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Natural Awakenings Boston

Herbal Allies Ease Addiction

Jun 01, 2015 05:53PM ● By Katja Swift


The intense stress of living in a society that is losing connection to the things that ground us—community, spirituality and relationships with the Earth and with the other intelligences in our world—robs us of restful respite from stress and can create unhealthy mechanisms for dealing with stressors. These coping mechanisms can eventually lead to addictions. Rebuilding those lost connections can make recovery easier. Along with community and support structures, which are time and again found to be critical in successfully taking actions towards a healthier life, plants are available allies.

Tulsi Tulsi is a favorite herb for moving out of addiction. It has been found that prolonged exposure to cortisol—a hormone produced in response to stress— shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain that converts short term memory to long term memory. Chronic high cortisol levels impact the ability to process and move past negative events in life.

Foundationally, addiction is about stagnation, or being stuck in a place that doesn’t serve the individual. Alcohol, heroin, sugary snacks, gambling, or whatever the addiction may be, becomes the mechanism by which someone uses to cope with stress or the stimulus that isn’t manageable. These coping mechanisms may help someone feel distracted, or numb their discomfort, but they don’t do anything to promote change.

Tulsi can help people move past stuck emotions. It has been shown to lower cortisol levels and provide specific specific neuroprotective action in the hippocampus, both of which can help restore the body’s ability to process negative experiences and move toward change.

Ashwagandha Another helpful adaptogen is Ashwagandha. It also works to protect the hippocampus, as well as to support both the structural formation and the function of neural cells and neural webs. Not only that, but Ashwagandha is particularly good for helping to restore natural cycles. It is most helpful in rediscovering one’s natural sleep/wake rhythm. Without sufficient time spent sleeping, the liver doesn’t have enough time to clear toxins from the body.

Activity is critical for a healthy sleep/wake cycle, and Ashwagandha can help a person not only sleep more effectively, but also be more motivated to get their body moving. When the body is moving, the emotions, which are part of the body, can get moving, too, making it easier to weather the ups and downs that are a normal part of human existence. Seeing these fluctuations as unpleasant yet normal, it is easier to retain enough control to choose less harmful self-soothing habits, and ideally turn to self-care for coping strategies instead.

A favorite method of working with Ashwagandha is in a long-decocted coffee-like beverage that generally consists of some combination of Ashwagandha, Burdock, Chaga, Solomon’s Seal and Codonopsis. The addition of Solomon’s Seal not only has physiological effects, but it supports emotional work by aiding in flexibility and adaptability, and helping one be true to self. Codonopsis is also useful in an addiction situation, as it builds energy gently, at a pace a stressed-out body can handle.

Nettle Nettle is deeply nourishing, which is of critical importance in matters of addiction. People often turn to coping mechanisms when they feel that they are being asked to do more than they have resources available, whether on the job or in a relationship, or otherwise. This is particularly apt in the case of eating addictions. Simply drinking long infused Nettle tea by the quart can allow that person to begin to feel nourished from the inside out, and reduce their need for binge eating.

Nettle also is deeply supportive to kidney health, which is pertinent to not only elimination, but to adrenal health. The kidneys are the “soil” in which the adrenals “grow”, and nourishing that soil is a deeply restorative way to improve adrenal function. Nettle can play an emotional role as well. These feisty, spiny plants that sting can do a great deal to help a person create some space in the world for themselves with healthy boundaries.

Other Useful Herbs Some other nervines that are particularly helpful include Eastern Wood Betony, (Stachys officinalis). Slowly, gently, Betony can help a person learn to feel comfortable and stay present in the body when stressful events occur. It can ease the jarring-ness of transition, whether it’s flight in stress, or return afterwards. Much of the time, the thought of trying to once again associate, or consciously choose to end the dissociating, is anxiety-inducing. Betony makes that transition gentle and non- threatening.

Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is also tremendously helpful. When a situation is what it is, and stressing out about it isn’t going to help, Ghost Pipe can calm the mind. Ghost Pipe also works well for the anxiety that comes from over-stimulation, either from simply living in an over-stimulating society, or from the sensations that go along with a “bad trip”. Sean Donahue writes in Llewellyn’s 2012 Herbal Almanac about using Ghost Pipe successfully to help people come back from druginduced states. He particularly likes it not just for the return to this current shared reality, but also as healing for psychological and spiritual damage that may have occurred while the mind was so open and exposed to other realities.

In the end, the foundational work in healing from addiction is in reconnection— with self, with community, with Cycle, and with the whole body Earth. Central to that work is the recognition that we have choices, we have allies and we have power.

Katja Swift is an herbalist and healer with 18 years of clinical experience. She is also director of CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, located at 25 St. Marys Ct., in Brookline. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call 617-750- 5274 or visit

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