Can Naturopathic Approaches Help Win the Battle Against Substance Abuse?

Learn how naturopathic medicine can help patients manage pain and overcome addiction.

In 2014, 21.5 million adults battled a substance use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Addiction is a serious issue that threatens lives on a daily basis, but there is nothing like first hand experience to illuminate just how widespread a threat it poses.

Dr. JoAnn Yanez - AANMC

Dr. JoAnn Yanez

Dr. JoAnn Yanez, executive director of the AANMC, had a recent outpatient surgery that made her understand how real the issue of addiction can be for people.

“The doctors and nursing staff during my procedure were amazing, but I quickly came to see one very important thing. An outpatient surgery could have easily led to addiction.

In the attempt to keep people comfortable and remove all sense of pain, we have created a culture of over-medication. From the moment it was determined they had to cut something out, I was offered full IV cocktails guaranteed to keep me asleep for the whole procedure and addictive pain medications to manage afterwards.

The doctors and staff were a bit surprised when I said, “Give me as little as possible. I want to be awake.” And even more surprised when I said I wasn’t filling the prescription for really strong opiates.  I didn’t need them – and didn’t want them lying around the house where someone else could access them.

Not for nothing, I had 39 hours of labor under my belt as well as a penchant for sport boxing in my younger years. I could handle more than a little pain – and wasn’t afraid of it. I know my limitations and am not ashamed to ask for help when needed.

My naturopathic training has empowered me to understand that there are non-pharmacological approaches to pain management – opiates are not the only answer.

Without all the meds on board, I was able to leave the hospital quickly and get home to heal. I also left empowered, knowing I had the tools to handle it. I tapped into my naturopathic training to manage the discomfort and am well on my way to recovery now, naturally.”

Many naturopathic doctors rely on their holistic medical training to approach the issues of pain, drug abuse, and addiction.

Naturopathic medicine deals with the whole patient, which makes it uniquely effective at helping individuals overcome addiction.

Naturopathic medicine deals with the whole patient, which makes it uniquely effective at helping individuals overcome addiction.

pills-medicine-tablets-depending-161641“Addiction is not just a mental problem, a physical problem, or a biochemical problem,” says Dr. Turshá Hamilton, a naturopathic clinician at NUHS Whole Health Center. “It is very much all those things and more.”

“In fact, pain patients treated with opiates have the same biochemical and neurochemical changes that addicts do on the physical side,” adds Dr. David Arneson of SCNM’s World Addiction and Health Institute. “Addiction may be seen as an attachment to the drug or alcohol from the emotional side.”


Treatments vary depending on the specific patient, but NDs have a natural toolbox of possibilities.

“Acutely, the doctor must consider what the patient is going through at the moment. Insomnia, elevated blood pressures, nausea and vomiting, and body aches are just a few of the symptoms that people go through during the first stages of withdrawal,” Dr. Hamilton says.


Dr. Turshá Hamilton

Her recommendations for initial treatments include:

  • nutrient IV therapy to replenish vital vitamins, minerals, and amino acids lost through the addiction and withdrawal process
  • acupuncture
  • hydrotherapy
  • homeopathy
  • herbs

“In this stage, it may also be necessary to consider prescribing medications to make the process more tolerable (with the goal of using these drugs for as short a duration as possible),” she explains.

“Some naturopaths treat addiction by addressing alterations in brain chemistry that contribute both to addictive behavior and withdrawal symptoms,” adds Dr. Casey Seenauth of the Pain Relief Center at SCNM. “For example, amino acid therapies can be used to support restoration of neurotransmitter pathways that are depleted by long term drug use.”

Dr. Arneson recommends amino acid therapies. “It is useful for the physician to understand that a lot of the drugs such as opiates or anti-depressants utilized for pain relief often lead to more pain, since these drugs lower the amounts of specific neurotransmitters over time,” he says. “These neurotransmitters need to be in sufficient healthy levels for our own endogenous pain system to work efficiently. This can be rectified by the utilization of specific amino acid formulas designed to bring these levels back into normal ranges once the drugs are out of the system.”

“Acupuncture, particularly, auricular acupuncture is very helpful to reduce cravings as well,” Dr. Seenauth adds. “The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association protocol is well-researched, standardized, and is effective in dealing with many of the side effects of drug withdrawal.”

Dr. Arneson recommends a set of naturopathic protocols that he has implemented in the three in-patient treatment centers he co-founded:

  • treat aggressively with focused nutrition, intravenous nutrients, and specific amino acid formulas for the first month
  • ongoing 12-step program
  • intense counseling
  • intensive outpatient treatment
Dr. David Arneson

Dr. David Arneson

“85% of the patients that take responsibility for their recovery and follow these simple suggestions are clean and sober at the end of the first year of sobriety,” he says.

