When I first moved to New York after growing up in New England, I felt isolated and alone. Alcohol has been sold to us as the great connection elixir, and I bought in. But what if everything we’ve been promised booze will do is a lie? With drinking up 14% since the pandemic started (while heavy drinking days increased 41% for women), there is no better time to consider staying dry beyond January.
It took me years of attempting to moderate my drinking before I realized that alcohol wasn’t the magic potion I was looking for. I was often up at night scrolling my phone in bed, feeling jealous and lonely. Having grown up around heavy drinking, as so many of us do, I saw alcohol use as a “normal” (read: normalized) way to celebrate, cope with stress, or grieve. Working in the foodservice industry over the years only exacerbated this tendency to attempt to regulate my nervous system with alcohol, and identify with drinking culture as a way of life. It was the supposed key to social acceptance.
But then why did I feel more disconnected than ever? I had strongly held beliefs and gifts to share–yet I was afraid to participate in activism or create an offering to my community. Alcohol had dulled my intuition, ability to trust, and failed time and time again to fulfill its promises of a joy-filled life.
I found that connection within myself, with sober peer support, and with plants. Reconnecting with nature, learning about my great-grandmother’s work with plants, and studying herbalism formally at Arbor Vitae School of Traditional Herbalism is what inspired me to commit to my healing path. Now, I work as a recovery coach at Tempest, a modern online recovery program, and as a holistic sobriety coach to private clients who are looking to infuse their recovery with herbal allies. Both of these supports are available to those who are sober or questioning their relationship to alcohol–whether you are a gray area drinker, identify as an alcoholic, have a diagnosis of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), or not!
So, how can herbs support you in recovery, sobriety, and self-care along the way?
- Spending time in nature getting to know your local plant friends calms your nervous system, which in turn enables you to rely on alcohol less to manage stress. Botanizing, gardening, and sitting with trees and plants is a great way to connect to the plant’s personality and gifts. The urge to drink can stem in part from an activated or depleted nervous system (due to stress, trauma, PTSD, nutritional deficiency, and repeated use of an addictive toxic substance). When you engage with something soothing to you like plants, bodies of water, or animals, your ventral vagal nerve is stimulated and feelings of safety can be accessed. I love to sit with linden trees and feel their heart soothing energy here on the Lenape land where I live. Listening to the wind in the leaves has an especially meditative effect on me personally as well. Studies on the practice of “forest bathing–shinrin-yoku in Japanese culture–are another example of how science is catching up to ancient wisdom. While spending time in forests we inhale the phytochemicals of the trees which we’ve coevolved with, and our cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels dip.
- Herbs can help nurture underlying imbalances that contribute to the urge to “self-medicate,” such as neurotransmitter depletion. Many people who use alcohol struggle with anxiety, or other mental health issues. When we are depleted in the neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, catecholamines, or endorphins, we may experience mood, energy, nourishment, and sleep issues. Herbs, in addition to nutrition and/or amino acid therapy, can help you heal. Plants such as lemon balm leaf and valerian root, likely work in part by inhibiting the breakdown of GABA (the protective and calming neurotransmitter), keeping it in your system longer. These remedies can be used as teas or extracts and are especially useful before bed if you have trouble falling asleep.
- Herbs can help you manage cravings in the moment. When stress or context cues trigger the urge to drink, you can use what are known as “nervine” herbs to help ground and calm yourself in the moment. These are herbs that act on and nourish the nervous system. Some of my favorites for cravings are glycerites of lavender or skullcap. Glycerites are alcohol-free liquid extracts of dried or fresh plant material. Kudzu root can also be used preemptively to reduce alcohol consumption and help you ride a craving. The class of herbs referred to as “adaptogens” helps your body adapt to stress long-term, and helps you build resiliency. Milky oats glycerite can be used as a gentle adaptogen and this steadiness can hold you as you find new ways to respond to triggers, and create new habits and rituals as drinking falls away.
- Herbs can help you rebuild your self-compassion and engage in positive self-talk so you can begin anew, as many times as you need to. So many of us have a harsh inner critic running the show, and it can be so hard to do hard things (like removing alcohol from your life!) when you are constantly berating yourself. When you learn to flip the script and nurture yourself with kind words and affirmations, you foster your evolution. Herbs such as motherwort (lovely as a flower essence) can work on an energetic level to help you “re-parent” yourself. I also love a tea of marshmallow leaf/flower, linden, and rose for cultivating softness, forgiveness, and self-love.
These are just a few of the ways herbs can be a part of your sobriety journey! There are so many ways plants have been used medicinally, spiritually, and energetically across cultures and history. Just as we do not exist in isolation without the context of identity, societal norms/hierarchies, neither do plants and humans’ relationships to them. Part of creating a holistic recovery path is returning to the awareness of our place in the web of life. As the plants give so much to us, make sure to offer gratitude, acknowledgment, and nourishment to the plants, the land, and those who have tended it.
If you’d like to learn more about holistic recovery, follow along with my blog, @soberspirals on IG, or download my free PDF guide, “5 Herbs for Early Sobriety.”
You can also join me at the free event Herbal Allies for Sobriety on March 15th to learn more.
Please note! Some people who use alcohol are not able to safely quit drinking without medical intervention/supervision, so please consult your physician before removing alcohol. I also recommend working with a qualified herbalist and always looking for any contraindications, safety concerns, and dosage information before using any new herb or supplement. Check-in with your healthcare provider, especially if you are nursing, pregnant, or on any medications. The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, nor is it intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you believe you have a medical condition, consult with a physician. Take herbs as directed on the labels and contact your healthcare provider and discontinue use if you notice adverse reactions.
Oxner, Reese. “Americans Are Drinking 14% More Often During Pandemic, Study Finds.” 1 NPR, NPR, 5 Oct. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/10/05/920437811/americans-are-drinking-14-more often-during-pandemic-study-finds.
Park, Jolene. “Gray Area Drinking: 5 Signs You Might Be a Gray Area Drinker.” The Temper, 17 Sept. 2019, www.thetemper.com/gray-area-drinking/.
“Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/ brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder.
“Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health – NYS Dept. Of Environmental Conservation.” Dec.Ny.Gov, https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html. Accessed 28 Jan. 2021.
Smith, Joshua P, and Carrie L Randall. “Anxiety and Alcohol Use Disorders: Comorbidity and Treatment Considerations.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860396/.
Ross, Julia. “The Four False Mood Types.” Julia Ross’ Cures, 12 May 2015, www.juliarosscures.com/the-four-false-mood-types/.
I have saved this article for reference as it contains many terms unfamiliar to me and will doubtless be a helpful primer on the journey ahead. The road to sobriety is one I keep stepping onto, trying out for a month or two, wondering why I bothered, falling back into old habits. Rinse, repeat. I’m eager to try a new approach – and especially a natural one – to stay toxin-free for the long haul. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!
Thank you for writing this article.
You are welcome!
Plant Medicine is a powerful ally on our journey to better health. I hope you have a great day!