With the Help of Naltrexone Alcohol Abuse Can Be Overcome
Alcohol dependency is a modern epidemic, condemning its victims to a terrifying struggle with a life-altering illness. But when prescribed in combination with traditional talk therapy, a drug called Naltrexone has been a godsend for many people with alcohol use disorders. After using Naltrexone, alcohol use disorder victims often lose their desire to drink, bringing them to sobriety gradually yet sustainably.
People can and do overcome alcohol use disorders, but the fight is never easy, and many recovering alcoholics relapse several times before finally getting control of their drinking—and some never get control of it at all. Naltrexone gives addiction treatment professionals an additional tool to increase the range and depth of alcohol abuse treatment programs, and multiple research projects have confirmed the drug’s usefulness in the battle against alcoholism in numerous controlled studies.
What is Naltrexone?
If you have been diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, Naltrexone may be prescribed as part of a comprehensive treatment program designed to address your dependency.
Most commonly sold under the brand name Vivitrol, Naltrexone hydrochloride is an opioid antagonist. This means it prevents compatible chemicals from binding with opioid receptors in the brain, rendering those chemicals inert and eliminating their ability to produce any pleasurable or dependence-inducing effects.
Because it possesses this capacity, Naltrexone has been used (in low dosages) as a remedy for opioid dependency, specifically to help boost the effectiveness of detoxification in people seeking treatment for addictions to heroin, morphine, opium or narcotic painkillers.
When used to treat people with opioid addictions, doses of Naltrexone must be restricted to less than one milligram (mg) to avoid triggering powerful withdrawal symptoms. Small doses also trigger withdrawal but do so modestly, making the symptoms more manageable and speeding up the detox process for addicts under medical supervision.
When administered at dosages of 50 mg or more, Naltrexone will completely block any opiates—or any other chemicals, for that matter—from binding with opioid receptors. Under the influence of Naltrexone, a person taking heroin or morphine would feel absolutely no effects from the drug, which makes this medication potentially useful to recovering addicts who fear a relapse.
How Does Naltrexone Work Against Alcohol Abuse?
When you drink alcohol, it affects your brain by triggering the production and release of chemicals called endorphins. These small proteins mimic the effects of opiates, causing feelings of euphoria and deep relaxation that are so pleasant you won’t soon forget them. In fact, you may continue drinking to excess or return to alcohol again and again as you attempt to re-create those pleasurable feelings.
As your alcohol use intensifies over time, you’ll begin to crave this endorphin rush more frequently. Out of this cycle of need and desire alcohol dependency may eventually develop.
This overlap between the effects of opiates and endorphins is not coincidental, since endorphins also bind with opioid receptors in the brain. Naltrexone is not, strictly speaking, an alcohol antagonist. But if you take Naltrexone, alcohol molecules will lose their capacity to lift your mood and make you feel more relaxed, since escalated endorphin production no longer has the same impact on opioid receptors. In the presence of alcohol, Naltrexone in your brain acts like a dam, blocking the flowing river of endorphins that would otherwise empty into the reservoir of your opioid receptor network.
Research indicates that the brains of problem drinkers are fine-tuned to maximize the pleasure-inducing effects of endorphins, and it is this dynamic that explains how accelerated endorphin production helps create problem drinkers. Alcohol dependency is a complex condition with various physical, emotional and psychological elements, but endorphins are what give alcohol its impact and, when they no longer have any effect, will inevitably change your relationship with alcohol regardless of any other factors involved.
When used to treat alcohol use disorders, Naltrexone is usually prescribed at dosages of 50 mgs, and it may be administered for a period of 12 weeks to six months (or even longer if an addiction problem is severe).
If you manage to maintain your abstinence during this period, your prescription would likely be renewed, so you could continue to use the drug on an “as needed” basis. In other words, you would have it available if you found yourself tempted to drink, giving you a safety valve in case you actually did relapse.
Does Naltrexone Have Side Effects?
Unlike some other medications used to counteract addiction, Naltrexone is not addictive and does not pose a risk for withdrawal if treatment is terminated suddenly.
However, like any other pharmaceutical-grade medication, Naltrexone can cause side effects, and they can be serious in some instances. These side effects include:
- