Addictions: Can Acupuncture Kick the Habit?

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Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Marilyn Monroe…. Each engaged in hand-to-hand combat with their addictions, caught in the vortex of the precarious distance between Heaven and Earth. 

The “highs” they experienced are faint competition for the currents of grief that always seem to be eddying around them – ruthless and ever-present regardless of the kind of momentary altered state they may have achieved. 

While there are no panaceas to ensure victory over addictions – can the ancient roots and modern practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture make the difference between life and death? For some, the answer is a definitive “yes.”

Laraine Crampton, BS, MA, MATCM, LAc and faculty at Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine explains:

Substances that tend to be addictive are often ones that interrupt the body’s internal climate. For example, cocaine creates this burst of hot energy that is very similar to flooring the accelerator on your car. Just like your car, it heats things up, speeds things up, consumes fuel, and creates a very exciting response. It stimulates the brain to fool the individual into feeling terrific, while convincing the user they’re free from ordinary sensations like hunger, and pain. But, when you stop taking it, life gets very uncomfortable, because everything seems to go very slow again, or seem unsatisfyingly ordinary. 

Meanwhile, the tissues that have been disturbed by that expenditure start to complain. So, if you drive your car 100 mph around the clock for three days, you know you’re going to run low on oil and gas, and the spark plugs are going to start to get fouled. Cocaine has that deceptive nature, in that it creates that acceleration, that excitement, but when it’s gone, all of the consequences in the body are uncomfortable. It creates a desire much like the intense cravings of new-found romantic love, to be back at that wonderful feeling of stimulus and excitement. Thinking in natural terms, it is great to have the expansive feeling of a bright, hot, summer afternoon.  But, if you keep in that state 24/7, then you suffer the consequences  prolonged exposure to excessive heat, and everything from your heart to your head suffers heat stroke.

In the case of alcohol, it speeds up the use of insulin, creates internal heat and provokes dehydration, which leads to desire for more liquid. This eventually creates a situation of both excess moisture, or dampness in the abdomen, and generalized dehydration and heat, thus leading to a craving for more drink. Alcohol acts as a sedative, but the impact on blood sugar interrupts sleep, so a person often reaches for another drink to renew the sedation – which is not a viable correction for the sleep cycle. 

Q: What types of addictions have you successfully treated with TCM and Acupuncture?

Over the years I have worked with people using acupuncture to overcome addictions to smoking, and sugar; to tone down their cravings, and to lose weight. At the other end of the spectrum I’ve worked with people with  chemical addictions: painkillers, cocaine, and anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. There are several, increasingly well-known treatment centers in Los Angeles and around the world in which acupuncture is integrated into the treatment process for those who want to receive it. 

Q: Many people are curious about acupuncture but their knowledge does not yet match their curiosity. How can acupuncture be used to treat addictions?

For strong addictions, acupuncture can calm the nervous system in ways that are analogous to chemical sedatives, but without the side effects. So when someone comes in with an intense craving, with acupuncture, they are able to relax and to be free of that craving for a period of time. 

With acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy, they can begin to rebalance. Almost always, an addiction leaves a strong imbalance in its wake – damage to the stomach, lungs, and nervous system. So it’s important to rebuild what has been injured as a result of the addiction, or may have been missing in the first place.

Q: Addictions are notoriously insidious in their ability to dominate people’s lives and impede recovery – despite multiple attempts at various treatments and therapies. How effective is Acupuncture and TCM?

For those who have really committed themselves to recovery, there’s been a very good rate of success. It’s not a simple process, however. I’ve had individuals come in for addiction care and get clean and lapse multiple times before they eventually stay clean. So it’s not an instantaneous, ‘Here, come for acupuncture. I’m going to put some needles in you, and you’ll be fine.’ But I have seen quite a few people really shake off their ‘monkeys,’ and be able to move ahead into the lives that they want. 

Q: What is the origin of Acupuncture and how would you describe the practice of Acupuncture in terms of how it is administered?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest medicines in the world, and therefore one of the most deeply researched in terms of millennia of practice. 

