Opioid addiction is considered a public health concern. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reports that in 2014 close to 2.5 million Americans suffered from a substance use disorder involving an opiate. When someone is addicted to an opiate drug, they are likely both physically and psychologically dependent on it.
Opiate drugs include both prescription pain relievers and the illegal drug heroin, both of which increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters; these chemical messengers act on emotions. A spike in dopamine levels in the brain, caused by opiate drug use, produces a feel-good rush or “high.” Neurotransmitters send messages through the brain and interact with the central nervous system, regulating moods, and impacting memory, learning, and impulse control. In addition to making a person feel good, opiates slow down heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure – all functions of the central nervous system.
Taking an opiate drug for a continual length of time can cause a person to become tolerant to it, meaning that more of the drug will need to be taken to keep feeling its effects. Increasing dosage can rapidly lead to physical drug dependence. Opioid withdrawal syndrome is a side effect of stopping an opiate drug after dependence has formed.
Opiate withdrawal can be both physically and emotionally difficult, and it should not be attempted without professional medical and mental health support. Withdrawal symptoms can include flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, tremors, insomnia, muscle aches, tearing up, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, irregular heart rate and blood pressure levels, loss of appetite, dilated pupils, and sweating. Opiate withdrawal can also have psychological symptoms, including restlessness, irritability, depression, anxiety, trouble thinking straight and concentrating, drug cravings, trouble feeling pleasure, and significant mood swings.
Opiate withdrawal syndrome can start within 12-30 hours of the last dose of an opiate drug, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Side effects generally peak in intensity in 3-5 days, and some of the symptoms can continue for a period of time, potentially a week or longer.
There are many “natural” methods and home remedies for combating the side effects of opioid withdrawal; however, none are as safe or effective as being supervised by medical professionals in a specialized medical detox facility. In many instances, at-home detox attempts can even be dangerous.
Natural Supplements and Over-the-Counter Medications
There are many supposed “natural” remedies out there for the treatment and management of opiate withdrawal symptoms. Many of these products contain vitamins and minerals, and they are supplements aimed at helping to restore a person’s physical health that can be negatively impacted by chronic drug abuse.
Opiates can deplete the body of some of its essential nutrients, and supplements may help to balance things out. Electrolyte solutions like Gatorade or Pedialyte may be beneficial as well. Nutritional diet plans and healthy eating can be helpful, as opiate abuse and dependence may interfere with normal eating habits and appetite levels.
Many of the “home detox” products contain herbs and amino acids, and they are sold online and over the counter to help a person “naturally” detox from opioids. These products are not clinically tested or proven to work, however. Stopping an opiate drug suddenly without professional supervision can be potentially dangerous.
Some over-the-counter medications may be useful in managing specific symptoms of opioid withdrawal, such as:
- Antidiarrheal medications like Imodium (loperamide)
- Non-steroidal and/or anti-inflammatory medications for pain relief and muscle aches, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen)
- Sleep aids and antihistamines like Benadryl or Nyquil (diphenhydramine)
- Topical muscle relief and analgesic products like Bengay or Icy Hot (methyl salicylate, camphor, and menthol)
- Anti-nausea and antiemetic medications, such as Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate) or Dramamine (dimenhydrinate)
Tapering, or slowly weaning off an opiate drug, may be a safer method than just stopping the drug “cold turkey.” A tapering schedule helps to lower the dosage over a set period of time so withdrawal is minimized since opioid receptors in the brain remain somewhat activated. Substance abuse and medical professionals are the best suited for helping individuals to set up a safe and controlled tapering schedule. Individuals who attempt to taper on their own are likely to relapse.
Holistic Methods for Opiate Detox
There are many holistic and alternative methods that can aid in opiate detox and withdrawal. While they may be touted as standalone home remedies, they are best used as adjunct methods and combined with a medical detox program. Some of these methods include:
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique of inserting needles into specific parts of the body, called acupuncture points, to restore the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. Acupuncture is safe for everyone and has virtually no side effects to speak of. Several studies have been done to determine its effectiveness for use during detox. The journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that while it may be helpful, data does not yet empirically prove its total efficacy as a standalone method for opiate detox. It may be best used as an adjunct method as a part of a complete and traditional detox program.
