Through the years, the medical community and the media have been feeding us conflicting information as to what’s good or not good for our health. What was deemed good for us centuries ago is lethal now. Ever notice how even doctors and clergy smoked in old movies? “Facts” change constantly, and theories are debunked regularly. The verdict is still out on chocolate, wine and eggs – and addiction remedies.
What about addiction? How did our ancestors deal with it? Can primitive methods work in modern times?
It’s no secret that addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco, opium, heroin, and cocaine were used to treat diseases in the old days. But that’s because people then weren’t privy to the information we have now.
How the ancients tempered addiction
Still, our ancestors didn’t need modern knowledge to recognize the dangers of illicit substances. Ancient scripts adorning the walls of the Delphi temple  say, “Nothing in excess” and “Water is best.” These prove that people were aware of alcoholism thousands of years ago.
Even though our forefathers consumed addictive substances from the earliest days of human civilization, society has condemned their abuse. Ancient Chinese society disapproved of excessive drinking. The ancient Babylonians viewed ill health, including addiction, as the result of demonic possession or punishment for past sins. So exorcism was common. Exorcists and religious leaders worked in tandem with, or were simultaneously, medical practitioners. Their healing practices usually included elements of magic or the dark arts, such as voodooism, which combines Roman Catholic rituals with traditional African magical and religious rites characterized by sorcery and spirit possession.
The governments of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians (who imbibed alcohol recreationally) imposed taxes that limited alcohol use, production, and sales. Similar restrictions were implemented in the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church, the predominant religious authority then, declared overindulgence as sinful. Alcoholics were regarded as people of low character. Some were jailed, tortured, or executed for being possessed by demons.
In the 14th century, Sultan Murad IV of Turkey beheaded hashish users . Russian Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov had the lips of cigarette smokers slashed. Not much has been historically recorded, however, about solutions that were implemented to combat addiction.
Indigenous medical practices
Natives of the Peruvian Amazon used natural psychoactive substances to treat drug addiction. This may seem counteractive, but it works. They used medicinal herbs, including non-addictive psychoactive preparations like ayahuasca tea. Ayahuasca was used in psychopathology including drug addiction therapy. They used it therapeutically to bring out unconscious thoughts and emotions through visions, dreams, or hallucinations. Ayahuasca was also used to improve cognitive processes.
Patients explored buried memories and upsetting events—cathartic when combined with psychotherapy. In ancient times, its equivalents were rituals and the guidance of elders or shamans.
Healers from Peru treated alcoholism with mescaline cactus. Mario Chappe, in his 1976 study of this herbal use, reported a success rate of 60% in five years . According to Jacques Mabit, Director of the Takiwasi Center, indigenous people of North America reduced alcohol use by including peyote (which also contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline) and tobacco in their rituals .
They believed that substances with powerful psychoactive effects don’t induce dependence if taken orally in their natural form. If these substances are taken in excess, the body gets rid of them through vomiting, which they viewed as a self-regulating feature that was useful in treating drug addiction. Healers used the purifying, sedative, and purgative properties of medicinal plants to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Plant-based preparations to cure physiological ailments have also been found to effectively treat addiction. The antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic properties of frankincense cured many ailments, including infection and wound management. It has a compound that eliminates toxins from alcohol-ravaged livers and kidneys. In 2010, scientists reported that frankincense prevented the spread of cancer. Rhodiola rosea (roseroot or golden root) was used by Chinese emperors, Vikings, ancient Greeks, Siberians, and Mongolians for depression and fatigue.
Scientific studies support this Native American practice of harnessing smoke from plants to cure respiratory ailments. The smoke, which increases oxygen supply to the brain and relaxes tense muscles, is important to aromatherapy. Smudging is effective in dealing with negative emotions associated with addiction, including anger, fear, and grief. Often performed for spiritual purposes, smudging has been adopted by the New Age movement.
Mexican addiction therapies
The Mazatecs of Oaxaca in southern Mexico conducted rituals that combine ancient beliefs with Catholic ones. They used the leaves of the divine sage (Salvia divinorum) for their physical and spiritual healing powers, especially in substance abuse and dependence. They believe that the feminine entity in the plant heals the body, tells the patient the cause of the addiction, and guides the patient to recovery .
Did their methods work?
Ancient doesn’t mean ineffective. The efficacy of many forms of ancestral medicine has been scientifically proven. Traditional methodologies are now incorporated into modern pharmacology. Opioids from the opium poppy plant, for instance, were medically used way back in seventh century BC.
Lu et al studied clinical trials on using traditional herbal remedies and acupuncture for treating drug addiction . They found that acupuncture was clinically effective in opiate withdrawal, but not as effective for alcohol and nicotine withdrawal or relapse prevention. Its effectiveness in cocaine withdrawal is unsupported.
As for herbal medicine, they found peyote and Radix puerariae to be effective against alcoholism. Efficacy data for ginseng and kava in addiction was insufficient, with the latter discovered to be harmful to the liver. Thunbergia laurifolia was found beneficial for alcohol- induced liver damage and had been used in Thailand to treat drug dependence. Despite insufficient efficacy data, Withania somnifera and Salvia miltiorrhiza were found to reduce morphine tolerance and alcohol intake in animal tests.
The United States Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky treated incarcerated drug addicts but also experimented on them. The Central Intelligence Agency used LSD on patients to see if it could be a mind-control agent or a truth serum.
Merging old and new addiction treatments
The Takiwasi Center is one example of an organization that has blended ancestral techniques with herbal medicine, natural detoxification methods, sensory stimulation and deprivation (controlled induction of altered states of consciousness), and contemporary psychotherapy.
New scientific developments are often considered better, and ancient knowledge passed up. But modern science is increasingly supporting ancestral methods. For instance, traditional herbal treatments and acupuncture now complement allopathic medicine for addiction treatment. Traditional remedies, which are cheaper with fewer side effects, help with withdrawal symptoms and relapse prevention. When added to pharmacotherapy, they reduce the amount of pharmaceutical dosage and treatment duration.
There are more interesting ancestral remedies that tackled addiction. These will be discussed in an upcoming article.
 Poulsen, Thanush. “Kill or Cure: The Evolution of Addiction Treatment Through the Ages”. Ancient Origins. 2018.
 Chappe, Mario. “The use of hallucinogens in psychiatric folklore”. Bulletin of the Panamerica Sanitary Office, 81(2), 176-186. 1976.
 Addy, PH and Maqueda AE. “Traditional Medicine from Southern Mexico Offers Help with Addiction”. Scientific American. August 11, 2015.
 Lu et al. “Traditional Medicine in the Treatment of Drug Addiction”. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 35, 1-11. 2009.
Photo credit: Nucastiel. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.