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Medications for Alcoholism and How They Work

October 1, 2021

Medications for Alcoholism and How They Work

Alcoholism has an intimidating ability to change the body’s natural processes and take over people’s lives. People with alcoholism become physically and mentally dependent on the substance for normal bodily functioning. Today, alcoholism is the fourth leading cause of preventable death in the United States according to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

Thanks to years of research and clinical trials, experts have developed alcohol treatment medications that can aid in recovery. Often, these medications for alcoholism are used during the initial treatment period to ease withdrawal symptoms. They also offer a smoother recovery. Since recovering from alcohol alone can be dangerous, experts advise those suffering from alcohol abuse to seek professional care during their withdrawal and early recovery stages.

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is a mental and physical condition defined by having an addiction to alcohol. People with alcoholism have either an inability to stop drinking or an inability to control how much they drink. Since alcohol is a widely accepted drug, they don’t often realize they have an issue until it becomes a full-blown addiction. Over time, the body actually begins to function normally while under the influence of alcohol and forms a strong physical dependence. Alcohol is one of the more dangerous substances to be addicted to since withdrawal and attempted recovery can be fatal if not done properly.

What Causes Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is thought to occur due to a mix of genetic, environmental, and social factors. Conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder can play a strong role in the development of this chronic disease. Other factors like family history, early alcohol exposure, and trauma can play a role as well.

While these can play a factor in the development of the disease, it can also come from simply drinking too much. Alcohol is an addictive substance, so over time too much exposure can cause dependency. Stay away from alcohol if you have family history, mental health conditions, or find yourself emotionally reliant on it.

What Are Some Types of Alcohol Treatment Medications?

While there is no medication today that can cure alcoholism, there are some that can assist in the recovery process. There are more than a dozen alcohol treatment medications that have been tested to help ease withdrawal symptoms or lessen the desire to drink at all. However, only three have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These drugs are intended to treat withdrawal symptoms and aid in the long-term treatment of alcoholism. They should only be taken under the guidance of a medical professional, with specific doses and lengths of treatment tailored to the individual.

Disulfiram (Antabuse)

Antabuse was the first medication to be created and FDA approved for the treatment of alcohol abuse disorder. Antabuse functions by causing a very unpleasant adverse reaction to alcohol, causing most people to vomit or become very nauseous when ingesting alcohol.

Initially, disulfiram was discovered in the early 1930s when some workers in the rubber industry became sick from drinking alcohol after exposure to tetraethylthiuram disulfide. This discovery led to a series of different trials and research studies that ultimately led to the production of brand name medication Antabuse in the 1940s.

In the early stages of the medication being prescribed, doses were high and patients experienced a little too adverse of a reaction. Doctors soon realized the dosage was too high, and they were lowered to optimize the use and safety of medication. It was branded as Antabuse in the 1950s and has been used to help maintain alcohol abstinence since.

Naltrexone (Vivitrol)

Naltrexone is a monthly injection marketed as Vivitrol and also sold under brand names Revia and Depade. It’s an FDA-approved medication for treatment of alcoholism. Unlike Antabuse’s adverse reaction effect, naltrexone works by altering the neurotransmitters in the brain that get “lit up” after ingesting alcohol or opiates. Essentially, this medication works by getting rid of the high most people feel from alcohol. By blocking the desired effect of alcohol, naltrexone/Vivitrol can reduce cravings and aid in recovery.

Naltrexone was actually first discovered as a potential medication for the treatment of opioid addiction. In the 1960s, it was FDA approved and used successfully in the treatment of opioid addiction. During further exploration of the drug in animal trials, researchers found that the drug had an equal ability to decrease alcohol consumption. This discovery led to human clinical trials in the early 90’s  that resulted in the approval of Vivitrol for alcohol treatment.

Naltrexone is now a commonly used drug that is a highly effective treatment for alcohol abuse disorder. It can be combined with addiction counseling and other supplemental treatments,

Acamprosate (Campral)

Campral is the newest of the FDA-approved medications for alcoholism. Campral works similarly to naltrexone, but instead of blocking the high entirely it actually  helps to regulate the effects that alcohol has on the brain and body. It targets the neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate to decrease the intensity of alcohol’s irregulating effects. This supports brain recovery and post alcoholism nervous system regulation.

Campral was tested throughout Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. It was approved to treat alcoholism for about 20 years before making its way to the United States. In the early 2000s, the U.S. completed a series of trials and the Food and Drug Administration approved its use. It was branded as Acamprosate and has been administered as an alcoholism treatment aid since. Typically, Acamprosate is not given until after the withdrawal period is complete.

Medication is a great supplemental treatment for alcohol abuse disorder. Extensive years of research and trials have given us access to these extremely beneficial treatment options. Medication, of course, is not the end all be all of alcohol treatment options.

What Other Types of Treatment Are Available for Alcoholism?

Beyond medication, individuals with alcoholism should always complete a full detox, participate in a long-term addiction recovery plan, and have counseling. There are countless options for alcoholism treatment programs, and searching on the web or your local recovery center is a great place to start. In most cases, insurance will help to cover many costs associated with addiction recovery. Working with a medical professional to discuss a personalized treatment plan will ensure you get the best treatment.

Detox for Alcoholism

Detox encompasses the period of time when someone is first coming off of a drug. It tends to be about a week long, but can vary depending on the substance. For alcohol especially, detox is crucial. Alcohol is one of the few substances that poses real chances of fatality during detox. For this reason, detoxing from alcohol should always be done under the care of medical professionals. Certain medications for alcoholism like disulfiram can be used during the detox period to aid in withdrawal. Others, like Campral, are typically used during long-term recovery once detox is completed.

Inpatient/Outpatient Addiction Recovery for Alcoholism

After a full detox is completed, most people suffering from alcohol use disorder participate in a long-term addiction recovery plan. Inpatient programs allow the individual to live on the premises of the medical facility and have 24/7 care and mentorship. For those with less flexible personal or professional lives, an outpatient program can be beneficial. It can include daily or weekly appointments with doctors, counselors, and group programs. Long-term addiction programs will include on-site doctors who can dose and administer medications for alcoholism to assist individuals’ recovery. These options are opportunities to have professionals guide you through the challenges of early recovery, ultimately helping you avoid a relapse.

Counseling for Alcoholism

There are many counseling options for alcoholism, many of which will be offered during the detox and long-term addiction programs. Some types of counseling include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. These one-on-one styles of counseling aim to change the way an individual thinks about themselves and the world around them. In turn, this then changes their behavior. They also help people understand the emotional roots of their addiction and work to find healthy coping mechanisms for triggers.

Group therapy is another style of counseling that offers countless benefits to people with alcoholism. Group settings can expose people to others going through similar hardship, and open a safe space to talk to people who will truly understand. Sharing stories offers new insights, perceptions, and ways of thinking to people going through recovery. Outside of addiction programs, a lot of recovering alcoholics participate in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings for an extended period of time.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Makana Path

Treatment for alcoholism at Makana Path Detox and Intensive Healing Center is tailored to meet the individual’s needs of each client. Our holistic approach to treatment looks beyond just the physical addiction to ensure a complete and successful recovery. Through medically supervised detox, clinically sophisticated therapies and an emphasis on spiritual health, we can help you heal your mind, body and spirit, and empower you to recreate the life you’ve always wanted.