Extinguishing addictions--mind, body & nutrition

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On some level, we're all addicted to something. Things that we can't --or believe we can't live without.

Some addictions are quite harmless; in fact, they could be classified as cravings, rather than full-blown addictions. The key difference between the two is the "physiological" aspect. If you have a craving, you may strongly long for, or desire something, but if you have an addiction, there is a compulsive physiological need for that something.

While addictions are numerous and can take on many different forms, we will focus here on four common addictions afflicting Americans: alcoholism, nicotine/smoking, caffeine/coffee, and food-related addictions.

Alcoholism
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), "Nearly 14 million adult Americans meet diagnostic criteria for the medical disorders alcohol abuse and alcoholism." In fact, more than 100,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes, according to NIAAA.

In addition to the human costs, there are economic costs, as well. The NIAAA estimates that the economic costs to society from these alcohol-related disorders is a staggering $150 billion annually.

For those suffering with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, and desperately trying to break the addiction -- in addition to the recovery programs that focus on the psychological, spiritual, and behavioral aspects of recovery -- there are some nutritional and dietary approaches that I have found to work quite well.

Allow me to share with you a recent case of mine and how we were able to bring it to a happy ending:

Mary and Pete, my long-time patients, had just retired when the hammer fell. Several years earlier, their son and daughter-in-law had been killed in an auto accident, and they had been left to bring up their teenage granddaughter, Naomi, who had been devastated by her loss. Not long ago, they discovered that Naomi was an alcoholic. Mary and Pete's minister advised them to put her into a rehab clinic.

From my chair opposite Mary, I could see tears forming in her eyes.

"Dr. Langer, Naomi needs that kind of care and environment, but it costs a fortune -- around $1,500 a day. Our savings and retirement would be wiped out in no time."

I told her about the alcoholic intervention nutrient, glutamine, discovered by the late and brilliant biochemist, Roger Williams, Ph.D. He recommended 2-4 g of L-glutamine daily for alcoholics.

Knowing Williams' formula, I had put several alcoholic patients on 2 g daily. If that didn't solve the problem, I moved them up to 3 or 4 g. In almost every instance, 4 g worked.

I was surprised to read in the recent book, Dr. Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution, that Robert Atkins, M.D., of New York City, uses 12 g daily of glutamine for his alcoholic patients. It worked in more than 75 percent of his cases. Perhaps, then, in most instances, alcoholics are deficient in, or lack, glutamine, the most abundant amino acid in the human body. It's important for synthesizing other amino acids, for contributing to the creation of the antioxidant glutathione, to glucosamine, and niacin.

Glutamine energizes the immune system and the brain, protects structural integrity of the intestines, and acts as a special delivery system to take body proteins from where there is a surplus to where there is a deficiency.

Recent research indicates that it can protect against fatty buildups in the liver and help with cirrhosis of the liver in its early stages, as discussed by biochemist J.C. Teran in a recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Another helpful supplement for alcoholics, especially those with considerable liver impairment or cirrhosisis is milk thistle (Silybum marianum). This botanical, with its high flavonoid content, may increase the survival rate and life span of alcoholics supplementing with it.

Important to my specific program of alcoholic detoxification is 500 mg of vitamin C three times daily. Equally important is a vitamin B-complex, containing 100 mg of each major constituent.

Added to this nutritional arsenal against alcoholism, one must add the mineral zinc, as it is one of the key nutrients involved in the breakdown of alcohol, according to Michael T. Murray, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D., in their Second Edition of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine.

I also urge patients to eat four to five small meals daily, rather than the usual three. This is to keep blood sugar from sinking too low at any time and triggering a desire for alcohol. A large, daily leafy-green salad also seems to reduce the urge to drink.

We put Naomi on 3 g of glutamine daily and the rest of my regimen. Naomi, consequently, lost the craving to drink alcohol. Her grandparents urged her to talk out -- and cry away -- the depression that had started with the death of her parents. She did. I also put Naomi on the anti-depressive St. John's Wort, taken three times daily with meals. Her recovery was remarkable. She has not had alcohol in more than a year, no longer craves it, and is now a happy, well-adjusted young woman.

Nicotine
According to the American Cancer Society, "Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in our society. [...] Tobacco use is responsible for nearly one in five deaths in the United States." They add, "Smoking accounts for at least 29 percent of all cancer deaths, is a major cause of heart disease, and is associated with conditions ranging from colds and gastric ulcers to chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and cerebrovascular disease."

Murray and Pizzorno, in their Encyclopedia, mention that, in addition to smoking's negative effects on physical health, it is also a significant factor in depression. "Central to the effect of nicotine is the stimulation of adrenal hormone secretion, including cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels are a well-recognized feature of depression," they say.

When trying to quit smoking, it's important to avoid places and activities which may increase the urge to smoke: bars, the pool hall, a card-game with smoking friends, even the company of friends who smoke.

A lot of smokers trying to quit make the mistake of substituting sweets, coffee, caffeinated drinks, and alcohol for cigarettes. Be warned! These usually act as triggers for starting to smoke again. Another trigger is realizing you are gaining weight. Instead, start an exercise program.

