Mind & Body

Chinese Medicine for Addiction

TIMEFebruary 25, 2014

Because it gives both immediate and long-term relief from sometimes debilitating physical symptoms, Chinese medicine is particularly well-suited for treating addictions as part of an overall recovery program.

Chinese medicine works best for treating addictions when integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan that includes group support as well as psychological and social services.

Acupuncture directly addresses the physical aspects of addiction and detoxification, and it supports psychological and social treatments that are vital for recovery but are not as effective when an addict is suffering from physical cravings, insomnia, panic attacks, and other physical manifestations of detoxification.

These withdrawal symptoms make it very difficult for those who are recovering to take full advantage of program offerings. Imagine an addict with stomach cramps or cravings trying to participate in group therapy, and you’ll get the picture.

Acupuncture treatments never lead to dependency on other substances, which can happen with medications.

Chinese medicine can also treat some of the psychological aspects of addiction, such as the anxiety and depression that are common when a person faces the realities of life without addictive substances.

As a nonverbal intervention, acupuncture helps those who are resistant to other therapies or who don’t have the ability to comprehend or articulate (due to language barriers, disabilities, or mental health conditions) at the level necessary for many therapies.

Chinese Medicine’s Perspective on Addiction

The perspective of many modern practitioners of Chinese medicine on addiction is that it results not from character weakness or weakness of the will, but usually from pre-existing conditions that cause the addict to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or other substances in an attempt to correct them.

In Western terms, addiction can be seen as arising from an addict’s attempt to self-correct for conditions like anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or bipolar disorder. In Chinese medicine, addiction can be seen as arising from an addict’s attempt to self-correct for the deficiencies, excesses, and imbalances in the body that can underlie those conditions.

One common imbalance that Chinese medicine associates with addiction is deficient or excessive fire. Just as a furnace doesn’t function without an adequate spark to fire it up, so Chinese medicine posits that humans need a fire of sorts (we call this yang energy) to keep energized and function optimally. However, if this fire burns too hotly, and we have too much yang energy, we find a need to calm down and to become more focused.

A person with deficient fire will usually seek out stimulating drugs such as cocaine, crystal meth, and nicotine, while a person with excess fire will seek for things to calm them such as alcohol, heroin, pain medications like Vicodin and Oxycontin; and benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, and Ativan.

A common emotional pattern related to addiction is agitation, anger, and irritability. In Chinese medicine, these emotions are associated with the liver and gallbladder systems, systems whose function is to keep things flowing smoothly. When we become “wrapped too tightly” in these emotions, they either erupt or become repressed, which in both cases hinders the natural flow of the systems in our body. This causes the body to become tight, and we then look for ways to loosen up and unwind.

As the drugs create false highs or states of calm, they disrupt and deplete the body’s natural heating, cooling, balancing, and calming mechanisms, which then need repair.

Chinese medicine helps repair these mechanisms, thus helping to break the addiction cycle.


NADA, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, which was founded in the 1980s at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, has popularized the use of acupuncture for addictions in the United States and almost every European country, as well as Russia, the Middle East, Australia, South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South and Southeast Asia.

Over 2,000 recovery programs in the United States and 40 other countries now use NADA protocol acupuncture because it has proved to increase their success. Globally, more than 25,000 health workers have completed the NADA training, which can be learned by health care professionals without extensive additional training in acupuncture diagnosis and treatment.

NADA protocol for addictions treats clients sitting up in groups, with ear acupuncture, and focuses on mobilizing the existing internal resources of the client.

While the patterns of deficiency, excess, and imbalance may vary, with NADA protocol every client receives the same treatment, emphasizing that if we support the basic internal organ systems, the body will right itself naturally. This also helps the clients understand that they are capable, with support, of recovery, without an outsider “fixing” them.

The NADA model is empowering for recovering addicts, and it has proved to be more successful than individualized treatments, which are more often associated with Chinese medicine for other conditions.

NADA protocol is a general balancing treatment that calms as it supports the nervous system, heart, kidney, liver, and lungs.

The five acupuncture points used in each ear are:

  • 1. Sympathetic: Calms the nervous system and helps with overall relaxation.
  • 2. Shen Men (or Spirit Gate): Reduces anxiety and nervousness.
  • 3. Kidney: Used for detoxification through the urine, calming fears and healing internal organs, strengthening the body and the will when substance abuse and other lifestyle choices may have depleted and exhausted the clients.
  • 4. Liver: Used for detoxification, blood purification, and to quell frustration, irritability, and aggression.
  • 5. Lung: Promotes detoxification through the breath and the skin, and helps clients breathe more easily and let go of grief.

For more information about NADA treatment or training, go to www.acudetox.com

Cynthia Neipris, L.Ac., is licensed to practice acupuncture in New York and California. She is the director of Outreach and Community Education at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine-NY, sits on the board of directors of Acupuncturists Without Borders, and has been a NADA NY Acu-Detox Specialist since 2001, supervising over 10,000 NADA treatments. www.pacificcollege.edu