Alternative Clinics Offer
Holistic Ways to Beat Addiction
by Lisa Marshall
Bill Beilhartz had run out of options. In fact, he
was close to death. At age 44, the Denver father-of-two had just spent
two weeks in the hospital for alcohol-induced ulcers in his esophagus
and stomach. He'd registered a nearly lethal blood alcohol level of .675.
He'd been through two failed marriages, and his tall, once-handsome frame
was withered from years of drinking a half-gallon of vodka a day. Yet,
his first stop after leaving the hospital? Incredibly, the liquor store.
Three days later, after being rushed to the hospital
again--this time for internal bleeding--he began to desperately flipping
through the Yellow Pages looking for something beyond what his three
previous treatment centers had offered--something that might actually
"The all had the same approach," says Beilhartz,
and international casino consultant who had checked himself in each time
before, paying as much as $10,000 per stay. "They tell you, 'Don't
drink,' and that is pretty much the education they give you."
An ad for InnerBalance Health
Center, a Colorado treatment program that takes a comprehensive holistic
approach to addiction, jumped
out at him. The clinic prescribed such treatments as nutritional counseling,
intravenous vitamin therapy, yoga, and exercise programs. "It was
different than anything I'd ever heard of. And it all just made sense
to me," says Beilhartz, who checked in to the 35-day program in
Months later, he's healthy,
hopeful, and boasting more days of sobriety than in all the past 15
years combined. "Within
a week of arriving, my mind was completely clear, and I felt energized
and motivated to get on with life. I hadn't felt like that since my early
20s," he says.
BATTLING BRAIN CHEMISTRY
Beilhartz is among a growing number of addicts and
alcoholics turning toward complementary and alternative therapies to
address the physiological underpinnings of addiction. The programs are
rooted in the theory that addiction is largely the result
of skewed levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain.
With too much of some messengers
and not enough of others, researchers believe, addicts are caught--often
a state of chronic imbalance and turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate
in an attempt to feel "normal."
"If you have a broken leg and your bone is sticking
out, you aren't going to want to sit around and talk about it. You are
going to want to go to the emergency room, fix the physical problem,
and stop the pain first," explains Joe Eisele, clinical director
of InnerBalance and a recovering alcoholic. "Then you can sit down
REWARD DEFICIENCY SYNDROME
The notion that addiction is
a biochemical disease dates back to the late 1980s when Texas brain
research Kenneth Blum coined
the phrase "reward deficiency syndrome." Blum theorized that
for most people, the stimulus of everyday things like good food, sex,
or a funny movie set off a cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters in
the brain. But some people are born with either an inability to produce
enough of these chemicals or a kink in the line that delivers them. For
such individuals, the cascade of reward is hindered and pleasure muted,
it if comes at all.
"[Addicts] are always looking for a way to feel
better, and when they discover certain mood-altering substances--those
things that fit into the same receptors in the brain that the deficient "feel-good" chemicals
do--they feel like they are getting what they have been looking for but
have never been able to find," says Merlene Miller, and addictions
specialist and coauthor of the book Staying Clean and Sober: Complementary
and Natural Strategies for Healing the Addicted Brain (Woodland,
Today, experts readily accept the notion that faulty
brain chemistry plays a role in setting people up for addiction, but
for the most part, addiction researchers have focused on correcting that
brain chemistry with pharmaceuticals, rather than addressing it more
holistically. Meanwhile, more and more clinics around the country use
that same information to take a different, more holistic approach.
VITAMINS THROUGH A TUBE
Step into InnerBalance Health Center on any given Wednesday
and you'll find a room full of resident patients, from grandmothers trying
to quite binge drinking to musicians who want to kick cocaine. They're
watching videos and chatting as orange liquid drips into their veins
through intravenous tubes.
Alcoholism and drug abuse can ravage the gastrointestinal
system, limiting its ability to absorb nutrients, so pumping vitamin
C, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and b vitamins directly into the blood has
a more immediate effect than administering them orally, says Eisele.
And because underlying nutritional problems, such as hypoglycemia or
B-vitamin deficiencies, often prompt cravings, IV therapy can often quell
the withdrawal that leads addicts to relapse early on.
At Bridging the Gaps Inc. in Winchester, Virginia,
patients begin treatment with a series of blood and urine tests to assess
their liver and kidney function and nutritional status. They also fill
out a psychological survey to determine if they might be lacking in certain
brain chemicals. They then receive a customized cocktail of nutrients
and amino acids--the building blocks for neurotransmitters--through an
IV tube for six to 10 days.
The amino acid given depends on which neurotransmitter
appears to be lacking. For example, clinic staff members presume that
addicts who prefer sedatives or alcohol lack the calming neurotransmitter
GABA, so they give them its amino acid precursor. Someone who gravitates
toward drugs like cocaine, on the other hand, would get amino acids that
stimulate excitatory activity in the brain.
James Braly, MD, medical director
and attending physician at Bridging the Gaps, says the medical journals
have published few studies
about the benefits of IV and oral nutrient therapy specifically, largely
because most research dollars support pharmaceutical approaches to treating
addiction. But braly's clinic has produced some promising data. One study
surveyed newly sober patients about the severity of 15 "abstinence
symptoms" (such as cravings, anxiety, depression, insomnia, fuzzy
thinking, and restlessness) both before and after six days of IV and
oral nutritional therapy. It found that all 15 symptoms were radically
reduced, making it easier for the patient to stick with the psychosocial
counseling part of the program.
Once the body is better able to absorb nutrients and
the brain chemistry is rebalanced, patients are placed on a daily regimen
of oral vitamins, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and probiotics.
