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.

Proposed Natural Treatments

There are no well established natural treatments to aid the treatment of drug addiction, but some have shown a bit of promise.

Passionflower

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.

Acupuncture

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.

Other Natural Approaches

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

Weak evidence hints that the substance lobeline from the herb lobelia might offer benefit for methamphetamine addiction.10-12

A 10-week, double-blind trial failed to find ginkgo helpful for cocaine dependence.8

One study failed to find hatha yoga helpful for enhancing the effectiveness of a methadone maintenance treatment for heroin addiction.9

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