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Addiction Remedies Of Our Ancestors


Ancient Addiction Remedies, Part 2

Last month, we presented snippets of techniques our ancestors used to deal with addiction and whether these addiction remedies can be applied in modern times. This is a continuation.

Substance abuse is not a recent malady. Researchers have documented the use of, and excessive indulgence in alcohol, opiates, hashish, cannabis, cocaine, stimulants, and hallucinogens in North Africa, Asia Minor, Persia, and India for thousands of years. Psychotropic substance use was believed to have existed over 20,000 years ago. Historical records, including the Bible, document alcohol intoxication even among respected members of society. Ancient medical texts reveal opium use in Syria in the seventh century BC. To survive in the highlands of the Andes, the Incas used stimulant coca leaves to increase their oxygen intake 5,000 years ago [1].

Ancestral doctors

Users of folk addiction remedies included hakims, physicians from India, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries; Burmese healers who specialized in heroin and opium addiction; Buddhist monks in Thailand; bomohs, Malay and Sumatran shamans believed to have magical powers who treated heroin addicts; and dukuns, Indonesian traditional medicine practitioners [2].

To counsel or prosecute?

Substances we now view as ‘illicit’ were commonly used in sacred rituals, nutritional supplements, medicaments, and social gatherings. Many ancient cultures and organized religions, however, have condemned their excessive use through punishment or incarceration. Groups vocal against the dangers of substance abuse included the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Hindus, Dutch scientists, the Catholics, and the Protestants. The last two were lenient towards moderate drinking but viewed drunkenness as a sin. Calvinistic theologians offered only prayer as a solution.

Much earlier, the Oracle at Delphi (in Apollo’s temple) may have been the world’s first rehabilitation centre [3] based on wall inscriptions, such as “Know thyself”—a tenet of 12-Step programs. People in crisis were known to have visited this monument to seek advice. So historians thought it possible that addicts of yesteryear would have also gone there for guidance and treatment.

Scary medicine

Since the discovery of the negative effects of substance abuse, ancestral healers searched for solutions but had to settle for what was available then. Mental health disorders, as well as physiological illnesses related to substance abuse—including lesions, cirrhosis of the liver, and respiratory, cardiac, neurological and gastrointestinal ailments—led to practices and “addiction remedies” that would horrify us today. Here are some of them:

Blood draining

Ancient clinicians practiced bloodletting (the precursor to modern phlebotomy) in the belief that illness was caused by “bad blood.” Historians surmise that the Egyptians and Sumerians were the ones who started it, but the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Asians made it prominent. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, believed that our bodies contained four substances: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, which needed to be in balance for optimum health [4]. So the sick, say, those showing signs of inebriation, were diagnosed to have extra blood—which rationalized the technique.

Leech therapy

For those afraid of needles, leeches, nature’s bloodsuckers, make excellent substitutes. Leech treatment and bloodletting are still practiced today for uncommon diseases.

Maggot treatment

These larvae were useful for treating wounds at wartime. They ate decaying tissue but left healthy ones intact, staving off infection. Because of its efficacy, this method is still in practice today, especially in forensic entomology* and entomotoxicology** to determine the cause of death or the presence of drugs and toxins in corpses in advanced stages of decomposition.

Body fluid and fecal medicaments

Historical texts reveal that human and animal excrement and body liquids were commonly used in remedies for most diseases, including addiction symptoms. ScienceDirect defines body fluids as those  including blood, lymph, tissue fluid, milk, and saliva. The ancient Egyptians were believed to have started the practice. They used the components in ointments, dressings, and antibiotics.

Hysterical Paroxysm

Colloquially, orgasm. ‘Hysteria’, the catch-all term for women’s ailments in the 19th century, was resolved using a cure-all—the inducement of orgasm. Manual sexual stimulation by doctors to treat hysteria (which included mental health disorders and addictive behaviour) gave rise to the invention of the vibrator.


Trepanation, considered man’s oldest form of surgery, involved drilling holes into the skull to cure disease. Historians theorize that it may have been a technique for driving away demons that possessed the mentally ill.

Robin Wylie’s BBC report revealed that the earliest evidence of trepanation was about 7,000 years ago. Ancient residents of Greece, North and South America, Africa, Polynesia, and the Far East practiced it independently of each other.

According to a study by Moghaddam et al [5], trepanation was practiced in Europe since the Neolithic period and is still employed today by native East African tribes. The survival rate for trepanned patients was 78% in Late Iron Age Switzerland, indicating that many surgeries were successful.

Not all methods were grisly. Herbal medications and addiction remedies provided welcome relief.

Poppy relatives

The ancient Chinese harnessed the power of Corydalis yanhusuo, a member of the poppy family, as a painkiller [6]. A recent study showed its effectiveness in relieving inflammatory, acute, and chronic pain. Its bonus for addicts? Despite its poppy origin, it’s not addictive. When boiled in vinegar, its roots produce a substance that acts like morphine but doesn’t have its negative effects—a boon for painful withdrawal symptoms.

Aloe vera

This plant may be dismissed as just a remedy for skin and hair conditions, but the ancient Egyptians used it for more than 50 medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and leprosy. For the addict, its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties aid in detoxification. Its 200-plus compounds and mineral-rich components help absorb nutrients—useful for the nourishment-draining action of substance abuse.

Macabre or not, ancient addiction remedies were instrumental in paving the way for technological advances in medicine. So before we sniff at a smelly elixir for addiction, let’s consider its efficacy. After all, our ancestors were its legitimate guinea pigs.

* The scientific study of arthropods [invertebrates: insects, spiders, crustaceans] on decomposed cadavers during criminal investigations (The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology).

** A new branch of forensic entomology that uses insects to detect drugs and toxins in decomposing bodies during death investigations (National Institutes of Health).


[1, 3] Poulsen, Thanush. “Kill or Cure: The Evolution of Addiction Treatment Through the Ages”. Ancient Origins. 2018.
[2] Heggenhougen, HK. “Traditional Medicine and the Treatment of Drug Addicts: Three Examples from Southeast Asia”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 16-1, 3-7. 1984.
[4] Andrews, Evan. “Seven Unusual Ancient Medical Techniques”. History Network. 2014, 2018.
[5] Moghaddam et al. “Survival after trepanation—early cranial surgery from Late Iron Age Switzerland”. International Journal of Paleopathology, 11:56-65. 2015.
[6] Zhu et al. “Chinese Herbal Medicine for the Treatment of Drug Addiction”. International Review of Neurobiology, 135:279-295. 2017.

Image by István Asztalos from Pixabay