At the same time, they receive nutritional counseling aimed at steering
them toward lots of fresh fruits and vegetables; quality proteins such
as fish, poultry, and eggs; and nutritional oils such as extra virgin
olive oil and omega-3 fish oils. They are strongly urged to stay away
from junk food and refined carbohydrates, which can cause blood sugar
to fluctuate wildly, aggravating cravings.
Such nutritional approaches stem largely from the work
of Joan Matthews Larsen, whose groundbreaking book Seven Weeks to
Sobriety: The Proven Program to Fight Alcoholism With Nutrition (Ballantine,
1997) sparked many people to open clinics based on her Health Recovery
Center in Minneapolis. One published study conducted there found that
85 percent of clients had remained sober six months after treatment.
After three and a half years, 74 percent were still sober.
Another success story, Ty Curan,
29, a recovering heroin addict, experienced dramatic results by changing
his diet and adding
a supplement regime. A drug user since the age of 15, he had completed
nine residential in-patient treatment programs before checking in to
Bridging the Gaps in December 2005. "I would go to treatment for
a month, stay clean for a month, and fall back apart," he recalls.
The difference this time, he says, is after his stay at Bridging the
Gaps, he's been able to stay sober: "It truly is the best I've felt
in a long, long time."
NEEDLING THE EAR
Another key component at Bridging the Gaps is ear acupuncture--now
being used in more than 800 federally recognized addiction programs across
Chinese medicine practitioners discovered more than
2,500 years ago that when they manipulated certain points
in the ear, they could relieve the discomfort of people going through
opium withdrawal. In the 1970s, a neurosurgeon in Hong
Kong revived the practice after noting that when he delivered electrical
stimulation to a certain acupuncture point in the ear for post-surgical
pain relief, he also alleviated his patient's opiate withdrawal symptoms.
When word of the treatment made it to the US, the practice
took off here, ultimately evolving into a protocol that calls for five
needles placed in ear points said to regulate the nervous system, cerebral
cortex, respiratory system, liver, and kidneys. Today, the nonprofit
National Acupuncture Detoxification Association teaches the method worldwide,
and the federal government has granted millions of dollars to study its
Research has produced mixed results, but some studies
have shown this method of ear acupuncture can not only quell withdrawal
symptoms in a notoriously hard-to-treat heroin and cocaine addicts, bit
it has the added benefit of helping people stick with a treatment program.
For the past 30 years, Michael Smith, MD, director
of the Recovery Center at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York, has
offered ear acupuncture to addicts awaiting methadone therapy for heroin
and cocaine addiction at the clinic.
He began to see results immediately. "This one
woman took the treatment, and after about five minutes, her nose stopped
running, and she looked more comfortable. About a half hour later she
said, 'I'm hungry. I want to eat something,'" recalls Smith. "No
heroin addict in the middle of withdrawal has ever said, 'I want to eat
something.' She ate a double helping." Even more remarkable, she
also left without the methadone and returned the next day for another
acupuncture treatment instead. Five years later, the clinic stopped offering
methadone therapy altogether. Now it treats as many as 50 patients at
a time with ear acupuncture, upping the chances that they will return
for counseling. "You start it as soon as they arrive because it
helps people when they are in a crisis," says Smith.
While ear acupuncture is by far the most researched
form of needling for addiction treatment, traditional Chinese acupuncture,
which uses points all over the body, can also play an important role--particularly
for pain relief.
Studies show acupuncture relieves pain effectively,
which makes it ideal for people trying to wean themselves off prescription
pain killers, and it can also help people deal with chronic health problems
resulting from years of drug and alcohol abuse.
DON'T STRESS OUT
Once the body has begun to heal, keeping stress at
bay becomes a critical factor in continued progress. Many clinics across
the country offer classes in meditation and yoga and also mandate a regular
exercise program. But some have also begun to look toward a more novel
approach to stress reduction called brain wave, or EEG, biofeedback,
a computer-assisted relaxation technique that helps patients learn to
manipulate their own brain waves. Research has shown that prolonged drug
use can actually alter brain wave activity, prompting mental sluggishness
or agitation depending on the substance used.
It's almost like the brian is
misfiring because [recovering addicts] have been using these drugs,
and biofeedback helps them learn
how to make it fire properly," says Don Theodore, a certified addictions
specialist who runs the brain wave biofeedback program at Cri-Help Inc.
in Hollywood, California.
For 45 minutes twice a day,
clients lie in a comfortable chair with brain wave-charting sensors
attached to their heads. As they
make their way through visualization and relaxation exercises, a tone
in their ear "rewards them" when they reach alpha and theta
brain wave states, which are associated with calm and openness. So far,
the research is promising. In one 2005 study, addicts who underwent 40-50
biofeedback sessions, along with counseling, were far less likely to
drop out of treatment; after 12 months, 77 percent were still clean.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Back at InnerBalance in Colorado, Beilhartz credits
a combination of things for his long-sought recovery. The IV vitamin
therapy and supplements certainly helped him get through the initial
cravings, both the nutritional counseling and the mandatory three-day-a-week
exercise class helped him recover his health, and the group counseling
provided much-needed peer support.
As a result, he recently left
his job in the casino business and is now preparing to go back to school.
His future plans:
to become an addictions counselor specializing in a holistic approach. "I
spent the last 44 years thinking only of myself. I'd like to spend the
next 44 years returning favors and taking care of people," he says. "These
guys are amazing. This place is amazing."
~ Lisa Marshall is a freelance writer
living in Lyons, Colorado. She specializes in health, fitness, and