Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture for addiction

A review of current addiction treatment practices using Traditional Chinese Medicine. A fascinating, thorough exploration of how centuries-old practices can be used to enhance addiction recovery here!

minute read
By Dr. Susana Mendez, OMD, MBA, ABMPP, CAS, LCDC, LAc
Clinical Director, Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence

Holistic Healing and Addiction

At Enterhealth, we’re always looking for ways to enhance our medically based addiction treatment programs to suit the specific needs and wants of our clientele. In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the possible benefits of techniques used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). However, many patients are unfamiliar with TCM and its potential benefits.

We’d like to take this chance to explain a little bit about them, and how Enterhealth is using them to enhance our alcohol and drug addiction treatment. Then, we invite your questions or comments about the use of TCM in treating addiction or substance use disorders at the end.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine is a form of Asian medicine which is based on a framework of more than two thousand years of Chinese medical knowledge and practice, but informed by modern medicine. TCM is rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism, and many of the doctrines of TCM are established in books such as the “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon” and the “Treatise on Cold Damage,” as well as in cosmological notions such as yin-yang and the five phases. Today, it is mainly incorporated as an alternative medical approach that complements Western medicine, but still many people choose to use TCM alone.

TCM includes many different practices, including:

  • Acupuncture
  • Moxibustion (burning an herb above the skin to apply heat to acupuncture points)
  • Chinese herbal medicine
  • Chinese therapeutic massage (Tuina)
  • Dietary therapy
  • Tai Chi and Qi Gong (practices that combine specific movements, postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus)

A holistic connection

One of the basic principles of TCM posits that the body’s vital energy (chi or qi) flows through pathways called meridians, which have branches connected to organ and bodily functions. Each and every structure in your body is connected, and each is a necessary part of the whole. The structures that make up your body form an intricately connected system with your mind, emotions and spirit – all interrelated and powered by life force, or energy.

Practitioners of TCM maintain that you are wholly connected to nature, therefore changes in nature are always reflected in your body. When it comes to issues of bodily health, TCM factors in:

  • the specific time of year
  • time of day
  • geographical location
  • gender
  • age

…as well as the condition of your body when making diagnoses or prescribing treatment.

The Five Diagnostic Methods Used in TCM

In TCM, there are five diagnostic methods: inspection, auscultation, olfaction, inquiry, and palpation.

1. Inspection of the body mainly focuses on the face – particularly the tongue, including analysis of the tongue shape, size, color, coating and tension, as well as the presence or absence of teeth marks.

2. Auscultation refers to listening for particular sounds (e.g., wheezing).

3. Olfaction refers to inspection of body odor.

4. Inquiry focuses on the “seven inquiries,” which involve asking the person about the regularity, severity, or other characteristics of things such as:

  • appetite
  • thirst
  • pain
  • sleep
  • temperature
  • bowel movement
  • urination
  • menstruation

…and a host of other bodily functions.

5. Palpation includes palpation of the abdomen, feeling the body for tender points, and the palpation of pulses in the wrist as well as various other pulses.

Examination of the tongue and the pulse are the principal diagnostic methods in TCM. Certain areas of the tongue correspond to different organs. Learning TCM pulse diagnosis can take several years, and involves measuring the pulse at different locations on the radial artery of each wrist – all of which are thought to correspond with organs and organ systems. The pulse is examined for several characteristics including volume, strength and rhythm. Changes in these qualities could indicate certain disease patterns.

Herbal Medicine in the Treatment of Addiction

Describing thousands of medicinal herbs and other substances, the Chinese Materia Medica is a pharmacological reference book used by TCM practitioners. The substances are primarily plants, but it also include some minerals and animal products. Various portions of the plants, including roots, leaves, flowers, seeds and stems are used. In TCM, herbs are often combined in formulas and administered in the form of:

  • capsules
  • extracts
  • granules
  • teas
  • powders

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that traditional herbal treatments may have more of an impact when combined with modern medicines used to encourage addiction recovery than when treatments are provided without them. One major benefit of combining herbal treatment with modern medicine is the lack of substantial side effects and negative drug interactions associated with most Chinese herbs.

Herbs utilized by practitioners of TCM in the treatment of substance use disorders include:

  • Chinese herbal remedies made from plants such as pueraria root (Radix Pueraria), as well as the roots of the kudzu plant, have been shown to inhibit alcohol metabolism, making them particularly useful in conjunction with conventional (modern Western) alcohol addiction treatment.
  • Laurel clock vine (Thunbergia Laurifolia) has been shown to help protect against alcohol-induced liver disease.
  • Indian ginseng (Withania Somniferous) may reduce opiate tolerance.
  • Red sage (Salvia Miltiorrhiza) may help to curb alcohol cravings.
  • Milk thistle (Silybum Marianum) can help with the regeneration of a fatty liver.

