Alcoholism is an addiction characterized by a chronic dependency on alcohol. Unlike alcohol abusers, who drink too much but are not dependent on alcohol, alcoholics feel a compulsion to drink uncontrollably. Alcoholism can lead to family and work problems, and can also cause serious health problems such as liver disease. Western and Asian herbalists have used medicinal plants to treat alcohol abuse, addiction and hangovers for centuries. Herbs can be effective either as a primary therapy or in conjunction with conventional therapies. A doctor should be consulted before beginning herbal therapy.
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St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is a perennial herb native to Europe but found throughout Asia and North America. The plant is best known for its antidepressant effects. This would make it useful in treating alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but St. John’s wort also deters the desire for alcohol, and therefore could be effective in treating alcohol dependency. A study published in the July-August 2005 issue of “Alcohol and Alcoholism” found that an extract of St. John’s wort given by injection reduced voluntary ethanol intake in test animals who had a preference for alcohol. The researchers also found that, over time, St. John’s wort reduced the craving for alcohol. This research suggests that St. John’s wort may be helpful in treating alcoholism and preventing a relapse in recovering alcoholics, however results from human studies may differ from animal studies.
Kudzu (Pueraria lobata) is a perennial vine native to Japan and China that is found throughout the southeastern United States. It is a popular herb in traditional Chinese medicine for treating alcohol hangovers. Kudzu contains daidzin, a plant estrogen and antioxidant. Daidzin also inhibits an enzyme known as mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase, or ALDH2, which is linked to alcoholism. A study published in the 2009 issue of “The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse” found that, due to its daidzin constituent, kudzu root has an effect similar to the anti-alcoholism drug disulfiram. The researchers suggest that kudzu may be useful for treating alcoholism and for preventing relapse.
Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) is a perennial shrub native to central Africa. It contains the psychoactive alkaloid known as ibogaine, which is used to treat addictions, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Ibogaine acts on the serotonin, dopamine and opioid receptors to reduce substance cravings. Ibogaine may be toxic in high doses, so an ibogaine analog, known as 18-Methoxycoronaridine, has been developed to produce the same anti-addiction effects as ibogaine but without the toxic side effects. A study published in the June 2003 issue of “Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior” found that ibogaine and its analog reduce cravings and suppress excessive drinking in test animals. The researchers attribute this effect to ibogaine’s actions on the neurotransmitters that control drinking behavior.