Herbs that Help Smokers Quit

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Ginseng, top right, increases stamina, milk thistle tincture, center, supports the liver as your body cleans out toxins, and St.-John’s-wort balances mood.

3 herbal friends to help along the way

Herbs don’t offer a magic bullet for kicking the habit. However, they can be allies in your effort to stop smoking once and for all.

I imagine my first introduction to tobacco was similar to that of many: peer pressure. One summer evening when I was about fourteen years old, I was sleeping out with some friends. One guy, who must have been about sixteen or so, emerged with a pack of these wonderfully fascinating white sticks. I was the youngest person there that night and became the center of a little game–“let’s get him to start smoking.” Of course, to prove myself, I accepted the offer, drew the burning butt to my mouth, and took my first puff. I attempted to inhale–coughing and spewing forth smoke in disgust, yet persisting until, after some practice, I could fully inhale the acrid-tasting smoke.

Such was the beginning of my use of this plant, which has been the source of both fascination and frustration for humankind since its introduction nearly five centuries ago. In the process of researching this article, I was reminded of my introduction to smoking when I read the “Tobacco” chapter of Jacob Bigelow’s American Medical Botany (Cummings and Hilliard, 1818): “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.”

But the first person who had courage and patience enough to persevere in its use, until habit had overcome his original disgust, eventually found tobacco a pleasing sedative, a soother of worry, and a substantial addition to the pleasures of life.

Since tobacco’s introduction to Western cultures in the sixteenth century, social attitudes toward its use have remained largely negative. The glamour of smoking has disappeared, and each day the media depicts the addiction in less flattering ways. It becomes more and more difficult to find a place to smoke. Maine has recently followed Massachusetts in banning smoking in all restaurants. In Vermont, smoking is not allowed in any public place. If you are a smoker and a frequent flier, you know only too well that smoking on airlines is prohibited in most parts of the world, and it’s difficult to find a place to smoke at most major airports. Many ban smoking indoors altogether, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a smoking zone outside an airport. If that’s not enough, buying a pack of cigarettes has become almost more expensive than buying a mixed drink at an airport bar!

So, ready to quit smoking? Take heart. Today there are many products that can help you, including over-the-counter nicotine patches, nicotine chewing gum, inhalants, and the prescription drug Zyban. One recent study recommended a three-pronged approach, combining nicotine replacement therapy with Zyban, which controls the desire for a cigarette, along with a counseling program with a health-care professional. Such conventional medicine approaches should be seriously considered in your quit-smoking strategy.

As for herbs–can they defeat your nicotine craving? Is there a “natural” way to stop using tobacco?

The simple answer is no. Herbs do not offer a magic bullet for kicking the habit. However, they can be allies in your effort to quit. Ginseng can increase stamina. Milk thistle can support the liver as your body cleans out toxins. St.-John’s-wort can balance mood. But first, a brief history of tobacco, itself an herb, may support you mentally as you make the commitment to a nonsmoking life.

A New World discovery, a royal gift

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a member of the nightshade family and the best known of more than seventy tobacco species. It has never been found in the wild and was cultivated by North and South American natives long before the era of European exploration. Alexander 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.

During their historic visit to the Caribbean in 1492, Christopher Columbus and crew became the first Europeans to observe the smoking of tobacco. This occasion marked the beginning of the spread of the weed throughout the inhabited world. Within only a few decades, the plant became the most widely abused and addictive plant substance humankind has ever known.

The proliferation of the use of tobacco among Europeans was initiated in 1560 by Jean Nicot, whose name is immortalized in the genus name Nicotiana. Nicot, then ambassador of France to the Court of Portugal, received a gift of tobacco plants from Hernandez de Toledo, who in 1559 returned from the New World with plants for the Spanish and Portuguese hierarchies. Nicot took his prize back to the queen of France, claiming that the plant held miraculous healing properties. Within half a century, tobacco smoking spread throughout most of Europe, where it became a motif of poets and the object of civil and religious authorities’ contempt.

Fear and loathing of tobacco

Although by the early 1600s tobacco had become the pleasure of thousands of Europeans, it was also attacked by those disgusted by the habits associated with its use. In 1610, for example, English merchants introduced tobacco into Turkey. But tobacco did not become a major trade item because a Turkish monarch imposed a stiff and discouraging penalty on those who smoked in public. Authorities punished one Turk caught smoking in Constantinople by thrusting his pipe through his nose and parading him through the streets, sending a strong message to other would-be offenders.

Other officials imposed equally severe penalties. Up to the time of Peter the Great in Russia, taking snuff was punishable by cutting off the nose. A puritanical decree of colonial Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ordered that “a cage be built, or some other means devised, to punish such as take tobacco on the Lord’s Day in time of public service.” Under the old colony laws of Massachusetts, smoking was as socially unacceptable as it is today. An early rule of Harvard University 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.”

Comparing then to now, we see that history repeats itself.

Nibble on a piece of ginseng root when the urge strikes.

Strategies for quitting

Whatever your approach to quitting smoking, it begins with your mind. You must decide that you have to quit smoking and you have to do it now.

There is not one smoker who doesn’t know that he or she should quit smoking. But, defiant you! You continue to smoke because you enjoy it, it’s relaxing, it stimulates your mind. You don’t quit smoking because you’ve tried before, and you know you’re going to go crazy for a few days. It’s too much to bear. You don’t want to quit because you fear gaining weight. You don’t quit because you’re just too stubborn or because you are, of course, addicted to nicotine. But if you don’t really want to quit, no strategy is going to be successful.

So, to get set mentally, try this exercise, borrowed from Tony Robbins of TV infomercial fame. Write down five reasons why you like to smoke. Next, write down five things you don’t like about smoking. Follow that up with five ways your life will improve if you quit smoking. Finally, write down ten reasons why you know you must quit now. Get some emotional leverage on yourself. Develop a strategy to achieve successful results. You are in control, not the tobacco companies! Get help. Seek the advice of a friend or health-care professional. You are not alone! Millions of smokers attempt to quit each year.

In addition to setting your mind to the task, you will also need to make lifestyle changes. Consider cutting down on coffee at the same time you quit smoking. When that first cup of coffee hits your lips in the morning, it may be a trigger to the next act of the day–lighting a cigarette. Try starting the morning with a glass of water instead. If you really want coffee, drink only one cup a day. Consider replacing coffee with a high-quality green tea. Tea has less caffeine and is loaded with antioxidants, which may offset the production of harmful free radicals triggered by smoking (for more about the pleasures and health benefits of green tea, see page 42). Throughout the day, each time you feel like having a cigarette, reach for a glass of water or cup of green tea instead.

This is also a good time to focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and to treat yourself to a good night’s rest, every night. Plan to exercise, including stretching routines such as yoga and aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming. Replace a smoke break with a walk around a block or two or three. And if you just can’t do it yourself, don’t be afraid to seek professional support.

Steven Foster, lead editorial adviser for Herbs for Health, is an authority on medicinal herbs, with more than twenty-five years of work in the field. He is a photographer and the author of many books, including 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave Press, 1998).

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