If you’ve been drinking excessively for months or years, the decision to stop doesn’t come easily. Perhaps too much alcohol is ruining your relationship or maybe your job is in jeopardy. The only problem is you can’t stop drinking. When alcohol abuse gets out of control, medications that can help you stop drinking may offer the level of support you need.
Medication treatments differ in terms of what they do and how they work. The medication that works best for you will depend on your particular treatment needs. By combining medicines with behavior-based supports, you stand a much better chance of overcoming alcoholism once and for all.
Alcohol’s Damaging Effects
Over time, alcohol abuse does real damage to the brain and body. Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant so ongoing use will cause increasing damage to your mind and body. After drinking for months or years, a person’s physical and mental health decline considerably.
The effects of alcohol withdrawal soon start to surface once drinking stops. Persistent fatigue, nausea, fever, chills, headaches, and insomnia mark the first stage of detox. These are the physical effects of withdrawal.
People coming off chronic or long-term alcohol abuse can expect to experience yet another stage of detox where the psychological effects of withdrawal develop. These include confusion, drug cravings, depression, anxiety as well as ongoing fatigue and insomnia. This stage can last from one month to a year depending on the severity of your addiction. Trying to stop drinking in this state soon becomes a losing battle. Talk to a Intake Coordinator
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Medication Treatment Options
Uncomfortable withdrawal effects stem from widespread chemical imbalances in the brain. The buzz you get from drinking results from alcohol’s ability to force the brain to release large amounts of endorphins. Frequent drinking in large amounts depletes these essential chemicals.
By the time a long-term drinker enters detox, the brain is in a state of total disrepair. In this state, it’s all but impossible to maintain a household, function on the job or experience any kind of joy. This is especially the case for chronic, long-term drinkers.
Medications that help you stop drinking pick up where your body’s capabilities leave off, supporting central nervous functions and stabilizing the brain’s chemical system. As the treatment takes effect, you can expect to experience relief from withdrawal symptoms. Before long, you start to feel “normal” again and able to function effectively in everyday life.
Here are a handful of medications used to reduce or stop drinking:
Naltrexone is one of the few medications you can take without being in a detox program. It works by blocking the effects of alcohol in the brain so there’s no intoxicating effect. This medication can be taken while you’re still drinking. A doctor will likely prescribe Naltrexone first before trying other types of medication treatments.
Naltrexone is taken twice a day in pill form or as a monthly injection. While it may not stop you from drinking altogether, you’re less likely to consume large amounts of alcohol and you’ll probably drink less often. Side effects, such as headaches and nausea may develop when you first start taking it but eventually subside the longer you’re on it.
Unlike naltrexone, acamprosate can’t be taken until drinking has stopped altogether. Many alcohol rehab programs administer acamprosate along with behavioral therapies to help patients better cope with withdrawal. Acamprosate works by balancing out GABA and glutamate neurotransmitter levels in the brain. GABA and glutamate both play central roles in regulating central nervous system functions.
Acamprosate also interacts with the brain’s reward system, the area of the brain where addiction lives. The reward system forms your motivations, priorities and directs your behaviors based on previous learning. Acamprosate’s effects help change how this area of the brain responds to alcohol and, in turn, reduces drug cravings. Also, these kinds of effects on your reward system make it easier to engage with behavior-based treatments, which help you learn healthy ways to cope with daily life
While not considered a standard medication treatment for alcohol abuse, topiramate can be used to help reduce heavy drinking. This means you don’t have to be in detox to take it. Part of the reason why heavy drinking occurs is because the brain has become dependent on alcohol to function. Topiramate works by helping restore the brain’s natural chemical balance. Doctors typically start by prescribing 25 milligrams per day then gradually increase the dose to 75 milligrams over the course of several weeks.
Disulfiram, more commonly known as Antabuse, works a little differently than other treatments. This medication keeps the body from fully metabolizing alcohol. When you take a drink you’ll experience considerable discomfort in the form of headaches, nausea, vomiting, and fever. These effects are designed to retrain your expectations of alcohol and reduce drinking.
Some Things to Consider
While medications that can help you stop drinking offer tremendous benefits, they only treat part of the problem if you’re struggling with a full-blown addiction problem. Psychological withdrawal effects still remain even though physical withdrawal symptoms have stopped. The constant thinking about getting a drink and the incessant cravings can soon become unbearable. Not treating this aspect of addiction only increases your risk of relapse.
This is why anyone on a medication-assisted treatment should take part in a structured treatment program. Alcohol rehab programs treat both the physical and psychological components of addiction, providing the level of treatment support needed to address the problems you’re likely to encounter as you detox. In this way, you have a much better chance of breaking addiction’s hold once and for all.
- semel.ucla.edu – Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, “Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)”
- store.samhsa.gov – Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, “Medication for the Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Brief Guide”
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Journal of Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, “Acamprosate for Treatment of Alcohol Dependence: Mechanisms, Efficacy, and Clinical Utility,
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.