Acupuncture for alcohol use disorder can be extremely helpful for those that are recovering. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism, 14.4 million adults 18 and older had alcohol use disorder, and of that number, only 7.9 percent received treatment. This is not even including the hundreds of thousands of adolescents age 12-17 that have alcohol use disorder, 401,000 to be exact. Acupuncture can be a successful modality to be a part of someone’s recovery program or on its own if the person is out of recovery, and wants to maintain their sobriety and healthy lifestyle.
What is Alcohol Addiction?
Alcohol addiction can be mild, moderate, or severe depending on the number of symptoms one experiences, but the key is always early intervention. Alcohol use disorder is defined as a pattern of alcohol use that involves being preoccupied with alcohol, using & pursuing alcohol even when it causes problems, problems controlling how much one drinks, and having withdrawal symptoms when the drinking decreases or stops. Essentially, any alcohol use that puts your (and others) health or safety at risk.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Unable to control the amount of alcohol being
- A life revolving around drinking (spending time
drinking, getting/pursuing alcohol, or recovering from alcohol dependency)
- A strong craving to drink alcohol
- Interference with daily life (unable/failing to
fulfill obligations at work, home, or school due to alcohol use)
- Reducing or giving up completely any social
activities or hobbies
- Continuing to drink even with the knowledge of
it causing physical, personal, or social problems
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as
sweating, shaking, nausea, etc when not consuming alcohol and/or continuing to
drink to avoid these symptoms
- Developing a high tolerance to large amounts of alcohol, causing the need for more to feel its effects
Alcohol use disorder involves either being intoxicated or experiencing withdrawal symptoms. If a person or loved one is experiencing intoxication while heavily drinking followed by withdrawal symptoms when they are not drinking, then it is important to speak to a doctor.
- Intoxication – this happens when the alcohol levels in the bloodstream become too high. Problems associated with intoxication include unstable mood, impaired judgement, slurred speech, impaired attention, poor coordination, and inappropriate behavior. Additionally, if someone has too much alcohol in their bloodstream, some may experience periods of “blackouts” where they do not remember things from when they were intoxicated. Extremely high alcohol levels can cause coma or even death.
- Withdrawal – these are symptoms experienced by someone with alcohol use disorder when they are not drinking/intoxicated or the drinking is greatly reduced. Symptoms of withdrawal can include shaking, rapid heartbeat, sleep issues, nausea/vomiting, hallucinations, agitation, and in some cases, seizures.
There are various factors that can influence how drinking alcohol impacts your body and behavior. There could be genetic, social, environmental, and psychological factors that could all contribute to alcoholism. Over time, drinking alcohol heavily can affect the areas of the brain that are responsible for judgement, pleasure, and the ability to control behavior.
Additional health problems caused by alcohol use disorder:
- Liver Disease – increased fat, inflammation, and irreversible destruction & scarring of liver tissue.
- Heart Problems – high blood pressure increasing the risk of an enlarged heart, heart failure, or stroke.
- Eye Problems – can cause involuntary rapid eye movement over time as well as paralysis or weakness in the eye muscles due to vitamin B-1 deficiency. This can also be an indicator of other brain changes such as dementia if not treated.
- Digestive Problems – stomach & esophageal ulcers, and inflamed stomach lining & pancreas.
- Sexual Function & Menstruation Problems – interrupt menstruation in women, and erectile dysfunction in men.
- Diabetes Problems – increase risk of low blood sugar as alcohol interferes with the release of glucose from the liver.
- Bone Damage – thinning bones (osteoporosis) as alcohol can interfere with the production of new bone. This can increase the risk of fractures, as well as damage bone marrow. Bone marrow makes blood cells, and this can cause low platelet count resulting in bleeding or bruising.
- Neurological Problems – alcohol strongly affects the nervous system, which can cause pain and numbness in the hands & feet, dementia, short-term memory loss, and disordered thinking.
- Weakened Immune System – alcohol makes it more difficult for your body to block disease therefore increasing your risk of many illnesses.
In addition to all of these, those who have alcohol use disorder have an increased risk of cancer. Excessive, long-term alcohol use has been linked to several different types of cancer such as throat, mouth, liver, colon, esophagus, and breast cancers.
Alcohol Addiction Treatments
In western medicine, most of us have heard of resources like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or rehab for those with alcohol use disorder, but in the western world, there are various versions of these organizations as well as medications that are sometimes given to supposedly help one on the road to recovery.
Western medicine treatment options:
- Detox – this is usually done at a hospital or treatment center because of withdrawal symptoms. Its goal is to stop drinking, and give the person’s body time (usually a few days to a week) to get the alcohol out of their system. Doctors can keep an eye on the person, and potentially give medicine to help with symptoms.
- Therapy and/or Counseling – this allows alcohol use disorder patients to not only control their drinking, but also learn new strategies and skills to use in their daily life to maintain sobriety. Social workers, alcohol counselors, or psychologists will teach them how to:
- Deal with triggers
- Build a support system
- Change old behaviors that made the person want to drink
- Set goals and achieve them
- Deal with triggers
- Medications – obviously, medications cannot “cure” alcoholism, but they are in place in western medicine as they can aid in recovery making drinking less enjoyable so the person will not have the desire to do it as much. There are additional drugs that are used for things like epilepsy, smoking, and pain that also may help with alcohol use disorder which would be discussed with a doctor. Some medications used for alcohol addiction include:
- Acamprosate (Campral) – helps with cravings
- Naltrexone (Revia) – blocks the high one gets from drinking
- Disulfiram (Antabuse) – makes one feel sick/throw up if they drink
- Acamprosate (Campral) – helps with cravings
- Support Group/Group Therapy – these usually are utilized during rehab and after to help the person with alcohol use disorder stay on track as life gets back to normal. The main difference between group therapy and a support group is that group therapy is led by a therapist and the support group is not. Examples of support groups include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and others, and they help offer understanding & advice from peers as well as hold you accountable.