Acupuncture for Drug Abuse and Addiction

Acupuncture, in general, is based on the Ancient Chinese concept of the “shen,” or heart spiritual attribute. In 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed 64 medical problems that were considered suitable for acupuncture treatment, including the treatment of drug abuse. There are several major advantages of acupuncture when it comes to treating drug addiction. First of all, acupuncture is safe to use on nearly anyone – including pregnant women. Second, acupuncture as a treatment for addiction to opiates is safe, simple and has no side effects. Third, acupuncture can actually be used to prevent relapse.

A modern variation of TCM is auricular acupuncture, developed and tested in Hong Kong as a treatment for acute drug withdrawal in the early 1970s. Dubbed “ear acupuncture,” auricular acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny metal pellets in the patient’s ear which remain in place for up to two weeks. Due to its promising results, auricular acupuncture is now being utilized in many countries for the treatment of opiate withdrawal.

Acupuncture During Drug Detox

Acudetox (Acupuncture Detoxification) is an auricular acupuncture program gaining popularity in the United States, with specific guidelines and techniques outlined by a governing body called the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA). Acudetox therapy involves gently placing five small sterilized disposable stainless steel needles in specific sites in each ear and leaving them in while clients sit quietly for 45 minutes.

Acudetox is garnering attention due to its effectiveness in helping to relieve withdrawal symptoms from substances ranging from alcohol to caffeine, prescription drugs, nicotine, and even addictive behaviors such as gambling, as well as PTSD and ADHD.

Why Consider Acupuncture in Your Treatment Toolkit?

Can acupuncture cure addiction? The World Health Organization and National Institute of Health recognize acupuncture as a solution for many treatable medical conditions including chronic pain, fatigue, addiction, emotional issues, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, digestive disorders and more. When applied to alcohol and drug addiction treatment, studies have shown that acupuncture can:

  • relieve withdrawal symptoms
  • reduce cravings
  • reduce stress
  • reduce anxiety
  • reduce depression
  • improve sleep
  • alleviate aches and pains
  • reduce the symptoms of PTSD

It is also unique in that it is effective regardless of the client’s level of motivation and tends to increase the ability to effectively participate in other aspects of therapy. As a result of the endorsements from the WHO and NIH, more than 2,000 drug and alcohol treatment programs in the U.S. and 40 other countries have added auricular acupuncture to their protocol.

The key to incorporating traditional Chinese medicine as part of addiction recovery is to find the right combination of it and modern approaches to addiction recovery. Since addiction affects each patient differently, it will take time to find the right combination. On a positive note, two London hospitals have initiated trials with Chinese herbal medicine to control drug cravings in the hopes of collecting more substantial data. From a broader perspective, Chinese medicine is based on the concept of finding a balance and a sense of harmony between the yin and the yang, a concept that can be easily applied to a recovering addict trying to achieve a similar balance.

At Enterhealth, we find that the secret to getting the most out of combining traditional Chinese medicine with our conventional, modern approach is to find the right mix for each individual patient. Our team of addiction specialists works together to create a unique treatment plan for every patient, and these plans can be tailored to include TCM as a complementary treatment component.

To learn more about how Enterhealth is using successful traditional Chinese medicine techniques in conjunction with the latest in science-based addiction treatment, you can visit our website, or call (855) 393-8656.


About the Author: Susana Mendez, OMD, MBA, ABMPP, CAS, LCDC, LAc
Clinical Director, Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence
Dr. Susana Mendez serves as the clinical director of Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence where she oversees the comprehensive clinical programs and staff. Prior to her current position, she served as a psychotherapist at Enterhealth Ranch.
Mendez has held positions with other addiction treatment and recovery facilities, mental health and wellness centers and hospitals, including Homeward Bound, Nexus Recovery Center, Doctors Hospital and others on the east coast. She has more than 30 years of experience in treating addiction and dual-diagnosis patients, has conducted numerous research studies and concentrates in both Western and Eastern theories of care. She has given lectures at industry conferences, educational institutions and non-profits across the U.S. and Europe about addiction, therapies and treatments, mental health, co-dependency and other related topics. On the national and global stage, she is a frequent speaker about the need to develop and maintain a high standard of care for the dual-diagnosis patient.
Mendez earned her M.D. in psychiatry from the Universidad de Buenos Aires, where she also completed her residency program. She completed post-doctorate work in psychiatry and neurology in Spain and received her master’s in oriental medicine from the AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine. Her MBA is from the University of Salamanca, Spain.
About the author
Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, Enterhealth offers a science-based alcohol and drug addiction treatment program created by a dedicated team of addiction experts determined to dramatically improve treatment outcomes. Based on the latest National Institutes of Health research identifying addiction as a chronic brain disease, this program is implemented by a full-time staff of addiction-trained physicians, psychiatrists, nurses and therapists, beginning with a thorough medical and psychological assessment designed to create a personalized treatment plan for each patient. Enterhealth Ranch is nestled on 43 scenic acres just 30 minutes north of Dallas/Fort Worth and features 40 beds, private rooms and bathrooms, chef-prepared meals, housekeeping service, a luxurious pool, a gym and more. Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, an outpatient treatment facility, is located in the Park Cities, just north of downtown Dallas, and provides ongoing addiction management care and support. For more information, visit
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