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Addiction Treatment in Chinese Medicine: What Gives Our Medicine an Advantage?

Classical Chinese Medicine Theory

In the addiction treatment field, various modalities and professions compete (or collaborate) to offer solutions and answers. But what about Chinese Medicine? With thousands of years of holistic healing up our sleeve, are we really limited to one set of acupuncture points for treating addiction?

Short answer: No! Not that there’s anything “wrong” with popular point prescriptions. But as a Doctor of Chinese Medicine and addiction expert with more than two decades of experience, I prefer to use more of what our medicine has to offer.

Chinese Medicine is holistic and vast. Doctors and practitioners have been using it to treat the whole person—body, mind, spirit—since its beginnings. We certainly don’t have to limit ourselves to a single protocol or set of points.

I mean sure, we can practice that way. But doing so can mean missing out on what makes Chinese Medicine different and gives us a massive advantage in addiction treatment. This advantage is at once reflected and leveraged through our use of language. Here’s what I mean:

Every healing profession has its own vocabulary and specific way of explaining things. Most (especially those that aren’t holistic) deliver specialized treatment focusing on one aspect of the whole person.

While perhaps helpful, that compartmentalized approach leaves a lot out! Addiction is rooted in and affects all aspects of a person—mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical. In Chinese Medicine, we’ve got all four of these covered and treat them as an interconnected, indivisible whole. 


In working with this whole, we can tailor our language to best support and honour the preferences and needs of our patients and clients. (Likely, they will pull towards one or maybe two of those four aspects.)

Why’s this matter? And why does success of addiction treatment hang in the balance?

Put simply: For addiction treatment to be successful, we need our client’s buy-in and full participation. If we’re not on the same page and speaking the same language, they will tune out, turn off, go through the motions, and leave. In that scenario (whether in Chinese Medicine or any other modality), treatment is not going to work.

What’s this look like in practice? All kinds of ways! Here are a few examples of how I apply this with patients and clients:

Mental: If a client pulls towards the mental, I introduce Yin-Yang, explaining basic concepts and how they relate to addiction. I also draw heavily on 5-Phase (Element) Theory, applying it to the Cycle of Addiction. Clients struggling to understand harmful, addictive cycles get this—you can see the “light bulbs” go off.

Spiritual: If a client pulls towards the spiritual, I meet them there. In Chinese Medicine, we address “spirit” using non-denominational, impersonal language. This is perfect for folks who resist religion or spirituality that’s entangled in ides of a monotheistic, judgmental, and wrathful God. Introducing the Tao and Chinese Medicine aspects of spirit may be the first time someone has been “given permission” to see things this way. Plus, it doesn’t have to be either/or. Taoism and the spirit in Chinese Medicine can work with and complement a client’s existing spirituality and belief system. What’s more, we’re able to draw on thousands of years of practice and precise terms (rather than default to ambiguous language without conveying much of anything). 

Emotional: If a client pulls towards the emotional, we have a language around emotions that’s free of judgement and centres cause and effect. For example: It’s about “too much Anger” impacting the Liver and thus Spleen (not “me being angry”). This shifts our perspective away from “making the client the cause” (and doing damage, living with guilt and shame, feeling lousy, and wanting to drink or use more). Instead, they can see “the Anger” as separate and distinct. This more objective perspective on emotions offers space and breathing room to take healing actions and assume responsibility for consequences.

Physical: If a client pulls towards the physical, we have an advantage over “talk therapies” in that we get to touch, palpate, manipulate, and treat the physical body. This advantage is an obvious one, captured in the saying: “The issues are in the tissues.” Plus, when we relieve physical pain or discomfort, the “need” to numb out with addictive substances and behaviours diminishes or disappears.

These are just a few examples but offer a window into the vast potential—and advantage—of using Chinese Medicine to treat addiction. 

By remembering and drawing on our wider lineage and tradition, we can treat addiction for what it is: a condition rooted in and affecting body-mind-sprit. 

We can also honour our patient’s language and beliefs…and get their full participation. When it comes to addiction recovery, that participation is essential. Without it—whatever language, protocol, or technique you use—addiction treatment won’t bring successful, sustained outcomes. 

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