The let-down of fatigue from abstinence from smoking can be alleviated by the stimulating amino acid L-tyrosine. Usually 1,000 mg about 30 minutes before each meal helps. Warning! L-tyrosine should not be taken along with MAO-inhibitor antidepressants, because, in combination, they can elevate the blood pressure of some individuals.

One of the best natural approaches for reducing the cravings for cigarettes is homeopathy, with many different single and combination remedies available in most health food stores.

One of the most helpful remedies, and one that should be at the top of your smoking-cessation program, is wild oats (Arena sativa). Two or three capsules taken with each of three meals have brought remarkable relief to some of my patients. Other homeopathic remedies to consider in your efforts to overcome your addictions to tobacco (nicotine) include: tabacum (Nicotiana tabacum), nicotinum, nux vomica, and staphysagria.

Sheldon Saul Hendler, M.D., Ph.D., in The Purification Prescription writes that other botanicals that are "useful in nicotine withdrawal and/or abstinence include garlic, onions, red peppers and other hot peppers, ginger, and licorice."

Caffeine
A third addiction is to caffeine, usually manifested in incessant coffee drinking. I never considered it a true addiction until many patients came to me with heartburn, excessive need to urinate, nervousness, too rapid heartbeat, inability to sit still, sleeplessness, and, worst of all, the inability to break the habit. This last symptom proved that what I was dealing with was a true addiction.

For some patients, it's easy to quit -- they cope with a few days of headaches, and go on from there to caffeine-free coffee substitutes, which are well represented in health food stores. But for most, the road to a caffeine-free existence is not so simple, and a gradual intake-reduction may be less painful. For example, if you drink five cups daily, reduce to four daily for a week, then three daily for a week, and so on, until you cut it out completely. Another approach is to blend regular coffee with coffee substitutes, gradually increasing the ratio in favor of the substitute. With these methods of gradual reduction, headaches rarely occur.

When the headaches do occur, rather than taking aspirin, I recommend the herb feverfew. This really works -- and without side effects.

In addition to the headaches, another symptom many experience is a decrease in energy levels. As with quitting tobacco, I suggest 1,000 mg of L-tyrosine about 30 minutes before each day's meals. It is an ideal and wholesome substitute. (Again, it is not to be taken if you're on an MAO-inhibitor-type antidepressant.)

Other recommended energy-boosting supplements to try include (in addition to a well-balanced multivitamin/mineral and a B-complex): ginseng (Korean/Chinese or North American), ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, licorice, gotu kola, schizandra, and ginkgo. Avoid herbs with a caffeine content, such as ephedra (ma huang), guarana, and Afrikan kola nut.

Food addiction and eating disorders
Lastly, let's take a brief look at the complex topic of food addiction and eating disorders.

I say complex because food is very different from alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine in that we need it for survival. If we have a problem with it -- whether we eat too much, too little, or whatever the case may be -- we can never just give it up.

Also, experts disagree as to whether or not food can be classified as an addiction. Semantics aside, "food abuse" is serious business.

An excellent book, Eating Disorders and Obesity, begins: "In modern society, nutritional and appetite disorders occur in epidemic proportions and are serious health hazards." Such disorders include obesity, binge eating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.

Jean Antonello, R.N., B.S.N., points out in her book, Breaking Out of Food Jail, "The term 'eating disorder' usually conjures up visions of emaciated girls working out at the local health club, their frail, overworked, skeletal frames sending shivers of aversion through most people who notice them. But people with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, most are overweight." She describes the cycle associated with eating disorders as the "Feast or Famine Cycle," or, more appropriately, she says, the "Famine or Feast Cycle," since, "The famines come first and it's the famines that must be fixed to stop the Cycle. The feasts, I have found, stop quietly as a result." In short, not eating, is not a solution; rather than learning to avoid food, we need to learn how to live with it -- this rule holds true for anorexic and obese persons alike.

As far as natural nutritional approaches for eating disorders, most are geared toward weight loss. Some surprising herbs found in natural weight-loss products include: St. John's wort, since depression is often a motivating force in poor eating habits; and kava, since anxiety, too, often plays a role in poor eating habits. Some more well-known natural weight-loss aids include: chromium, garcinia cambogia, ma huang, 5-HTP, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), to name a few.

Addictions are tough to break; however, there is hope and help from many sources to support you in your decision to take back control of your life.

REFERENCES
Atkins, Robert C., M.D. Dr. Atkins' Vita-Nutrient Solution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Brownell, Kelly D. Eating Disorders and Obesity. New York: The Guilford Press, 1995.

Hendler, Sheldon Saul, M.D., Ph.D. The Purification Prescription. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991.

Murray, Michael, N.D., and Pizzorno, Joseph, N.D. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd Edition. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1998.

Phelps, Janice Keller, M.D., and Nourse, Alan E., M.D. The Hidden Addiction and How to Get Free. Boston: Little Brown, 1986.

Teran, J.C. "L-Glutamine and Fatty Liver," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 62:897-900, 1995.

Williams, Roger, J., Ph.D. The Wonderful World Within You. New York: Bantam Books, 1977.

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By Stephen Langer, Contributing Writer

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