Herbal Remedies to Help Quit Smoking

When you're ready to quit smoking, try ginseng, milk thistle, and St. John's wort

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One summer evening when I was about 14 and sleeping out with some friends, one guy had a pack of these fascinating white sticks. As the youngest, I became the center of a little game: "Let's get him to start smoking." Of course I accepted and took my first puff, coughing and spewing forth smoke, yet persisting until I could fully inhale.

Such was my introduction to tobacco, a source of human fascination and frustration for nearly five centuries. According to Jacob Bigelow's American Medical Botany, "There is no plant which has less to recommend it than the common tobacco. Its taste in the green state is acrid, nauseous, and repulsive, and a small quantity taken into the stomach excites violent vomiting, attended with other alarming symptoms." Yet the first person who persevered eventually found tobacco a pleasing sedative, soother of worry, and substantial addition to life's pleasures.

Since tobacco's introduction to Western cultures in the 16th century, social attitudes toward it have remained largely negative. In recent years smoking has been banned in restaurants, airports, and, in Vermont at least, all other public places. So, ready to quit? Many products can help, including over-the-counter nicotine patches, nicotine chewing gum, and inhalants. One recent New England Journal of Medicine study recommended combining nicotine replacement therapy with the prescription drug Zyban—also marketed as Welbutrin, an antidepressant—and counseling. But can herbs defeat your nicotine craving? Is there a "natural" way to stop using tobacco?

The simple answer is no. But herbs can be allies in your effort to quit: Ginseng can increase stamina, milk thistle can support the liver as your body cleans out toxins, and St. John's wort can balance mood.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is itself an herb, a member of the nightshade family and the best known of more than 70 tobacco species. Originally cultivated by the indigenous peoples of North and South America, it had ceased to exist in the wild by the time the first Europeans arrived. Alexander von Humboldt, a traveler to the New World between 1799 and 1804, wrote that the word tobacco comes from the ancient Haitian language and refers not to the herb but to the pipe from which the tobacco smoke was "drunk," or inhaled.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus and crew became the first Europeans to see tobacco smoked. In 1560, French ambassador Jean Nicot, immortalized in the genus name Nicotiana, received a gift of tobacco plants from the New World and gave them to his queen, claiming they held miraculous healing properties.

Within half a century, tobacco smoking had spread through Europe, inspiring verse from poets and contempt from civil and religious authorities. A Turkish monarch imposed stiff penalties on those who smoked in public; authorities punished one Turk by thrusting his pipe through his nose and parading him through the streets. And an early Harvard University rule stated that "no scholar shall take tobacco unless permitted by the president, with the consent of their parents or guardians, and on good reason first given by a physician and then in a sober and private manner."

If you don't really want to quit, no strategy will work. But if you do want to quit, begin with your mind. Write down five reasons why you like to smoke and five things you don't like about smoking. Then, five ways your life will improve if you quit. Finally, write 10 reasons why you must quit now. Get some emotional leverage on yourself. You are in control, not the tobacco companies!

Consider cutting down on coffee; when that first cup hits your lips in the morning, it may trigger the next act of the day—lighting a cigarette. Consider replacing coffee with high-quality green tea; it is loaded with antioxidants, which may offset the production of harmful free radicals triggered by smoking.

Three herbs can help. Asian (Panax ginseng) and American (P. quinquefolius) ginseng, known as adaptogens, can help you adapt to stress. Although ginseng's effects are subtle, several European clinical studies have confirmed that the herb shortens reaction time to visual and auditory stimuli; increases respiratory quotient; increases alertness, power of concentration, and grasp of abstract concepts; and improves visual and motor coordination.

A rule of thumb for choosing among the many ginseng products on the market is to find one standardized to 4 to 7 percent ginsenosides, then follow instructions on the label. Standardized extracts produce the most predictable benefits, but whole ginseng roots, which you can find at most large natural- and health-food stores, may also help. Whole roots are hard and tough, but nibbling on the end of one, ingesting 1 or 2 grams of the root per day, will not only deliver a standard daily dose, but also provide an alternative to the habit of putting something in your mouth. I keep a piece of ginseng root in the car to nibble on when the urge strikes.

Smoking can overtax the body systems that filter and eliminate toxins. Once you quit, toxins are released from storage tissue such as fat and need to be eliminated. One organ that processes toxins is the liver. Extracts made from the seeds of milk thistle (Silybum marianum) support healthy liver function.

More than 300 studies conducted since the late 1960s have suggested that milk thistle seed extracts are effective and safe. In standardized extracts, silymarin, the seeds' main chemical complex, is concentrated to 70 percent. Studies show that standardized milk thistle seed preparations alter the liver's outer cell structure to prevent toxic chemicals from entering liver cells. Milk thistle also stimulates the liver's capacity to generate new cells and spurs antioxidants specific to the liver to scavenge harmful oxygen radicals.

Standardized milk thistle products should deliver 420 milligrams of silymarin daily, divided into three doses. You should see results in six to eight weeks. After that, you can reduce the dose to 280 milligrams per day. No side effects have been associated with milk thistle seed extracts other than occasional reports of loose stools.

In more than two dozen clinical studies, extracts of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) have improved mood associated with mild to moderate depression. This herb also may be useful for smoothing the emotional edge associated with giving up cigarettes. In the studies, participants experienced significant improvements in depressive mood indicators—feelings of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, uselessness, fear, and difficult or disturbed sleep. No significant side effects have been observed.

Until recently, most standardized St. John's wort preparations have been calibrated to contain 0.3 percent hypericin, believed to be the herb's primary active constituent. Recent evidence shows that another compound in St. John's wort extracts, hyperforin, may be behind the herb's antidepressant activity. Standardized extracts of St. John's wort are taken in a dose of 300 milligrams three times daily.

Finally, remember the basics: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and get a good night's rest, every night. Stick to a regular exercise regimen that combines stretching routines such as yoga with aerobic workouts. And don't be afraid to seek professional support.

From Herbs for Health (July/Aug. 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7708, Red Oak, IA 51591-0708.