Some people need a short period of time for recovery depending on the severity of their alcohol use disorder and their goals. Many may find that a combination of treatments works best utilizing an outpatient program living at home & going for treatment, or some may prefer inpatient or residential programs where they stay at a treatment center for a long period of time to recover. There are also programs which utilize holistic measures such as acupuncture to help those with alcohol use disorder recover.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment with Acupuncture
Acupuncture for alcohol addiction can help with various aspects of the disorder including withdrawal symptoms, mental health, and better sleep. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) terms, alcohol addiction, or any type of addiction, creates an imbalance throughout the body that affects a patients mental and physical health. Acupuncture works to restore balance naturally through pain relief, relaxation, and promotion of the body’s self-healing properties when properly manipulated by the hair-thin needles. Typically, acupuncture for alcoholism uses hair-thin needles that are inserted in 3-5 locations on the outer ear. This is what is known as auricular acupuncture. These points are connected to meridians leading to the parts of the body that are weakened from alcohol abuse. Licensed acupuncturists will also use other acupuncture points on the body depending on the person, and their history.
Auricular acupuncture protocol is used by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) which has been adapted into many programs in hospitals, recovery clinics, prisons, refugee camps, and other venues all over the world. The protocol involves the placement of up to 5 acupuncture needles into specified points on each ear, and sitting quietly in a group setting for 30-45 minutes allowing the treatment to take effect.
Auricular Acupuncture Points:
- Lung Point – improves lung function, and
alleviates feelings of grief
- Kidney Point – repairs vital organs, and eases
- The Autonomic (or Sympathetic) Point – promotes
relaxation, and soothing of the nervous system
- Liver Point – removes toxins from the liver and
blood, and curbs aggression
- Shen Men – decreases anxiety, and is also known as the “spirit gate”
These points are used by many licensed acupuncturists as well as NADA, because they are connected to the most important organs of the human body which, over time, are more destabilized from alcohol abuse.
Standard Acupuncture Points for Addiction:
- LV3 – Great Surge – Tai Chong – located on the
foot, and a calming point for anger, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia.
- GB8 – Leading Valley – Shuaigu – located on the
head, and is helpful with nausea.
- GB13 – Root Spirit – Benshen – located on the head, and regulates the liver & gallbladder. Helps with psychological issues like anxiety & depression as well as subconscious influences.
Depending on the individual, history, and severity of alcohol addiction, the length of time to results with acupuncture treatment will differ from person to person. Additionally, there are some Chinese herbs that are helpful and commonly used by licensed acupuncturists and herbologists when helping someone to recover from alcohol abuse.
Herbs for Alcohol Addiction:
- Kudzu – reduce excess alcohol consumption
- Salvia Miltiorrhiza – Danshen – prevents excess alcohol consumption
- Radix Pueraiae – Gegen – prevents excess alcohol consumption
- Dandelion – good for the liver, kidneys, and spleen
- Milk Thistle – heals the liver while still allowing the liver to protect from daily exposure to toxins
- Burdock Root – tonic for the kidneys and liver, purifies the blood, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant
It is important to note that no one should begin taking herbal remedies before consulting with a licensed acupuncturist who also specializes in herbs. Your provider will be able to advise you and what herbs are safe and effective for you, based upon your history and any current medications. They want to be sure that any herbal formula prescribed does not have interactions with medications you may already be taking, or if early in recovery, alcohol.
Benefits of acupuncture for alcohol use disorder:
- Help reduce cravings
- Ease physical pain from withdrawal or long-term alcohol abuse
- Decrease anxiety
- Help regulate sleep
- Ease unpleasant withdrawal symptoms
- Help emotionally regulate the person
- Increase patient retention in rehab
It is important to bear in mind that acupuncture is not a standalone treatment in alcohol recovery, but is used in combination with other recovery strategies such as psychotherapy, art/music therapy, group counseling, nutritional counseling, meditation, exercise programs, etc. There are holistic recovery centers that also have licensed acupuncturists who perform acupuncture for alcohol addiction that are designed to treat the whole person by improving their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Acupuncture for Alcohol Addiction
Acupuncture for alcohol addiction is both safe & cost-effective, and when combined with other forms of treatment, it can truly make a huge difference for those suffering from alcohol addiction. Studies have been done on acupuncture for alcohol addiction, and are pointing to positive outcomes.
In fact, in two studies, one in 2018, Acupuncture for Alcohol Use Disorder, and the other in 2016, a meta-analysis, Acupuncture as an Intervention to Reduce Alcohol Dependency, both concluded that acupuncture was a safe therapy that may reduce alcohol intake, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and rebalance the altered release of neurotransmitters in addiction-related brain areas. There will be more large-scale studies that need to be done to confirm these findings, but all evidence thus far points to the positive effects of acupuncture for alcohol addiction. Not to mention that acupuncture is used for addiction therapy in many of the nation’s top rehabilitation centers.
Recovery can take a long time, and it is common to relapse, but this does not mean you have failed. Ongoing treatments with things like group therapy and acupuncture will ensure that you stay on the right path to recovery. After 5 years, only 1 out of 7 people have issues with drinking. Acupuncture can be a helpful addition to an alcohol recovery program. On the journey to recovery, it is most important to give yourself grace, time, and patience.
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