Addiction - a dependency upon a drug or substance that is detrimental to a person’s psychical or mental health - is on the rise. An actual opioid epidemic is raging in the United States, with a fourfold rise in synthetic opioid overdose deaths since 2000.
Then, there are the state-sponsored drugs such as cigarettes and alcohol; the acceptable faces of addiction. In the UK alone, alcohol harms are estimated to cost the National Health Service around £3.5 billion annually and over 20% of deaths in the United States are from tobacco. It would seem then that addiction treatment options are failing. But could plant medicine hold some ancient answers to a modern day problem?
What is Addiction?
Addiction is characterised by a subject’s “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
The ‘War on Drugs’ response is trying to cut off the supply of the addictive substances (apart from alcohol and cigarettes, of course), but renowned addiction specialist Dr Gabor Mate suggests that no substance in itself is addictive. “Whether that substance is crystal meth, or heroin, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol,” he says, “or whether it's behaviors like sexaholism, internet addiction, gambling, shopping, work and so on, it's not the actual activity or substance that induces that addiction, it's that internal relationship to it, the susceptibility. What creates susceptibility? It's very simple: trauma.”
So while many addiction treatments focus on the detox or withdrawal process, a crucial element of preventing relapse is the healing of past traumas, most of which stem back to events in an addict’s childhood.
Mate explains: “Trauma induces its own set of beliefs and coping styles. One coping style is to shut down emotionally so as not to feel. Now you become alien to yourself. So you don't feel the pain, and as one patient of mine said very eloquently, pardon the language, ‘The reason I do drugs is because I don't want to feel the fucking feelings I feel when I don't do the drugs.’”
So it’s easy to see, without touching the deep pain and suffering that lies behind almost all cases of addiction, relapse will happen time and time again. Thankfully, Mother Nature has some answers that ease both the horrendous withdrawal symptoms experienced when quitting drugs, and bring healing to long-standing emotional wounds.
A selection of our products
1. CBD oil
Let’s start first of all with a plant-based compound that scientists believe may safely cut craving across many key addictions, and with no unwanted side effects.
CBD, otherwise known as Cannabidiol, is a key non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis and hemp. Not only is it completely non-toxic and non-addictive, but studies show when taken in conjunction with other drugs, CBD actually reduces any pleasure experienced. CBD has also been noted to lessen cravings for everything from heroin, tobacco to cocaine.
Researchers are not sure why this happens, but suggest that the reduction in anxiety, which occurs through CBD’s 5HT1-A serotonin receptor activation, could be a contributing factor, as well the compound’s ability to dampen glutamate levels which skyrocket when someone is coming off drugs.
A further benefit of CBD oil is its neuroprotective action, countering the brain cell damage caused by long-term addiction. In a study carried out on rodents, Cannabidiol was found to reduce the neurodegeneration caused by alcohol abuse.
As a tropical tree traditionally used in South East Asia and Africa to ease opiate withdrawals, Kratom has been gaining in popularity, both as an alternative to prescription painkillers and as a way to come off heavy drugs.
Kratom’s principal active compounds are the alkaloids mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitra-gynine (7-HMG). While not classed as opioids, they partially activate the mu-opiate receptor, as well as binding to the delta-opiate receptors.
The FDA and the DEA have been quick to highlight 36 Kratom-related deaths in the US, a number paling into insignificance compared to the 200,000 Americans who died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016.
Kratom’s potential as a way to lessen withdrawal symptoms was examined in a study conducted in Thailand by the International Drug Policy Consortium. Researchers found that the “effect of Kratom on the body reduces pain from withdrawal symptoms and helps manage detoxification” in long-term addicts of drugs as varied as heroin and alcohol.
3. In The Kitchen Cupboard: Green Tea, Chamomile and Passionflower
Three herbal remedies found in many cupboards have also been seen to lessen cravings when quitting an addiction.
Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as green tea, contains epigallocatechin gallate which lessens withdrawal symptoms on a dose-dependent basis by inhibiting both morphine-induced increased cAMP concentrations and dopamine receptor signaling.
Another popular herbal remedy, chamomile, has been shown to reduce acute signs of withdrawal in preclinical trials. Here we’re talking injecting chamomile extract, rather than supping on a mild herbal infusion, but when given to rats it significantly reduced their cravings while coming off morphine.
And finally passion flower extract, when administered alongside Clonidine, a medication often prescribed during the detox process, showed a superior ability to reduce mental discomfort experienced in detox, compared to Clonidine alone.
When it comes to healing the emotional trauma underlying most addictions, there is one plant medicine that stands out above the rest: ayahuasca, the psychotropic brew prepared using the vine of Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) and leaves from the psychotria viridis (Chacruna) bush.
Ayahuasca’s psychoactive effect comes from the chacruna leaves which contain the psychedelic compound, dimethyltryptamine (DMT). However, without the harmala alkaloids found in the Ayahuasca vine, the DMT would be immediately broken down in the gut before any of its psychoactive effect reached the central nervous system.
