Herbs to Aid in Nicotine Withdrawal

Botanical Medicine

Cigarette smoking has been officially recognized as a major source of illness and death in the United States since 1964.[ 1] In 1988, the Surgeon General declared that tobacco was an addictive drug, with the same sort of withdrawal problems that more recognized addictive drugs possess. He said that in terms of impact on the national health, tobacco smoking was more dangerous than illegal drugs.

Although the declaration was attacked by tobacco company interests, it was no news to smokers. About a third of the U.S. adult population currently smokes.[ 2] Polls show that 90% of these smokers would like to quit, and that the majority of them have tried to quit one or more times. Thus about 30,000,000 Americans have tried to quit smoking and failed. Withdrawal symptoms from nicotine include irritability, hunger, inability to concentrate, and, of course, craving for cigarettes.

Understanding and admitting that nicotine addiction is a chemical dependence is valuable when selecting a method of quitting. Mere psychological support may not be enough. Various natural substances can help with the chemical part of this process, and support a person's other efforts to quit. Below are listed two herbs that are known to help with the chemical aspects of nicotine addiction, and a possible formula including them.

Oat Grass

Oat Grass (Arena sativa) has been used throughout recorded medical history to help build strength in those recuperating from major illness. It is reputed especially to build up the nerve strength. These two actions alone would make it valuable enough in nicotine withdrawal. It has also been used traditionally in India to treat opium addiction. While testing its effects for opium addiction in 1967, an Indian scientist made a remarkable discovery: taking oat grass tea had a side effect of decreasing cravings for cigarettes. A formal study of this effect was done in Scotland in 1971.[ 3] In this double-blind study, the number of cigarettes smoked daily over a six month period was noted. Cigarette consumption by 13 participants in each group decreased from 254 a day total for the oat grass group to 74 a day. Note: the subjects were not instructed to try to stop smoking, although presumably most of them were in the 90% of people who say they want to stop, and the nature of the experiment implied benefits to stopping. The table shows the remarkable results of this experiment. Five of the thirteen subjects in the oat grass group had stopped smoking completely, and another 7 had cut down by more than 50%. The mechanism of action of oat grass is not known.

Table: Number of Cigarettes smoked per day during experimental trial.[ 3]

A followup study by other researchers failed to reproduce these results, and found no activity. One possible reason is that the pharmacological activity of oats is highly variable, and the oats used in the followup experiment may not have been potent enough. Researchers find that plants taken from different areas, even though harvested at the same stage of growth, have widely different levels of pharmacological activity in mice. A tincture made from the young green plant harvested in the south of England, for instance, required a dose 6 times as high as that from a young green plant harvested in Scotland, to produce a morphine antagonizing effect in mice.[ 4] A sample of oat seed was half as effective as the Scottish oats, but 3 times as effective as the English ones. Wild oat (Avena sativa) tinctures are widely available commercially. If the product you are using doesn't seem to work, try another brand or batch.


A second important herb to aid in stopping smoking is Lobelia. Lobelia has the constituent lobeline, similar to nicotine in its structure and pharmacological activity. The irritating mental and emotional withdrawal symptoms from nicotine are probably due to its interaction with nicotinic receptors in the nervous system. The receptors become accustomed to stimulation by nicotine, and the entire nervous system must readjust when the nicotine is withdrawn. The readjustment may take weeks. Lobeline has no known addictive properties; Lobelia has been used as a medicine for hundreds of years, with no one ever acquiring a "Lobelia habit." The lobeline can moderate the effects of the nicotine withdrawal, however, by binding to the same sites in the nervous system that the nicotine does. Note: in some individuals, Lobelia can cause nausea, and excessive doses should be avoided.

These herbs can be combined with others for effective formulas to support withdrawal from nicotine. Possible companion herbs would be those to support rebuilding of injured lung tissue, other nerve restoratives, general tonics and heating synergists. My favorites are the lung tonics Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), and Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus spp.), the nervine (Scutellaria laterifolia), and Ginseng (Panax spp., Eleutherococus senticosus). A heating synergist such as Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens), Ginger (Zingiber off. ), or Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) will balance the formula energetically. I prefer Cayenne because it traditionally has been used for respiratory problems, its constituent capsiacin has been found to desensitize irritated bronchial mucosa[ 5] and it is traditionally associated with Lobelia in formulas.

Formula and dose

Ginseng should be taken separate from the other herb formula, when indicated (not in strong, aggressive, yang constitutions). The following formula can be prepared from alcohol tinctures.

Avena Sativa - 9 parts

Coltsfoot - 9 parts

Wild Cherry Bark - 3 parts

Lobelia - 1 part

Scullcap - 1 part

Cayenne -1 part

Because pharmacological effects are sought, full doses of each herb in the formula should be taken. A three-day "breaking-in" period would gradually increase the dose to 2 teaspoons, 3 times a day. If there is any sign of nausea, the lobelia content can be halved or omitted. The patient should be advised against exceeding the recommended dose. If the Cayenne is found to be irritating, the amount can be reduced or omitted. Another heating herb (see above) could be substituted. For those having trouble quitting, the dose might be divided into 1 teaspoon, six times a day, or 60 drops each hour, up to 12 times a day. Because of the amounts of alcohol involved, it would best be taken after pouring boiling water over the dose in the bottom of a teacup.

1. Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, 1964.

2. Remington PL et al. Current smoking trends in the United States. JAMA 253:2975-8, 1985.

3. Anand CL, Nature 233:496, 1971.

4. Connor J et al., J Pharm. Pharmacol. 1975, 27:92-98.

5. Lundberg JM, Saria A.: Capsaicin-induced desensitization of airway mucosa to cigarette smoke, mechanical and chemical irritants. Nature 302:251-3,1983.


Paul Bergner, Editor

Medical Herbalism

P.O. Box 33080 Portland, Oregon 97233


By Paul Bergner

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