Summer 2011 : Addictions and Acupuncture

Addiction is a complex problem. In our culture we are used to thinking of addicts as people who live on the fringes of our society, cut off from normal life and behavior, but that is actually the opposite of what is generally true. Functional addicts exist amongst us everywhere, living their lives at levels that keep them together for the most part. Similarly, the substances that we become addicted to can be remarkably different than we expect. You can overuse anything really, whether it’s alcohol, or drugs, or food, or even exercise. It is the compulsion to use that distinguishes the addict. If there is an internal struggle, a desire to stop doing something, then there is hope. But it is an intensely personal problem and one that will not be successfully resolved unless the person who is addicted has a serious commitment to changing their lifestyle and behavior.

The mechanism that allows acupuncture to work so well for addictions were first glimpsed when studying how acupuncture affects the neural pain pathways in acupuncture pain relief. Many of the same neurochemicals that are triggered by the use of addictive substances share pathways with our own internally produced pain controlling systems. This makes sense as to why people become so addicted and dependent on these substances; they allow them to live life without pain, something most of us desire. Acupuncture also works on some of these pathways and its effects on several neurotransmitters have been regarded as the primary reason acupuncture works at all. Basically, what the physician is trying to do is replace the abused substance temporarily with the stimulated natural internal chemicals induced by acupuncture and allow the person enough recovery time and support to then transition to living free from the problem substance. It is for this reason that you have different periods of intense acupuncture at the beginning of treatment, so that while the body is metabolizing the remaining trace amounts of the abused substance in the blood, the patient is receiving support.

Smoking is one of the most common addictive behaviors that we openly see on a regular basis in our culture. The number of new smokers, especially among young women, grows every year, only being offset by how many smokers die of smoke related illness every day. Stopping smoking is one of the most common reasons for seeking treatment with acupuncture. Acupuncture can help regulate and ease the cravings, anxiety, and agitation that go along with trying to stop smoking but it is still fundamentally up to the person trying to quit to be able to keep themselves from submitting to any urges to resume smoking again. I recommend anyone trying to stop smoking get treatments every day for 4 days so that the initial hump of getting past the withdrawal symptoms, like irritability and depression, is an easier transition.

Addictions to alcohol and illegal drugs are similar to tobacco addiction in that the person recovering from such substance abuse must play a vital and involved role in their own return to a healthy state. It is also important for each person trying to recover from an addiction to have a supportive network of friends, family, peer groups, or professional counselors so that the many psychological aspects of addiction and recovery are taken care of appropriately.

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