Our oldest texts tell us that the Ancients discerned a map of the body, charting how and where energy flows. They were able to determine and identify a network of points throughout the entire body that are inter-related. They learned that when pressure was applied to a particular “acupoint”, it could lead to healing in a corresponding part of the body. Some say Daoist monks meditating in caves literally perceived this energy network and mapped it out for us. 

The maps that we have today of the acupuncture pathways, which are called channels or meridians, are very similar to the ones that were developed 2,000 or more years ago. 

The meridians are distinct from muscle, tendon, ligament, or circulatory pathways – including the spinal cord. Essentially, meridians are energy circulation pathways through which the body’s energy travels. This form of energy has become known as ‘chi’. Some people believe that chi is its own form of energy, separate from the circulatory system, while others insist that ‘chi’ is all about oxygen and blood circulation, not a mysterious ‘energy’.

Another way of thinking about the meridians, or channels of chi flow, is somewhat like the New York subway system. When you’re looking at New York with the naked eye, you don’t necessarily see the subway system, but you see where it emerges, where people come up the stairs from below. Similarly, one way of looking at acupuncture points is that they are where the network of the human body emerges to be influenced.

When that vital life energy is moving freely, everyone can see a person’s vibrance and health. When illness or injury occurs, the quickest way to make note of that is to see where the energy is blocked. Acupuncture was discovered as a means of restoring free flow. Finding where the blockage is that is causing that person illness, injury, or pain – and removing it, by inserting a very thin needle into the appropriate place in the body, can free up the flow again and get things moving.

Q: So the Ancients, through a process of experimentation and in the case of monks’ intuition, developed a diagnostic system that determines the problematic issue in the body, and then a treatment. What is the diagnostic system they ascertained and is currently used?

The pulse and tongue are essential diagnostic tools. The tongue is somewhat like a barometer to look inside the body and see the level of fluids, flow, accumulation, and deficit. It lets you see the relative atmosphere within the body. The tongue provides a glimpse into the inner climate, and into functionality. 

When you listen to the pulse, it is a process of listening through your fingertips, to get a glimpse as to how the organs are functioning. The beat, sound, and feel of the pulse can help zero in on parts of the body. You can listen to determine the condition of each organ – the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc. – and the tissues around them. Your organs speak to you about the condition of your life.

For example, if a patient comes in describing shoulder pain and frequent stomach aches, we can listen to the pulse to discern whether they’ve got shoulder pain due to stress, or whether they get shoulder pain because it’s referred pain from an ulcer. 

When meeting with a client, my chief interest is in listening to their pulse and looking at their tongue while assessing other manifestations in their body, posture, activity levels, voice, etc. All of this tells me quite a lot about how Yin and Yang are cooperating together, or not. The Yin and Yang are the forces responsible for the body’s metabolic equilibrium. All of these observations are a very useful doorway in for me to begin diagnosis. 

Evaluation and treatment is a partnership process. A question and answer time is very valuable along with the individual coming in with their whole list of issues. Sometimes I spend the first hour of the first visit just listening. People have a lot to say about their poor neglected bodies and the challenges in their lives. 

We are so intimately connected to what’s happening inside and outside of us. It’s all interconnected. If our body and organs are not functioning well we can be strongly influenced by that emotionally, spiritually, and in the expression of ourselves in our lives. The converse is true as well. 

One of the most thrilling moments in my practice is when you hear a client say: “Your needles have brought back my joie de vivre.”

Laraine Crampton was a successful producer and journalist whose body began sending increasingly loud messages that it was time for a significant lifestyle change, and discovered TCM as the path to her health. 

She recalls: “I’d had a crescendo of having one career, then adding another on top of it.  As I started to get well I asked my self if I wanted to squander my health going back to deadlines 24/7. After just a few weeks of auditing a TCM class, I found myself awed and amazed.” 

She enrolled in the four-year Master’s professional program in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine at Yo San University in Los Angeles, California. 

Laraine Crampton, BS, MA, MATCM, LAc is now a member of Yo San’s prestigious faculty, and is the editor and co-author of Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. She is a highly valued member of the Master’s Clinical Faculty supervising 4th year interns at the Yo San Community Clinic.

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