Pain and muscle aches are common during opiate withdrawal, and massage may help to relieve some of the tension and discomfort. Massage therapy only targets a few of the opiate withdrawal symptoms; therefore, it is likely most helpful as part of a comprehensive detox program.
Exercise or fitness programs
Getting outdoors and into the fresh air and sunshine can be soothing emotionally and physically. Workable fitness programs may help to increase some of the body’s natural endorphins and neurotransmitters that are depleted from opiate abuse. Exercise is a healthy outlet and can provide stimulation, stress relief, and an engaging activity to occupy the mind. Studies published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry indicate that exercise may help to prevent relapse and minimize drug cravings as well. Fitness regimes are often part of detox and substance abuse treatment programs.
Hot baths or showers
Hot water can soothe aching muscles and relieve pain, and they may be a good way to reduce some of the physical side effects of opiate withdrawal, at least temporarily. Taking a hot bath can also help a person to relax and may serve to lower stress and anxiety for a short period of time as well.
Sleep and engagement
Getting enough sleep during opiate withdrawal is vital. When a person is well-rested, they are better able to handle stress and some of the other emotional side effects of withdrawal. Keeping engaged and busy is also beneficial. Finding healthy hobbies and way to occupy time can help to prevent relapse and minimize drug cravings.
Relapse is a return to drug abuse and can be very dangerous after a period of not using drugs. When a person relapses after being abstinent for a period of time, their tolerance level has likely dropped. Returning to using drugs at previous levels can overwhelm the body and lead to a life-threatening overdose. Drug overdose rates were the highest ever recorded in 2014, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and opioid drugs accounted for more than 60 percent of all fatal drug overdoses that year.
Support during detox is essential in helping to prevent relapse and minimize withdrawal symptoms. A medical detox facility can provide the highest level of professional care and supervision using both pharmaceutical and supportive methods to manage opiate withdrawal symptoms.
Why Is Medical Detox the Safest Option?
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that in 2011, around 250,000 Americans received emergency department (ED) medical care for an adverse reaction to the abuse of heroin while nearly 500,000 individuals visited an ED for negative consequences related to the misuse of a prescription opiate drug. Opiate withdrawal syndrome can be unpredictable, uncomfortable, and even dangerous, resulting in the need for professional medical care. Central nervous system functions can be irregular, and some of the vital life-sustaining functions, like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, can be negatively impacted during opiate withdrawal, requiring medical intervention to regulate them. Medical detox can provide a safe outlet for opiate withdrawal while offering not only professional monitoring and supervision, but also necessary medical care and support.
Medical detox for opiate drugs often uses medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine products are both approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat opioid dependence, as published by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). These medications can stall the negative reaction that comes from stopping an opiate suddenly. Both are longer-acting drugs than most opiates, staying in the body for longer and therefore keeping withdrawal at bay with fewer doses. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist, meaning that it doesn’t fully activate the opiate receptors in the brain and therefore shouldn’t produce the same “high” as other full agonists do. This makes it useful during detox to manage withdrawal without the highs and lows of opiate abuse.
Other prescription-strength medications can be useful in treating certain symptoms of opiate withdrawal. For example, clonidine is a blood pressure medication that has shown promise in helping to soothe overactive central nervous system and autonomic bodily functions. It is often used off-label to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms. The journal Supplement to Journal of Managed Care Pharmacy (JMCP) reports on clonidine as being safe and effective as a nonnarcotic pharmaceutical option during opiate detox.
During opiate withdrawal, emotional and mental health support is also essential as individuals may experience violent and erratic mood swings and potentially be prone to self-harming behaviors. Any underlying medical or co-occurring mental health disorders can be properly addressed and treated during medical detox as well. Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders may require specialized care during detox to ensure a person’s emotional wellbeing and safety. Mental health professionals can work in tandem with medical health providers and substance abuse treatment professionals to simultaneously treat both mental health concerns and opiate dependence, helping to minimize symptoms and side effects of both issues.
Medical detox can help individuals to reach levels of physical stability safely, so they may continue on with a complete substance abuse treatment program that can address their behavioral, emotional, and individual needs with therapeutic, supportive, and pharmaceutical methods. While the idea of home remedies for opiate withdrawal may be tempting, at-home attempts are rarely successful and can be risky. Seek professional help for the best chances at long-term recovery.