Baclofen: How a Muscle Relaxant Can Reduce Alcohol Cravings

Baclofen can reduce alcohol cravings
Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie for Unsplash

Whether you want to stop drinking completely or just cut back, there’s a treatment option you may have not considered: medication. There are several drugs that doctors can prescribe to treat alcohol addiction. Luckily, these options don’t require abstinence and can be highly effective. In this post, we’re focusing on how baclofen can help reduce cravings and why it’s the best option for people with liver disease.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

People who have an addiction to alcohol—also called alcoholism or alcohol use disorder—depend on alcohol and physically crave it. Some people drink around the clock, while others go through binging periods. People that rely on alcohol typically:

  • Find it difficult to stay sober
  • Find it difficult to control or slow their drinking
  • Think or worry about their next drink
  • Continue to drink regardless of any consequences
  • Have symptoms when they don’t drink, such as nausea or sweating

If you can relate to the list above, you’re not alone. A 2017 study found that one in eight Americans has alcohol use disorder.

If you’re questioning whether your relationship with alcohol is healthy, take our Alcohol Use Survey to find out.

What is Baclofen?

Baclofen is a muscle relaxant used to treat muscle spasms. It’s used to treat spasms caused by multiple sclerosis or spinal cord diseases, and generally helps to relieve pain and increase muscle mobility.

Interestingly, doctors also prescribe baclofen to treat alcohol use disorder. It can reduce binge and relapse drinking by helping control cravings.

You may be wondering how a muscle relaxant can also treat addiction. Baclofen works by activating the GABA-B receptors in the brain. When GABA receptors are activated, nerve cells become less likely to fire. Decreasing the firing rate of nerve cells makes us feel sleepy and calm. Alcohol also activates GABA receptors, which is why some people feel calm after drinking. Researchers believe that activating GABA receptors can help a person control their alcohol consumption, although no one is sure exactly how.

Baclofen may cause some side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, weakness or upset stomach. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, your doctor should know before prescribing the medication.

Baclofen and Alcohol Addiction

Studies have shown that baclofen can reduce alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

One 2018 review of research detailed how baclofen affected the alcohol consumption of animals. The authors found that the medication suppressed alcohol drinking, alcohol seeking, and the reinforcement of alcohol seeking in rats and mice. It also reduced some alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, anxiety behaviors and seizures.

Researchers gave mice two different doses of baclofen in a 2010 study. They found that the highest dose significantly decreased consumption and had sedative effects, which is why it can help those with insomnia.

There have also been several studies on humans that mirror these results. A 2012 study found that baclofen had a “significant effect” on alcohol consumption.

Along with insomnia, baclofen can help with other withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, which in turn can help prevent cravings and relapse.

Baclofen, Alcohol Use Disorder, and Liver Disease

If alcohol addiction goes untreated, it can lead to problems with how your liver functions, such as liver disease. In fact, alcoholic liver disease is the leading cause of chronic liver disease in the U.S. After being diagnosed, doctors recommend that patients reduce or stop drinking completely.

Unfortunately, people with liver disease are limited as to which medications they can take because many drugs are metabolized in the liver. Baclofen, however, is primarily metabolized in the kidneys. That makes it the only anti-craving drug appropriate for advanced liver disease patients. 

Compared to the general population, alcoholics are three to 30 times more at risk for hepatitis C virus (HCV). For people with HCV, there is no safe level of drinking. If the patient is having trouble quitting, baclofen can also be a good option for them.

Researchers divided cirrhotic patients who had an HCV infection into two groups: those who would take a placebo (sugar pill) and those who would take the real medication. Out of the group who took the placebo, only 25 percent achieved and maintained abstinence. Compare that to the 83 percent who were abstinent after taking baclofen.

How Do You Take Baclofen for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Baclofen is typically taken in tablet form. The amount prescribed can vary over time depending on your needs.

Typically, patients start off by taking the medication while drinking their normal amount of alcohol. Over time, cravings will diminish until you reach your goal. Your goal could be to have fewer drinks or to stop drinking completely. Although some people may still experience withdrawal, the symptoms are less intense since baclofen helps treat them.

Baclofen can help you replace your automatic craving with choice. However, medication is only part of the solution. Ria Health’s at-home program is four times more effective than medication alone.

Our counselors and doctors tailor treatment to your specific needs. If you’re ready to have a normal relationship with alcohol, reach out today.

Riannon Westall is a health writer based in Toronto, Canada. Her work has been featured in the Toronto Star, on CBC.ca and on various blogs. She writes articles and website copy that further her clients’ goal of helping people create healthier and more fulfilling lives.

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