Addictions have been a part of our society throughout history. The ongoing quest to understand and treat addiction can be viewed through the lens of Chinese Medicine (both a medical and philosophical system). Addiction in the most simplified terms would be considered an imbalance of Yin and Yang. The gathering, encompassing, cooling water like quality of Yin loses balance with the expansive, expressive warming fire like quality of Yang. Simply put, in the ongoing relationship between the individual and substance or activity, control is lost.
What is often expressed through addiction is an unstoppable, insatiable yearning. This constant craving expressed through addiction shares many characteristics with a yearning for transcendence. Humans and animals throughout history have sought means to alter their state of mind and being. Reliance upon an external substance to achieve this can always pose a risk of dependence.
Chinese Medicine is quite willing to allow for seemingly opposing disease models of addiction. Equal importance is placed on biological, genetic predisposition factors as well as social and emotional factors.
Johann Hari, author of “Chasing the Scream” states “We still think of addiction as mainly caused by chemical hooks and moral failings when other factors are equally needed to be seen as indicators like isolation and trauma.” (1)
In Chinese Medicine it’s believed that inherent in each of us is a nature that is to be fulfilled through its fullest expression which manifests as health or that we are doing our best and getting stuck in the process. What we get stuck in says a lot about what’s in us, still searching for expression. So it’s not just about the addiction, it’s about finding the clearest, truest form of expression of our nature.
Marc Lewis, author of “Biology of Desire, Why Addiction is Not a Disease” says ´Addicts aren’t diseased and they don’t need medical intervention in order to change their lives. What is needed is sensitive, intelligent, social scaffolding to hold the pieces of their imagined future in place – while they reach toward it.” (2)
Chinese Medicine does not deny the disease process that unfolds with addiction yet also looks to support the holding of the pieces of the clients imagined future in fulfilling this natural expression. Whether it’s through a trusted relationship with a medical practitioner and/or through powerful fellowship in programs such as A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous), it’s clear that successful treatment is not achieved alone.
“The art of acupuncture is to unblock the channels and vessels, regulate Qi and Blood, manage the flow and counter flow at their entry and exit and convergences.” CH 1 Nei Jing Ling Shu (6)
Although addiction is not an actual diagnosis in Chinese Medicine, it can greatly assist addicts with both physical and non-physical symptoms. Acupuncture is now being utilized and integrated into many treatment facilities for addiction. It can help with the signs and symptoms of the withdrawal process. In the 1970’s Dr. Michael Smith of New York’s Lincoln Hospital developed a 5 point protocol that focused on the ear alone, called Acudetox method or NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) (3). It can make detoxification less painful, helps with cravings and decreases anxiety.(4)
There are estimated at least 1500 addiction programs worldwide using some form of acupuncture for addictions and recent studies demonstrate that the NADA protocol in addition to standard care is significantly better than standard addictions care alone.(5)
Early on in treatment support is given through the withdrawal process. At other times support is given for what is underlying and triggering the behaviour and addressing such things as stress, anxiety, depression, a history of trauma. Chronic pain both physical and emotional undermines someone’s quality of life and ability to make lasting change so needs to be simultaneously addressed.
While acupuncture is clearing blockages in the channels and vessels, regulating and managing flow of information through the body/mind, it’s the task of the practitioner to be a conduit for nature. It’s their job to create space for which the addict can rediscover their own innate healing power. This rediscovery is of our true identity in its fullest, where in an open, calm, expanded state, those expressing their identity through addiction can enter into a realm of possibility of embarking on a life with greater degrees of control and inner sovereignty, and clearer expression of their nature.
(5) Chang, B. H., Sommers E. E. , Hertz (2010) Acupuncture and relaxation response to substance use disorder recovery. Journal of Substance Use 15(6), 390-401.
(3) Smith Michael (2010) Ear Acupuncture in addiction treatment: NADA protocol. In D. Brizen and R. Costenader (Eds), Chinese Addiction Psychiatry (232-236). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(4) Beaus, Ryan ( 2013) Evidence for the NADA Ear Acupuncture Protocol – Summary of Research.
(2) Lewis, Marc (2015) The Biology of Desire. Doubleday Canada
(1)Hari, Johann (2015) Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Bloomsbury Press.
(6) Lu, Henry (2004) A Complete Translation of Nei Jing and Nan Jing. International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.