Somehow however, the indigenous tribes in the Amazon discovered this unique chemical interaction and have been using ayahuasca in shamanic ceremonies for thousands of years. For westerners, ayahuasca has become a way of facing inner demons, healing past traumas and finding a sense of peace; a therapeutic combination that has made it the subject of research for treating addiction.
Dr Gabor Mate, is at the forefront of using ayahuasca in addiction. A common experience in ayahuasca ceremonies is for participants to revisit painful past events that have been left unprocessed. Many also observe negative patterns of the mind that may lead to habits such as addiction.
Dr Mate: “So if you can become conscious of your patterns and your beliefs, these core beliefs, and how you attain these beliefs, then you can let go of them. Rigid feeling, thought, and behavioral patterns can unclench; the self can rearrange itself and develop its inner and outer resources more deeply. So there we get to the concept of a true self and one that can be reconfigured, or at least rediscovered with the help of the psychoactive plants, particularly ayahuasca.”
Participants in a study examining the use of ayahuasca as way to reduce drug relapse shared their experiences:
“Before the ceremony I was struggling with my addiction, crack cocaine, for many years. And when I went to this retreat, it more or less helped me release the hurt and pain that I was carrying around and trying to bury that hurt and pain with drugs and alcohol. Ever since this retreat I’ve been clean and sober. So it had a major impact on my life in a positive way . . . My family is back in my life. My daughter is back at home. And, we are getting closer and closer every day as time goes on.” (female subject, aged 41).
Another 53 year old male participant reported his experiences with ayahuasca helped the physical sensations from detoxing. “No cravings whatsoever for the crack cocaine or drinking, whatsoever. It’s pretty strong that Ayahuasca as far as removing that craving, that desire, that habit, or however you want to describe it, for me it’s not even there.”
The small pilot study on 12 subjects with problematic substance use combined counselling sessions with two ayahuasca ceremonies. Researchers noted, “self-reported alcohol, tobacco and cocaine use declined... reported reductions in problematic cocaine use were statistically significant. All study participants reported positive and lasting changes from participating in the retreats.”
However, a word of warning should be noted when it comes to taking ayahuasca, particularly if consumed by someone battling addiction. It is not uncommon for an emotional catharsis to take place, therefore ayahuasca should only be taken under the direction of an experienced facilitator, psychologist or indigenous shaman.
Psilocybin, commonly known as magic mushrooms, are another natural psychotropic substance showing promise for treating addiction.
So far, studies have centred around tobacco addiction. On such trial carried out by John Hopkin’s University involved 15 heavy smokers where were given Cognitive Behavioural Therapy alongside three sessions of psilocybin. Six months after the treatment had finished, 80% of the participants continued to be cigarette free.
Lead researcher Matthew Johnson says: “The results are not conclusive, but we strongly suspect that it is the psilocybin playing a role, because the quit rates are so much higher than even the best current psychological or pharmacological treatments for tobacco addiction, which are typically around 35%.”
It’s thought psilocybin’s success in reducing craving and preventing relapse is due to the activation of serotonin receptors in the brain. Something that prompted psilocybin’s inclusion in a small study on subjects with alcohol dependency. Encouragingly, they showed sustained abstinence 36 weeks after the trial had ended. Researchers noted, “The intensity of effects in the first psilocybin session strongly predicted change in drinking during weeks 5-8 and also predicted decreases in craving and increases in abstinence self-efficacy during week 5.”
Like most psychotropic substances, Psilocybin is classified as a schedule 1 drug which means it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use.
Ibogaine is the psychoactive alkaloid naturally occurring in the West African iboga shrub.
Traditionally taken in healing ceremonies by members of the Bwiti religion in various parts of West Africa, its use for quitting opioids was discovered in the 1960s by Howard Lotsof. One of the attractive properties of Ibogaine is that its addiction busting effects are usually achieved after a single or limited number of doses.
In one study, 30 subjects were given Ibogaine as part of their detox process from opioids. Withdrawal symptoms were significantly reduced, and one month post treatment, 50% were still opioid free.
In a similar way to psilocybin and ayahuasca, the subjects reported observing a kind of slide show of their life, which researchers described as “a panoramic, rapid readout of long-term visual memory, and equanimity regarding the material retrieved.”
One participant noted: “You could safely say that iboga will give an opiate addict several months to a half a year of freedom from cravings and an expanded awareness. This gives the user a period of time in which to get his/her life together and learn to face things straightforwardly, directly and honestly. Iboga will not do the work for you. However, it will help you do your own work.”
However, Ibogaine is classified as a schedule 1 drug in the United States and many other countries. Not only that, a statistically significant number of mortalities (1 in 300) have been recorded mostly from cardiac arrhythmia, meaning that anyone with an existing heart condition should not consider taking this plant under any circumstances.
When it comes to addiction, there are no magic bullets that eliminate both cravings and prevent relapse. But it does seem possible that mother nature has provided us with some useful tools to heal underlying emotional trauma, as well as reducing some of the unpleasant physiological craving symptoms. Whichever path you take, always consult your general medical practitioner and tap into any psychological support available, be it talking therapy or specialist addiction support groups.
To read more about CBD and addiction see this in depth article.