“In our experience, utilizing nutritional treatments, the initial repair work can be accomplished in three to six weeks on average. If we do not incorporate focused nutritional treatment this can take on the average six months to two years—or what we call post-acute withdrawal syndrome,” he says.

Some of Dr. Arneson’s recommended long-term approaches include:

  • exercise such as yoga or Tai Chi
  • counseling
  • instilling responsibility for the recovery

body-outlineDr. Hamilton also has preferred treatments to employ after the initial stage of recovery. “In considering how to treat the person long term, the doctor, or team must address why they may have started using in the first place. I found many patients were self-medicating because of an underlying condition like depression, bipolar disorder, or they may have been abused or abandoned. Some may even have been addicted to a medication because they were in chronic pain and just trying to get some relief,” Dr. Hamilton says.

The following tools can be used to address those issues:

  • teaching stress management skills
  • stretching, yoga, meditation, exercising
  • sauna or steam room therapy
  • volunteering to help deal with life, triggers, and past events that may have led to drug use
  • setting up a support system – both individual and group – to provide a place to talk through experiences

“As you can see, there is no one approach to addiction recovery. Everyone is unique so everyone’s treatment must also be unique and fitted to their specific situation and the stage of rehabilitation that the person finds themselves in at that time,” Dr. Hamilton says.

Naturopathic medicine is also a key tool in managing pain without pharmaceuticals.

“It’s my opinion that the best way that we can address the issue of addiction to opioid pain medication is through the proper and adequate treatment of pain,” says Dr. Seenauth.

Dr. Klee Bethel

Dr. Klee Bethel

“Where naturopathic medicine really shines is in managing painful conditions, helping the patient with diet and exercise recommendations, and supplementation when necessary,” says Dr. Klee Bethel of the Pain Relief Center at SCNM.

“We’ve seen that therapies that only include pharmaceuticals often don’t give the patient significant relief over the long term and can have very deleterious side effects,” says Dr. Hamilton. “By using modalities like medical nutrition, botanical medicine, mind-body medicine, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, and homeopathy, we can offer the chronic pain or illness patient more options that may offer them relief, resolution, and hope in a future that has less pain and sickness, and more vitality.”

“Starting at a fundamental level, diet plays a huge role in treating pain,” Dr. Seenauth says. “Many painful conditions are aggravated by inflammation, which can be reduced and modulated through use of an anti-inflammatory diet, such as:

  • proper levels of omega-3 fatty acids
  • plant based foods
  • vitamin D supplements

CALIFORNIA WALNUT COMMISSION MEDITERRANEAN DIET“Diet is not a one-size-fits-all therapy,” he says. “Naturopathic physicians can help patients navigate which diet is appropriate for their individual needs.”

Dr. Hamilton recommends specific anti-inflammatory foods:

  • leafy green vegetables
  • vegetables that have rainbow colors like blueberries, bell peppers, squash, pumpkin
  • fewer processed foods (breads, pastas, muffins)
  • healthy fats (avocado, coconut, olive oil)
  • organically-fed, free-range, wild-caught meats
Dr. Casey Seenauth

Dr. Casey Seenauth

“Regenerative injection therapies can repair injured tissues that are sources of pain,” Dr. Seenauth adds. These include:

  • prolotherapy helps to tighten ligaments and repair connective tissue that cause pain

  • tissue transfer using bone marrow or adipose can stimulate the damaged tissue to undergo cellular proliferation and repair
  • neural prolotherapy or perineural injection technique is a new therapy developed by Dr. John Lyftogt that targets neurogenic pain by injecting a dilute sugar solution near inflamed cutaneous nerves

In addition, homeopathy is very effective in treating pain. Dr. Seenauth’s recommended remedies include:

  • Arnica – bruises, soreness, tender to touch (commonly used after falls or other blunt trauma injuries)
  • Rhus toxicodendron – stiff, sore joints (pain is worse with rest and better with continued motion, pain improves with warm applications)
  • Ruta graveolens – strained ligaments, pain and stiffness in tendons

Dr. Hamilton also identifies herbal and nutritional supplements that can be effective:

  • turmeric (anti-inflammatory)
  • bromelain (anti-inflammatory)
  • boswellia (anti-inflammatory)
  • papain (anti-inflammatory)
  • ginger (anti-inflammatory)
  • John’s wort (for nerves)
  • milky oats (for nerves)
  • passion flower (for nerves)
  • lavender (for nerves)
  • peppermint (antispasmodic)
  • thyme (antispasmodic)
  • chamomile (antispasmodic)
  • magnesium (for tissue)
  • CoQ10 (for tissue)
  • calcium (for tissue)
  • potassium (for tissue)
  • vitamin D (for tissue)
  • B vitamins (for tissue)

Dr. Arneson also notes that “sometimes the simplest remedies are overlooked, such as ice or mild heat to the affected area to reduce inflammation or tightness of a muscle.”

Naturopathic doctors work to treat the whole patient so that individuals can manage pain and overcome addiction naturally.