When I became sober I did a deep dive into the world of holistic medicine, and started relying on it for my own health. Through this, I became a firm believer in working to uncover and treat any imbalances at the source – something that herbal medicine is well renowned for.
Herbalism predates conventional medicine by over 3,000 years, and many pharmaceutical companies rely on plants as bases or ingredients in their formulas to this day. In our Western society, we’ve been slowly conditioned to adopt conventional medicine as a dogma for our health concerns. In such, we’ve forgotten the power of holistic practices and remedies over time.
Fortunately, for those who wish to approach their mental, physical, and spiritual health from a natural perspective, there are plenty of herbal options available.
Using Herbs in Early Sobriety
A lot of fears can surface surrounding our health in early sobriety. In the beginning of my own sobriety, I wondered things like, ‘how will I cope with my anxiety now that I don’t drink?’, or ‘how will I sleep without my nightly wine?’, and ‘how will I manage my stress?’. I attributed alcohol for helping these issues, and thought I’d just have to learn to live with them. Instead, I was able to find healthy ways to manage by relying on exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy, reading, eating healthy, and supplementing with herbs!
When we become reliant on alcohol, we often create a mental, inexhaustive list of reasons why it’s benefitting us more than it’s harming us. The reality is that alcohol exasperates these issues in the long-term and does very little to address the root cause of anxiety, stress, depression, and our physical concerns. Furthermore, long-term drinking often negatively impacts our health, leaving us with chronic issues and concerns that require a great deal of medical intervention.
Keeping this in mind, there’s a time and a place for both conventional and holistic medicine. It’s important to see your doctor at the beginning of your sobriety to ensure that you’re not at risk for dangerous withdrawal symptoms and to address any existing problems.
Once you’ve been cleared medically, you may consider speaking with an herbalist, dietician, or naturopath about the following herbs and how they may support your recovery.
1. Ashwagandha – The Stress Reliever
Treatments/Uses: Stress, Sleep Disorders, Re-establishing Balance in Bodily Systems
Early sobriety typically brings with it a lot of emotions – stress being a major one. If you’re having a hard time coping with stress, an herb like Ashwagandha may be worth looking into.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to help achieve homeostasis (balance, essentially) in one’s body. Adaptogens work by protecting against stress via a stimulating effect which creates a ‘non-specific resistance’, thereby decreasing one’s sensitivity to stressors.
Ashwagandha is highly revered for its ability to support adrenals and lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the body, which in turn can help prevent insulin resistance. This is important for those with substance use disorders as alcohol abuse often leads to insulin resistance. This condition can cause a plethora of problems down the line, such as weight gain, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
I incorporate Ashwagandha into my daily smoothie, and I love it because it chills me out almost immediately. I find that it slows down my thought processes and provides my mind with the space needed to organize my thinking. This allows me to tackle tasks consecutively without feeling scattered and alleviates the sense of urgency to get everything done at once.
Ashwagandha is available in a variety of forms – powders, capsules, teas, and blends.
2. Lemon Balm – The Nervine
Treatments/Uses: Anxiety, Overwhelm, Mood Balancing, Immune Booster
Lemon Balm is an herb from the mint family that lives up to its name. It has a mild, lemony scent that makes a great herbal tea, but it can also be consumed as a tincture.
As a Nervine, Lemon Balm is a wonderful choice for those with anxiety, as it works by calming the nervous system, lowering blood pressure, and improving the mood.
Lemon Balm promotes relaxation and helps with insomnia – a common complaint in early sobriety. Packed with antioxidants, it also improves clarity and protects the brain from oxidative stress.
This herb is a favourite of mine. I love drinking it as a tea and find it provides a ‘blissed out’ feeling.
3. Tulsi (Holy Basil) – The Queen of Herbs
Treatments/Uses: Depression, Detoxification, Fight Infections, Boost Immunity, Reduce Blood Sugar, Achieve Balance & Harmony
Tulsi, or Holy Basil, is know as “The Queen of Herbs” in Ayurvedic medicine. Once you integrate Tulsi into your daily life, you’ll begin to understand why!
This adaptogen is well known throughout history for it’s amazing physical, cognitive, and spiritual benefits.
