Herbal Remedies to Help Quit Smoking

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


| September-October 1999 Issue



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.