Can natural wellness help with the U.S. addiction crisis?
By Dr. Janelle Louis, ND
Drug addiction touches us all.
10% of adults in the United States will have a substance abuse disorder at some point in life and 46% of Americans have a family member or close friend who has been or is currently addicted to drugs. 
Even if you don’t number among these statistics, substance abuse is both a social and economic problem for everyone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “[abuse] of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs is costly to our Nation, exacting more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care.” 
The health risks for those suffering from addiction and emotional toll on their families warrants a campaign to reduce the stigma around addiction. By talking openly about addiction and its costs, we can help increase research funding and interest in innovative treatments and promising natural, supporting therapies.
What are the risk factors for addiction?
To help reduce the spread of false beliefs about addiction and the burden of substance abuse on our nation, there are a few things that we need to keep in mind.
The first is that, even if you aren’t a healthcare professional, you can educate yourself on opioid and meth addiction. This will enable you to identify risk factors and pick up on warning signs of drug abuse in your friends, family members, coworkers, and others. It will also prepare you to be compassionate and supportive to individuals who may be struggling.
The second thing to keep in mind is that more often than not, people fall into drug addiction because they are attempting to heal from physiological or psychological pain.
Pain and trauma are risk factors for drug abuse
As examples, about 27% of people who end up chronically abusing opioids were prescribed them by a physician to treat body pain. Children and adolescents who are increasingly depressed or show patterns of disruptive or violent behavior are at increased risk for substance abuse later in life. Severely depressed adults are more likely to abuse opioids than those who are moderately or not at all depressed.
Adults who have experienced childhood adversity are two-to-four times more likely to use drugs at an earlier age, to be addicted to drugs, and to use drugs intravenously, compared to those who did not experience traumatic events during childhood. People with undiagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are also more likely to use drugs to self-medicate.
Addiction can happen to anyone
Understanding these facts will enable us to limit false beliefs around addiction, such as the idea that addicts are bad people or criminals, or that addiction doesn’t happen to people from “good” families. Reducing the stigma around addiction can help us put preventative interventions into place that may reduce rates of substance abuse.Reducing the stigma around addiction can help us put preventative interventions into place.
These interventions could include campaigns to increase the rates of treatment among depressed mothers or promote couples therapy, since parental depression or other mental illness and parental separation or divorce are two important adverse childhood experiences. Preventative measures that focus on reducing childhood adversity would be of benefit, since one-half to two-thirds of all substance abuse problems can be traced back to traumatic events during childhood.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a naturopathic physician, Dr. Dave Arneson, at a treatment center in Arizona who is doing wonderful work in the area of substance abuse recovery. I’ll share a few of the gems I gathered during my time working with him.
How can you address ongoing addiction?
The most important thing to know is that opioid overdoses can be treated with a non-prescription antidote called Narcan (naloxone). In addition to being an injectable, there is also a nasal spray version of Narcan that’s available at pharmacies nationwide.
This form of the drug can be used at home or elsewhere without any medical training and may make a difference between life or death while waiting for medical assistance. For more details on how to assist someone who has overdosed, check out this page.
There is currently no equivalent antidote for a meth overdose.
In cases of meth overdose, the medical team at the emergency department typically monitors vital signs and other body functions. This can include monitoring heart function with an electrocardiogram, performing a chest x-ray if there is abnormal breathing or vomiting, conducting a CT scan of the head if a head injury is suspected, and/or running other blood and urine tests.
They may also administer activated charcoal and/or a laxative if the drug was recently taken, and manage the person’s symptoms, as indicated. Symptom management can include breathing support and intravenous administration of pharmaceutical medication to treat pain, anxiety, agitation, nausea, seizures, and/or high blood pressure.
Because there is no antidote for meth overdose that is on par with Narcan, it’s important for us to continue researching additional tools to help address the meth abuse crisis. This includes researching herbal medicines and other potential non-pharmacological interventions, in addition to pharmaceutical medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy options.There is no antidote for meth overdose that is on par with Narcan.
Finding effective adjunct and stand-alone therapies will help us better combat meth abuse and support wellbeing in cases of substance dependence, withdrawal, and recovery.
1) Adequate protein helps withdrawal and recovery
When we consume protein, our bodies break it down into amino acids. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to function optimally, but 9 of those are essential, meaning that we have to get them from our diets; our bodies can’t make them.
Essential amino acids are critical for individuals battling substance abuse because our bodies need them to produce major neurotransmitters. Major neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
These neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting signals within the nervous system. Among other things, serotonin helps regulate mood, social behavior, and memory; dopamine plays a critical role in movement and reward-motivated behavior; and norepinephrine plays important roles in attentiveness, emotions, and learning.