Tulsi is effectively antimicrobial - making it a great immunity booster, anti-fungal, and anti-viral for everyday life. It also counters metabolic stress, is anti-inflammatory, lowers blood pressure and lipid levels, normalizes blood sugar, and can even treat fevers and the common cold.
The physical benefits of Tulsi are great for anyone, but the cognitive benefits are helpful for those in early and ongoing sobriety.
Tulsi contains compounds that balance serotonin and dopamine – two impactful neurotransmitters that alcohol has a proclivity for disrupting. Low serotonin often leads to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and low mood. Dopamine affects our reward centre, and once your brain becomes reliant on alcohol (or any substance), it stops producing dopamine to a large degree. In turn, individuals often feel painfully bored, unmotivated, and ‘foggy’. Therefore, integrating Tulsi into your diet is an important, natural way to get your body and brain back on track after quitting drinking.
This herb makes a great herbal tea. In Ayurveda, it’s a common practice to begin each day with a cup of Tulsi tea – give it a try and see how you feel! I drink Tulsi daily and find that it shortens the duration of colds/illnesses, boosts my mood, and provides me with energy without it feeling stimulating.
5. Milk Thistle – Support Your Liver
Treatments/Uses: Liver Scarring & Damage, Cirrhosis, Jaundice, Inflammation, Estrogen Dominance
Milk thistle has been used in holistic medicine for over 2,000 years for ailments relating to the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder. This herb has also proven its worth in the Western world of medicine as it’s often supplemented for liver related ailments.
Milk thistle enhances glutathione which increases liver function and prevents further scarring and damage. There is also evidence that it may lower blood sugar levels in those with Type II Diabetes. This plant also regulates hormones and helps to treat estrogen dominance in both men and women.
The best way to take milk thistle is in capsule form – as dosages can range between 200 mg’s to 600 mg’s per day (talk to a doctor or naturopath to decide on the right dosage).
5. Marshmallow Root – Heal Your Stomach
Treatments/Uses: Acid reflux, IBS, Indigestion, Stomach Ulcers, Heartburn, Common Cold, Sore Throats, Skin Irritation, Asthma, Aids Metabolism
Marshmallow Root has been used by many old and new civilizations for over 2,000 years as both a food and a medicine. In ancient times, it was primarily used to treat wounds and soothe a cough or sore throat.
This root is considered extremely safe to use, has very few interactions, and can treat a vast variety of ailments. Therefore, if you’re new to the world of plant medicine, I suggest starting with an herb like Marshmallow.
Over time, drinking can heavily impact our gut microbiome, cause inflammation of our stomach lining, and other less than pleasant symptoms. The state of our gut (AKA ‘the second brain’) is so important as it greatly affects our nervous system, moods, chemical balance, and happiness. So, if you’ve been faced with digestive problems because of long-term drinking, marshmallow root is a must try!
Marshmallow works by forming a mucus-like substance that coats the intestinal barrier and soothes irritates mucus membranes in the stomach. This plant also improves skin and hair health by soothing redness and boosting hydration. As a result, marshmallow root extract is often used in hair and skin care products.
You can reap the benefits of marshmallow root in a variety of ways: as an herbal tea, tinctures, powders, or capsules. I personally love drinking it as a tea – it’s very mild in flavour and blends well with licorice root tea (another great herb)! My only gripe is that is doesn’t taste anything like a marshmallow…what gives?!
6. Dandelion Root – The Detoxifier
Treatments/Uses: Detoxifies the Liver, Gallbladder, Kidneys, and Blood, Supports Digestive Health, Weight Management, Regulates Blood Sugar, Reduces Cholesterol
Often regarded as nothing more than an invasive weed, dandelion is highly nutritious from flower to root. This herb has relied on medicinally since the 10th century – often used as a diuretic and to treat liver conditions. It’s packed full of vitamins A, B, C, and D, as well as minerals, such as iron, potassium, and zinc.
After quitting drinking, it’s no surprise that our body is in a desperate need of detoxification. Dandelion root can help with that process by gently cleansing our liver and kidneys, while supporting the immune system all at once. I relied on dandelion root in the early days of my own sobriety. It has a comforting, earthy flavour and I found it helped curb my caffeine cravings – which subsequently went through the roof when I initially ditched alcohol.
