New classes of medications are under investigation for aiding withdrawal as well.
There are no well established natural treatments to aid the treatment of drug addiction, but some have shown a bit of promise.
The herb passionflower is thought to have mild sedative properties and has been suggested as an aid to drug withdrawal. A 14-day, double-blind trial enrolled 65 men addicted to opiate drugs and compared the effectiveness of passionflower combined with the drug clonidine to clonidine alone.1 Clonidine is used widely to assist in narcotic withdrawal. It effectively reduces physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure. However, it does not help emotional symptoms, such as drug-craving, anxiety, irritability, agitation, and depression. These symptoms can be quite severe, and they often cause enrollees in drug treatment programs to end participation.
In this 14-day study, the use of passionflower along with clonidine significantly eased the emotional aspects of withdrawal compared to use of clonidine alone. However, more research will be necessary to prove this treatment effective.
Although some animal studies suggest that various forms of acupuncture may have some benefits for chemical dependency,2,3 study results in humans have been mixed at best, with the largest studies reporting no benefits.
For example, while benefits were seen in a much smaller single-blind trial,6 a large placebo-controlled trial that evaluated 620 cocaine-dependent adults found acupuncture no more effective than sham acupuncture or relaxation training.4 Similarly, a single-blind, placebo-controlled study enrolling 236 residential clients found no benefit from ear acupuncture for cocaine addiction.5 In a similar study involving heroin addicts, a high dropout rate made the results difficult to interpret.7 Finally, in a placebo-controlled trial involving 83 people addicted to drugs attending a methadone detoxification clinic, the addition of ear acupuncture did not improve withdrawal symptoms or cravings.19 Methadone, a relatively weak narcotic, is commonly used to treat narcotic addition over the long-term.
Some benefit was found in a small trial with 60 patients taking methadone for heroine addiction. Compared to sham acupuncture, ear and body electroacupuncture was associated with a reduction in the amount of methodone consumed and improved time it takes to fall asleep. Acupuncture did not affect quality of life or heroine cravings.20
One study provides weak evidence that the substance N-acetylcysteine might be helpful for treating cocaine dependence.17 Similarly weak evidence hints at potential benefits for opiate addiction with the herbs brahmi ( Bacopa monniera),13 rosemary,14 and velvet antler.15-16
In a review of 21 studies involving almost 3,000 subjects, researchers concluded that Chinese herbal medicine was as effective as commonly prescribed medications for drug withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts. They could not draw any conclusions, however, regarding which specific herbs were most beneficial.18
1. Akhondzadeh S, Kashani L, Mobaseri M, et al. Passionflower in the treatment of opiates withdrawal: a double-blind randomized controlled trial. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2001;26:369-373.
2. Cheng RS, Pomeranz B, Yu G. Electroacupuncture treatment of morphine-dependent mice reduces signs of withdrawal, without showing cross-tolerance. Eur J Pharmacol. 1980;68:477-481.
3. Ng LK, Douthitt TC, Thoa NB, et al. Modification of morphine-withdrawal syndrome in rats following transauricular electrostimulation: an experimental paradigm for auricular electroacupuncture. Biol Psychiatry. 1975;10:575-580.
4. Margolin A, Kleber HD, Avants SK, et al. Acupuncture for the treatment of cocaine addiction: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2002;287:55-57.
5. Bullock ML, Kiresuk TJ, Pheley AM, et al. Auricular acupuncture in the treatment of cocaine abuse. A study of efficacy and dosing. J Subst Abuse Treat. 1999;16:31-38.
6. Avants SK, Margolin A, Holford TR, et al. A randomized controlled trial of auricular acupuncture for cocaine dependence. Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:2305-2312.
7. Washburn AM, Fullilove RE, Fullilove MT, et al. Acupuncture heroin detoxification: a single-blind clinical trial. J Subst Abuse Treat. 1993;10:345-351.
8. Kampman K, Majewska MD, Tourian K, et al. A pilot trial of piracetam and ginkgo biloba for the treatment of cocaine dependence. Addict Behav. 2003;28:437-448.
9. Shaffer HJ, LaSalvia TA, Stein JP. Comparing Hatha yoga with dynamic group psychotherapy for enhancing methadone maintenance treatment: a randomized clinical trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 1997;3:57-66.
10. Miller DK, Crooks PA, Teng L, Witkin JM, Munzar P, Goldberg SR, Acri JB, Dwoskin LP. Lobeline inhibits the neurochemical and behavioral effects of amphetamine. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2001;296:1023-34.
11. Dwoskin LP, Crooks PA. Related Articles A novel mechanism of action and potential use for lobeline as a treatment for psychostimulant abuse. Biochem Pharmacol. 2002;63:89-98. Review.
12. Harrod SB, Dwoskin LP, Crooks PA, Klebaur JE, Bardo MT. Lobeline attenuates d-methamphetamine self-administration in rats. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2001;298:172-179.
13. Sumathi T, Nayeem M, Balakrishna K, Veluchamy G, Devaraj SN. Alcoholic extract of 'Bacopa monniera' reduces the in vitro effects of morphine withdrawal in guinea-pig ileum. J Ethnopharmacol. 2002;82:75-81
14. Hosseinzadeh H, Nourbakhsh M. Effect of Rosmarinus officinalis L. aerial parts extract on morphine withdrawal syndrome in mice. Phytother Res. 2003;17:938-941.
15. Kim HS, Lim HK, Park WK. Antinarcotic effects of the velvet antler water extract on morphine in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;66:41-49.
16. Kim HS, Lim HK. Inhibitory effects of velvet antler water extract on morphine-induced conditioned place preference and DA receptor supersensitivity in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;66:25-31.
17. Larowe SD, Myrick H, Hedden S, et al. Is cocaine desire reduced by N-acetylcysteine? Am J Psychiatry. 2007;164:1115-1117.
18. Liu TT, Shi J, Epstein DH, et al. A meta-analysis of Chinese Herbal Medicine in treatment of managed withdrawal from heroin. Cell Mol Neurobiol. 2008 Jun 27.
19. Bearn J, Swami A, Stewart D, et al. Auricular acupuncture as an adjunct to opiate detoxification treatment: Effects on withdrawal symptoms. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2008 Nov 11.
20. Chan YY, Lo WY. Clinical efficacy of acupuncture as an adjunct to methadone treatment services for heroin addicts: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Chin Med. 2014;42(3):569-586.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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