Some researchers assert that individuals in addiction treatment and recovery require a higher intake of protein than healthy individuals.
2) Fats and carbohydrates are also important
Fats are also important for efficient caloric intake, hormone production, and helping our bodies absorb and transport fat-soluble vitamins. Our fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. They perform a variety of functions within the body, including supporting vision and immunity, preventing free radical damage, and assisting with blood clotting and bone metabolism.
Fats are important, but they weren’t meant to replace carbohydrates. We know this from research on children who have been prescribed ketogenic diets to treat their epilepsy.
This research shows that children who are on a high-fat, low carbohydrate diet for extended periods are at increased risk for negative changes in their cholesterol profiles and atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in the arteries).
These children also experience progressive bone mineral loss, making their bones weaker over time. This is likely because of the acidic nature of high-fat and high-protein diets. Diets that contain more plants and a healthier balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates have lower acid loads and support optimal bone health.
It’s important to balance our macronutrients. Carbohydrates (preferably complex carbohydrates, like brown rice or whole grain bread) are important for energy. A landmark 2018 study that included over 15,000 adults showed that diets that contain 50-55% of calories from mostly complex carbohydrates were associated with longevity. Meanwhile, diets that contained high (>70%) and low (<40%) amounts of carbohydrates were associated with increased mortality.
3) Nutrient absorption may be compromised in individuals addicted to drugs
Drug use can lead to damage of the gastrointestinal tract. In the case of meth, research suggests that meth use causes constriction of important blood vessels. This compromises nutrient absorption and leads to malnutrition and weight loss.
As an example, meth-dependent individuals tend to have significantly lower vitamin B12 levels than healthy individuals. This is because absorption of vitamin B12 through the gut is compromised under the influence of meth. The same is true for vitamin B9, also known as folate. Vitamins B12 and B9 are important for proper brain function and optimal mental and emotional wellbeing.
It’s less clear whether addiction to opioids directly depletes nutrients or damages the gut, impairing absorption.
We do know that individuals addicted to opioids tend to have poorer micronutrient status than healthy, non-addicted individuals. For example, in one study, 45% of heroin addicts had low levels of vitamin B6 and 37% had low levels of folate.
It may be necessary to replenish important nutrients in order to support optimal wellness when withdrawing or in recovery from meth or opioids. Because gut health is often compromised in these individuals, people who are in treatment or recovery may benefit from intravenous nutrient therapy. This would be most helpful in the first two to six months in recovery, depending on the frequency of drug use. As the gut heals over time, they will likely be better able to absorb nutrients when taken orally in the form of food and/or multivitamin.Because gut health is often compromised in these individuals, people who are in treatment or recovery may benefit from intravenous nutrient therapy.
4) Herbal medicines and other natural compounds may promote brain health
As an example, pre-clinical trials (trials done on animals before the hypothesis is tested in humans) demonstrate that repeated use of resveratrol, a compound extracted from fruits and vegetables, may help minimize meth-induced hyperactivity.
Similarly, pre-clinical research also demonstrates that baicalein, a compound extracted from Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), may promote healthy memory capacity and help the brain recover from damage to the hippocampus that typically occurs after a methamphetamine binge.A compound extracted from Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), may promote healthy memory capacity and help the brain recover from damage to the hippocampus.
Additionally, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) was demonstrated to be neuroprotective and to reduce cocaine and methamphetamine–related neurodegeneration in preclinical studies.
In the case of opioid addiction, one case study suggests that the alkaloids present in California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) may be beneficial in addressing opioid addiction. This may be because the plant stimulates GABA receptors within the body.
Although the California poppy is related to the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) from which opium is derived and has been used to address insomnia and pain, this plant does not contain opiates and using it does not result in addiction.
The problem with inadequate research
Most of the studies I’ve shared regarding herbal medicines, natural compounds, and drug addiction were pre-clinical trials. This is because, although the research that we currently have is promising, research on natural compounds to treat substance use disorders is still in its infancy.
We simply haven’t done much of this research on humans. I believe, however, the fact that the drug crisis is continuing to grow indicates that it is high time for us to allocate more resources toward finding natural compounds that can be effectively used under the guidance of qualified healthcare practitioners to help address this crisis.
And while naloxone is a highly effective antidote in cases of opioid overdose, conventional medicine has yet to find an equivalent for meth overdose. Therefore, prevention and additional, complementary management options are key.
Dr. Janelle Louis is a licensed naturopathic doctor who specializes in helping people with childhood trauma overcome the chronic health concerns they are at increased risk for developing, including mental health conditions, reproductive concerns, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic syndrome. Dr. Louis is committed to ensuring that her patients live their healthiest lives in the present in spite of their difficult pasts.