As many as a quarter of Americans are heavy drinkers or drink at levels that put them at risk of becoming alcoholics, but only a fraction get help. A lot of people don't want to admit they have a drinking problem but even those who recognize they might be alcoholics seem to be unaware that there's more to it than just attending AA meetings. For instance, there are drugs that can help a lot by inhibiting the euphoria or buzz from drinking alcohol rendering the habit essentially useless. A new meta-analysis confirms these are safe and effective.
As early as 1997, studies have shown that doctors who prescribe naltrexone to treat alcohol dependence have a high success rate (70% or greater). The drug blocks the effects of opioid medication, including pain relief or feelings of well-being that can lead to opioid abuse. The opioid antagonist is so strong it can reverse a heroin overdose and bring a person back to life. Essentially, it flushes heroin molecules out of the opioid receptors in the brain and triggers instant withdrawal. But since alcohol shares opioid receptors, naltrexone works against alcohol's effect as well. Basically, you take some of these pills, and you stop getting any buzz from drinking.
Recently, researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted a meta-analysis of 64 clinical trials and found naltrexone is effective and carries no significant health risks. Moreover, another drug called acamprosate was also deemed effective at helping people maintain abstinence by cutting back on some of the physical and psychological cravings for alcohol.
"In treatment for alcohol use disorders, acamprosate has been found to be slightly more efficacious in promoting abstinence and naltrexone slightly more efficacious in reducing heavy drinking and craving. Detoxification before treatment or a longer period of required abstinence before treatment is associated with larger medication effects for acamprosate and naltrexone respectively," the researchers conclude.
You don't need to visit a mental health doctor or addiction counselor to get any of these drugs. Any healthcare worker licensed to prescribe medication can prescribe naltrexone or acamprosate. However, few actually recommend naltrexone or acamprosate. It's not clear why -- it may be that some doctors aren't convinced these work or are simply unaware of their efficacy against alcohol addiction. This recent meta-analysis might act as an eye opener.
This might sound like great news if you have a drinking problem or have friends that do but it's important to note that these drugs are not miracle cures. Rather, they're effective if used in conjunction with therapy and counseling. If used alone, results can be disappointing especially if the habit is severe.