* Speak with your doctor before deciding if detoxing on your own is safe or not.
Dandelion root is also available in capsule and tincture form.
7. Turmeric – Fight Inflammation
Uses/Treatments: Inflammation, Joint Pain, IBS, Heart Health, Arthritis, Eye Health, Brain Fog
You’ve probably heard of turmeric – a very popular spice (also known as Saffron) that is used medicinally and in cooking. Derived from the Ginger family, Turmeric is known for being one of the most anti-inflammatory foods in existence.
Curcumin is the active ingredient responsible for Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory benefits. Its benefits can be supported with black pepper, and as a supplement, the two are often combined for optimal results.
In my drinking days, my body lived in a state of constant inflammation. I had always been allergic to alcohol, and over time, I also became sensitized to it. Once you become sensitized to a toxin (which occurs via over-exposure), you will start to notice allergic responses – like rashes, redness, joint pain, sinus congestion, stomach issues, etc. If you continue exposing yourself to whatever you’ve become sensitized to, your body will enter a state of severe inflammation. It takes time, even once the toxin is removed, to lessen and prevent the inflammation from recurring.
So, if you find yourself struggling with symptoms of inflammation in early or ongoing sobriety, consider adding it to your diet. If you’re wondering how to take it, I recommend trying this one as a tea for two reasons: turmeric has a great flavour, and when it comes to this spice, a little goes a long way! Like prescribed medication, you always want to start small when it comes to herbs; especially if you’re taking a few of them at the same time.
8. Chamomile – Unwind & Sleep Better
Uses/Treatments: Insomnia, Improves Sleep Quality, Digestive Problems, Anxiety, Overstimulated Mind, Hormonal Issues, Inflammation
Last on this list is Chamomile – a flower derived from the Asteracea family. Like Dandelion, Chamomile is a very common and plentiful flower that is wildly undervalued by today’s society. It’s been used for over 3,000 years in traditional medicine to treat a wide range of ailments; from skin conditions to insomnia.
Chamomile helps with sleep due to a mild sedative effect produced by a flavonoid called Apigenin. Flavonoids are plant-derived compounds that are considered to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These compounds are known to treat and prevent cancer by inhibiting cancer cell growth. Flavones also support the pancreas, and aid in decreasing unhealthy levels of blood sugar. As an antioxidant, Chamomile may help lower lipids (cholesterol) and blood pressure.
In other words, everyone should have this herb in their cupboard. Chamomile is great as a tea, tincture, or in capsule form when used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Speak to a naturopath or doctor if you decide to self-medicate with high doses of Chamomile. Interactions are rare, but not impossible – especially if you suffer from pollen, grass, or seasonal allergies, or if you’re taking prescribed medications.
Herbs like Chamomile can be so important for those in recovery.
One of my greatest fears in early sobriety was learning how to sleep without relying on alcohol. I started struggling with sleep from an early age: frequent nightmares, constantly waking, not being able to shut off my mind, high anxiety – you name it.
Lacking quality sleep affects us in a variety of negative ways, and I became reliant on alcohol to help put me to sleep each night. After I quit drinking, I realized how much alcohol made my sleep patterns worse. It would help me fall asleep, but I constantly woke up tired and unrested. Chamomile provides the same offering as alcohol by helping you fall asleep initially (due to its sedating effect), but it also nourishes the body and mind so that you have restful, energizing sleep.
My sleeping habits have become much healthier and I notice it greatly in my everyday life. Ditching the alcohol helped monumentally but supplementing with herbs put my wheels in motion. I rely on Chamomile tea throughout my cycle to help with menstrual symptoms and sleep disturbances that come with fluctuating hormones. I also use it during times of high stress and throughout colds/flus to help keep my sleep schedule in order.
Choosing What Works For You
Herbalism, Ayurvedic practices, and holistic medicine all center around listening to your body and tending to its needs in a gentle and nourishing way. Many of the herbs discussed can help in a variety of similar ways, but they aren't necessarily one-size-fits-all.
If you'd like to integrate holistic medicine into your regimen, I recommend starting slow, doing a bit of research, and taking the time to try a variety of herbs and practices to find what works for your body and lifestyle.