A vast body of research shows that quitting smoking can improve health and longevity and reduce the risks of heart disease, lung cancer and a variety of other diseases. Those facts, however, don't make it any easier to quit.
While there are no magic bullets for smoking cessation, a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies can help support the body through nicotine withdrawal, whether used alone or in conjunction with mainstream approaches such as nicotine patches and gum, or even with the pharmaceutical smoking-cessation drugs Zyban and Chantix.
Working with cravings
Few natural remedies directly address the cravings associated with withdrawal, but many products help support the depleted adrenal and nervous systems, alleviate stress and irritability, and detoxify the body.
"Nicotine is an addictive substance, and when [addicted smokers] don't have nicotine in the blood, [they] have really strong cravings," says Roy Upton, executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, based in Scotts Valley, Calif. "One potential herbal therapy for craving is lobelia because it contains lobeline, an alkaloid similar to nicotine. Herbalists have traditionally used lobelia in conjunction with a nervine to help reduce cravings."
Though lobelia is in widespread use for this purpose, it has not been extensively researched. "To be frank, I don't know of any herbal preparation that I can say with a straight face has clinically documented evidence of efficacy [for cravings]," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, based in Austin, Texas.
Calming the nervous system
Though lobelia is the main herbal approach for primary withdrawal symptoms, there are many options for secondary symptoms such as stress, jitters and nervousness. "Daytime sedative herbs like valerian or hops might be restorative of the nervous system and help counter some of the nervousness and irritability that accompany withdrawal. Oat straw would be a gentle, mild nervine to help stabilize the nervous system. Theoretically, kava would also be helpful because it relaxes the skeletal muscles and helps to reduce the anxiety and tightness that are often part of the pharmacology of nicotine withdrawal," Blumenthal says.
Oral craving and adrenal support
Many ex-smokers have found that chewing gum or sucking on candy helped address the oral cravings associated with smoking, but Upton suggests some herbal options that also have therapeutic benefits. "The oral fixation is a second avenue for herbal therapy," Upton says. "I recommend that people carry a stick of licorice root in their pocket, or a bag of fennel seeds, to chew on when they get a craving. The nice thing is, if you do have a cigarette after chewing them, it tastes foul, because both are sweet, so it acts as a deterrent. In addition, licorice helps support the adrenals, which deals with part of the stress aspect of quitting."
The adrenals, located just above the kidneys, are part of the endocrine system. The job of the adrenals is to help the body react appropriately to stress, and when they're overtaxed or out of balance, the difficulties associated with withdrawal will be greater. "Adrenals control the body's stress response, and if somebody's addicted to something, whether it's alcohol, drugs, caffeine or cigarettes, withdrawal causes physical and psychological stress," Upton says. "The adrenals pump out adrenaline to deal with the stress, making you on edge and more likely to go back to addictive behaviors. Supporting the adrenals can help you keep on an even keel emotionally."
Licorice is known specifically as an adrenal-support herb, but Upton also recommends adaptogenic herbs, which are whole-body tonics that help normalize the body's systems. Among his favorites are schizandra, Siberian ginseng and reishi mushroom, particularly preparations of the fruiting body instead of the mycelium.
Detox and lifestyle
"The next part of any good program is to promote detox," Upton says. "You want to get smoking residues out of the system. Most toxic materials are stored in fatty tissues, and at some point a blob of nicotine-laden fat will be metabolized and induce a craving," Upton says. "The more you can detox, specifically via the liver, the less likely you'll be to relapse." Upton suggests the classic cleansing herbs gentian and burdock roots and especially dandelion root, which can be taken as a tea, tincture or in encapsulated form.
"There are other things you can do as part of a holistic program," Upton says. "Use guided imagery, self-hypnosis, deep breathing and exercise, and maintain adequate blood-sugar levels. All these little tricks help the craving to pass."
Homeopathy for quitters
Herbs aren't the only natural option for smoking cessation. Homeopathy offers several approaches, including blends, single remedies and custom remedies created by a certified homeopath. The simplest approach is to try a formula, like the NatraBio Stop-It Smoking kit. "The kit has detoxifying tablets to help the body detox and anti-craving lozenges to suck on whenever you feel a craving," says Cameron Southam, brand manager for NatraBio, based in Bellingham, Wash. Both the tablets and lozenges contain ingredients designed to help with withdrawal and irritability, including lobelia inflata, nux vomica, avena sativa (better known as oat straw) and caladium seguinum.
"Basic homeopathy is wonderfully effective for addiction issues," says Dana Ullman, MPH, founder of Homeopathic Educational Services in Berkeley, Calif., and author of many books on homeopathy, most recently The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy (North Atlantic Books, 2007). Ullman says consulting a certified homeopath will generally yield the best results for fighting cigarette addictions, but for those who don't have access to or can't afford to visit a homeopath, formulas are a good place to start. "A formula is user-friendly homeopathy, combining anywhere from two to 10 of the most common remedies for a particular complaint," he says.
Several remedies are traditionally used to help detoxify the body and help reduce cravings. "Every medicine in homeopathy has multiple functions," Ullman says. "For example, nux vomica is important not just for detoxifying but as a constitutional medicine for people who have a certain type of behavior—assertive, aggressive, overconsumptive of food or drink or even drugs and tobacco. Caladium is known to reduce tobacco cravings, [as is] homeopathic tobacco, which is really hitting the nail right on the head."
Syndromes and symptoms
One way that homeopathy differs from traditional means of approaching addictions is that it sees the addiction itself as a symptom of some larger syndrome. "A person may have a symptom of smoking tobacco, but that may be because of nerves or because one is depressed or because of insecurity issues," Ullman says. A homeopath may be able to get to the root of the issue more quickly.
However, Ullman says it's also possible to look up the most common remedies for an issue and simply try them one by one until getting the right result. "If you don't get obvious improvements in two to four weeks, stop, and try something else," he says. "It's a simple and inexpensive way to test what's working for you."
Whatever the approach, smoking cessation requires focus and dedication. But by providing customers with information about the variety of natural tools available, from herbal remedies to minor lifestyle changes, retailers just might make the difference between success and failure.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 102,104