Last updated: Jul 24, 2008
Acupuncture can help ease nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
Many a successful quitter has gotten through the pangs of cigarette withdrawal using techniques such as hypnosis, acupuncture, or meditation. These alternative, or complementary, therapies address lifestyle issues not generally covered by conventional medicine—in this case, coping mentally with the little smoking triggers that lure smokers back, developing a healthy balance between the mind and the body, and relieving stress.

Doctors who recommend alternative approaches encourage patients to try them in conjunction with other quitting methods such as medication, therapy, the patch, or nicotine gum. "People shouldnt think that alternative modalities will help alone; they should be combined with other treatment," says Amit Sood, MD, director of research for the Mayo Clinics complementary and integrative medicine program. "Smoking is a serious problem and should be treated like a real chronic disease."

The success of alternative approaches to quitting smoking can be difficult to measure in a clinical setting; so far, research is mixed or inconclusive. But the popularity of alternative medicine overall—way beyond smoking cessation—is hardly in doubt: A 2002 government survey estimated that 36% of Americans had used some form of complementary or alternative therapy within the previous 12 months.

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Hypnosis, acupuncture, and meditation are the three favorites among those struggling to quit.

Because hypnosis has become known for its ability to change behaviors quickly, its a natural starting point for many smokers trying to quit. Hypnosis relaxes your mind enough to identify unconscious triggers. "Hypnosis is nothing more than the alpha state—a state of mind that we pass through as we fall asleep at night, go deep into a memory, or as we watch television," explains Alan B. Densky, a certified hypnotherapist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who specializes in smoking cessation.

A typical session starts with a case history so that the therapist has an idea of the patients past experience with smoking. Then the therapist induces a state of relaxation in the client through one method or another—often guided meditation or visualization. Next comes a series of suggestions or a conversation to explore what might motivate the patient to quit. For example, with someone who always smokes in front of the television, a hypnotherapist might try to break that connection and replace it with a healthier habit.

Reviews of clinical trials on hypnosis have concluded that the evidence of its effectiveness for smoking cessation is insufficient, but other research shows promise: The preliminary results from a small 2007 study of smokers hospitalized with cardiopulmonary diseases showed that the patients who chose to participate in a hypnotherapy session were more likely to be nonsmokers six months later than patients who chose nicotinereplacement therapy (NRT) alone.

Acupuncture is a technique derived from traditional Chinese medicine that uses tiny needles to stimulate certain points on the body; for smokers, the idea is to help reduce cravings and ease withdrawal symptoms throughout the body.

Needle placement varies for each individual, but common points of insertion include the ears, feet, and top of the head. After an evaluation that may include reading the patients pulse and the color of his tongue, the acupuncturist can determine a smokers physical weaknesses and deploy the needles to address them accordingly.

Acupuncture is the most extensively studied among the alternative therapies used to quit smoking, but the research is mixed here too. A small study examining the effect of acupuncture alone and in combination with education found that acupuncture significantly reduced smoking. Acupuncture plus education was four times as effective as acupuncture alone. A meta-analysis of five acupuncture studies conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, however, concluded that the evidence suggested that acupuncture was no more effective for smoking cessation than placebo.

Meditation, which is intended to relax the body and refocus thoughts, may hold promise for smoking cessation when combined with conventional therapy. "There is an element of neurobiology behind it," says Dr. Sood, citing a 2002 study that showed that meditation releases dopamine in the brain—a process similar to nicotine triggering the relaxing feeling that smokers crave. Dr. Sood is currently leading a clinical trial on using meditation to facilitate quitting and prevent relapse among pregnant smokers. Meditation can also be a way to replace cigarettes stress-relieving qualities.

One common meditation technique is to find a comfortable, seated position and breathe in and out slowly through your nose; when your mind starts to wander, refocus it on your breathing instead. Start with five minutes a day, eventually working up to 20 minutes.

Other alternative methods sometimes used to augment the quitting process include the herb St. Johns wort, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery.