Home Education 100 Questions & Answers About Alcoholism
Are there any alternative treatments or herbal remedies for alcoholism?
There is no natural remedy to detoxification from alcohol other than alcohol itself, which is not recommended. Alcohol withdrawal is a medical emergency with significant morbidity and mortality and requires close medical monitoring and the judicious use of benzodiazepines. Some promising studies suggest at least two herbal remedies that may help reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. Finally there may be some natural remedies for insomnia related to alcoholism.
General nutritional deficiencies often occur from alcoholism, including thiamine and vitamin B deficiencies. Patients with alcohol dependence often obtain the majority of their calories from alcohol and thus forego basic nutritional requirements. Additionally, alcoholics are prone to develop pancreatic and liver disease as a result of alcohols toxic effects, which can also lead to poor nutrition. These vitamin deficiencies must be replaced; otherwise, there is a risk of developing anemia and/or dementia as a result of severe deficiencies (see Question 61 for further details). Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) extract has been thought to counteract the harmful effects of alcohol on the liver. In one study, milk thistle extracts reduced death rates due to alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, although another double-blind study did not confirm this finding. Milk thistle extract may protect the cells of the liver by both blocking the entrance of harmful toxins and by helping remove these toxins from the liver cells. Milk thistle has also been reported to regenerate injured liver cells.
Two herbs may directly aid in alcoholism itself. Presently, the most promising natural remedy appears to be kudzu (Pueraria lobata), an herb that grows in the southeast United States, China, and Japan. Chinese traditional medicine men have been using it for centuries to treat alcohol intoxication and hangovers. A recent study published in the Journal of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research demonstrated that kudzu led to reduced consumption of alcohol among binge drinkers by as much as 50%. The mechanism was thought to occur by making alcohol more readily available to the brain by increasing blood flow to the brain, thereby leading to a more potent effect with a reduced amount. No real adverse effects were noted, but further research was advised before a recommendation for its use could be made. Currently, however, the formulation that the researchers used is not available in health food stores. Another herb with promising effects in reducing alcohol consumption appears to be St.John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum), commonly thought to have mild antidepressant properties. The effectiveness of St. John's Wort is not without side effects and can interact with other medications such as SSRIs.
Insomnia (see Question 58) can be a chronic disabling problem. Aside from the remedies already described, some natural remedies may aid in sleep. Melatonin is a natural food supplement that is available over the counter and is produced by the brain to regulate the sleep/wake cycle. It has been used with modest success, although studies generally fail to show overall efficacy. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is an herbal product that improves one's sense of quality sleep when taken over a 1- to 2-week period for people struggling with mild to moderate insomnia; however, there have been no studies using this herbal product with patients suffering from insomnia related to alcoholism.
Are vaccines available for various addictive drugs?
The idea that one can become vaccinated against alcoholism or any other addiction is an intoxicating notion. The idea is to have the body produce antibodies against the addictive drugs. Antibodies are molecules produced by the body's immune system that attach to foreign invaders, in this case, the intoxicating drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine, or nicotine, rendering them incapable of either entering the brain altogether or attaching to the receptors that lead to the sensation of intoxication. Many pharmaceutical companies have developed such agents, and they have begun human clinical trials. As exciting as that line of research is, no fruitful vaccine against alcoholism or any other addiction has yet to be either discovered or invented although attempts have been made. To date, however, the vaccines have been disappointing. A Google search on the Internet yields nothing beyond the year 2002. Aside from whether such vaccines may be effective, investing in their development by pharmaceutical companies has some more practical issues to contend with. Who will pay for the treatment? Most people with substance abuse problems lack the resources. The other issue has to do with the simple fact that it is hard to run a clinical trial with this population because of issues of compliance (i.e., staying in the study, taking the medication, following the instructions, and getting to the appointments). A 30% to 50% dropout rate can spell disaster for a clinical trial.
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