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Can Chinese Herbs Help People Stay Away From Opioids?

Imagine a baseball stadium that can seat 50,000 people. Now imagine all 50,000 seats filled to capacity. Try now if you can, to picture the spectators, representing all walks of life. Now comes the morbid mental imagery: picture all 50,000 of these people watching the ball game dropping dead from a drug overdose. This stark scenario represents statistics for the year 2017, when over 47,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid drug overdose. Death from opioid drug overdoses account for approximately 70% of all drug overdose deaths.1 

Clearly, the labelling of this shockingly-high cause of mortality as a “crisis” or “epidemic” is apt. Whether it’s codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, or fentanyl, opiates have devastated families and communities across a broad swath of America, discriminating not against rich or poor, young or old, nor any ethnicity.

Reasons for the Opiate Addiction

To be sure, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), including Chinese herbs are not a cure for drug addiction or withdrawal symptoms. However, modern research supports the use of Chinese medicine for attenuating the psychological and physiological damage caused by opiates. 

Addressing the symptoms of drug addiction isn’t a new field for Chinese medicine, even though the opiate crisis is a contemporary health concern. In fact, there’s a centuries-old tradition of using Chinese medicine to break dependency to opium, the natural origin of opiates. 

Before reviewing some of the research that supports the use of Chinese medicine for recovery, let’s briefly examine the root causes of opiate addiction…

When someone takes an opioid drug, a sense of euphoria floods the brain. This is why opiates can be effective in managing pain. However, over time, some opiate-dependent users develop tolerance, which is the reason we are in the midst of an epidemic. Approximately 20-30 percent of opiate drug users misuse opiates. Consequently, high doses of opioids may cause cardiac or respiratory arrest. 

Unfortunately, medications for withdrawing and detoxing from opiates can themselves cause side effects. In light of this, can Chinese herbs play a role in supporting opiate-dependant people? 

How Does Chinese Medicine Support Opiate Dependence Recovery?

In China, at least 10 traditional medicines for the treatment of opiate addiction have been approved by the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), with several others in clinical trials. At its most basic level of theory, traditional Chinese medicine can help support both mind and body when it comes to addiction recovery by reinforcing healthy Qi and resolving and removing effects of toxicity.

Research On Chinese Medicine For Opiate Dependency

In addition, combinations of Chinese herbs for detoxification also have efficacy in the rehabilitation of abnormal body functions induced by chronic drug use

According to researchers at the National Institute on Drug Dependence at Peking University in Beijing, co-administration of TCM with modern medicine demonstrates synergistic effects in detoxification. In addition, combinations of Chinese herbs for detoxification also have “efficacy in the rehabilitation of abnormal body functions induced by chronic drug use, including improving immune function,” and supporting mental function. 

“Given that TCM is effective in the prevention of relapse and causes fewer side effects, it may be used widely in the treatment of opiate addiction,” concluded the researchers.2

And according to a Cochrane review, Traditional Chinese Medicine has been shown to reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and has advantages, compared with conventional interventions. The Cochrane review found clinical studies that showed that acupuncture, Chinese medicinal herbs or combination of acupuncture and medicine, were effective for drug addiction particularly for opioid withdrawal syndrome.3

In one observational study, a 51-year-old man with a history of heroin dependence who underwent methadone maintenance treatment for 7 years was reviewed. The man received TCM treatments and switched from methadone to buprenorphine/naloxone. The man experienced strong anxiety symptoms during the initial stage… 

…The researchers recommended a particular Chinese herbal decoction to relieve the man’s symptoms. Using the TCM herbal formula, no withdrawal syndromes were noted, and the subject’s mood gradually improved through TCM treatments. In conclusion, said the researchers, focus on TCM-facilitated treatments for heroin dependence should be increased.4

Opiate Drug Relapse: Can Chinese Medicine Help?

Many people who are able to reduce or eliminate the use of opiates unfortunately relapse. A big reason why is that opiate drugs damage the dopamine system. Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical. The dopamine pathway system can be severely damaged by opioid drugs. Thus far, pharmaceutical drugs have been collectively ineffective at repairing this damage. 

But what about Chinese medicine … can traditional Chinese herbs help support psychological homeostasis, thereby reducing the chances of relapse? One study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined the effectiveness of Chinese herbs on the dopamine system in morphine-dependent rats. The results showed that the specific formula can help preserve or restore dopamine markers.5

Chinese Medicine Formulas To Support Recovery

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese formulas available commercially. So which ones may help offer support from the harmful effects of opiates? The truth is that in order to effectively manage symptoms, you need a three-pronged approach: 

  • Rebalance mental harmony
  • Calm the nervous system and muscles to mitigate pain response
  • Resolve blood stasis; improve blood circulation

For supporting mental health, our formula, NeuroSoothe, has been used for nearly 2000 years to calm both mind and spirit. It was not specifically formulated to address opiate addiction recovery, however, the symptoms NeuroSoothe addresses mirror some of those caused by opiate drug abuse. 

Another critical element in restoring balance after dependence is relaxing the muscles and nerves. For this, our formula Corydalis Relaxe may help. Certain compounds in the namesake herb in this formula, have been shown in research studies to possess natural analgesic properties that are non-addictive. 

And finally, our formula StasisClear, like Corydalis Relaxe, also relaxes muscles and nerves, while also removing blood stasis and Qi obstruction, which can be caused by synthetic opiates.  

Conclusion

The opioid epidemic poses numerous challenges for policy makers, law enforcement officials, emergency response personnel, civic leaders, and for thousands of people, has altered life in heart-shattering ways. It’s our hope that Chinese medicine can be part of the solution in stemming the tide of the crisis. 

Recommended Reading From The ActiveHerb Blog:

Herbal Pain Relief: Say No To Opioids

References:

1. National Institute On Drug Abuse: Opioid Overdose Crisis

2. Traditional Chinese medicine in treatment of opiate addiction.

3. Traditional chinese medicine for opioid withdrawal syndrome

4. Traditional Chinese medicine-facilitated treatments may relieve anxiety symptoms during drug switching

5.  A traditional herbal formula, attenuates spontaneous withdrawal symptoms