5 Ways Medication Makes Quitting Alcohol Easier

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If you’re alcohol dependent, quitting drinking is no walk in the park—and among the toughest obstacles are physical addiction and cravings. Not only can these discourage you from quitting in the first place, they can make it very difficult to focus on other aspects of your addiction, namely the emotional and psychological. 

This is where medication for alcoholism comes into play. Below, Ria Health Advisor and C Three Founder Claudia Christian shares first-hand insights on the benefits of medication-assisted treatment, which she states was “a massive part” of her own recovery. There are now half a dozen medications that can help you cut back or quit drinking—and finding one that works for you can give you the edge you need to make a lasting change.

While there is no “easy way to quit drinking” for most people with alcohol use disorder, medication-assisted treatment may be one of the easiest. Here are five ways in which medication can make quitting alcohol easier:

1. Helps You Cut Back on Alcohol Gradually

“Withdrawal symptoms can be horrible, and people fear withdrawal from alcohol, so they continue to drink alcohol. It’s a vicious circle”

Alcohol withdrawal is a major reason why people put off the recovery process. Certain medications can ease these withdrawal symptoms, allowing you to cut back gradually and giving your body time to adjust.

Gabapentin and baclofen are two medications that can help with withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Others, like naltrexone, can help you wean off alcohol over time because they block the pleasurable effects of alcohol. Any of these medications can make it easier to gradually reduce how much you drink, avoiding the worst of withdrawal.

2.   You May Lose Interest in Alcohol

“Medications can also help you gradually lose interest in alcohol … You will stop feeling compulsive about alcohol”

Craving and dependence can be seen as a two-headed monster when it comes to alcohol. Taming one makes it easier to tackle the other.

As mentioned above, the medication naltrexone can reduce the pleasurable effects of alcohol, leading to a loss of interest in drinking. In fact, this is a key part of a recovery approach known as the Sinclair Method (TSM). In time, many people on TSM find themselves able to “take or leave” alcohol, because drinking on the medication rewires their brain not to expect a positive response. Although not as widespread as programs like AA, TSM boasts a 78 percent success rate. 

The medication acamprosate is another option that works somewhat differently. Rather than blocking the pleasurable effects of alcohol, acamprosate helps by restoring the chemical imbalance in your brain caused by chronic drinking. If you’ve already quit drinking, this can reduce cravings and help you lose interest in alcohol, avoiding relapse.

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3. Abstinence is Not the Only Option

“A lot of people are fearful of recovery because they think they can never drink again for the rest of their lives. If social drinking is important to you, just know that there are medications that can turn you into a social drinker.”

One of the greatest benefits of medication-assisted treatment is that it makes moderation possible for many people. Medication can help you overcome your addiction, and still be able to raise a glass with friends in a controlled manner. 

For people who take naltrexone long-term, having an occasional drink is a possibility. As long as you take the medication as directed, the pleasurable feelings of alcohol will be blocked. Drinking wine will have the same effect as drinking soda, and won’t trigger a relapse.

This can be monumental for people concerned about how sobriety will affect their social lives. The ability to drink more safely can bypass the stigma associated with recovery, which can lead to the avoidance of social situations. You no longer have to discuss your relationship with alcohol if you prefer not to. And, as long as you take your medication, you can actually have “just one glass.”

4. Helps Reset Your Brain Chemistry

“What happens when you become physically dependent on alcohol is that your brain changes, significantly … Medications can help you adapt more quickly.”

Heavy drinking has major effects on the chemicals in your brain that regulate your nervous system.1 Some of these chemicals are essentially “replaced” by alcohol when you are drinking, so your body makes less of them. Other brain chemicals begin to go unchecked unless you are drinking. This can result in many unpleasant symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. 

Medication can recalibrate this imbalance in the brain. Some work by filling the gap left behind when you eliminate alcohol from your system, while others help reset your synapses and receptors. Acamprosate, gabapentin, topiramate, and baclofen are all strong choices for avoiding the unpleasant symptoms mentioned above. And, since these symptoms are all common drinking triggers as well, this can go a long way to preventing relapse.

5. Gives You an “Off Button” Around Alcohol

“A lot of the time when you’re in the whirlwind of alcohol addiction you don’t have an off button. You just want more, more, more, more, more … Medications can eliminate that noise in your head.”

Anti craving medications such as naltrexone give you your “off button” back. They can eliminate the inner voice that is always questioning when and where you can get the next drink, putting you back in control. This can be a huge gift in recovery, and one of the greatest benefits of medication-assisted treatment.

Listen to Bill, a Ria Health member, discuss how medication gave him his “off button” back.

The Takeaway: Why Medication Could Be the Easiest Way to Quit Drinking

Quitting alcohol is no easy task, especially if you have been drinking heavily for a prolonged period. It is common to feel concerned about physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms, as well as the reality of coping with life as a sober person. 

Medication can make recovery much easier by treating physical addiction and resetting your brain chemistry. Once you are no longer held captive by cravings, withdrawal symptoms, insomnia, and anxiety, avoiding alcohol takes less willpower. And, if your dependence on alcohol is mostly physical, you may even be pretty much done drinking at that point.

Of course, it’s not so simple for everyone. As Claudia Christian points out, people who drink to cope with underlying issues such as PTSD or trauma will have additional work to do. However, this can be addressed more easily once cravings and brain chemistry are dealt with. In Ria’s online alcohol program, we often see the best results from a combination of medication and other forms of support, such as recovery coaching. Medication gives our members the edge they need to succeed, while they develop new habits, coping skills, and work towards their best selves.

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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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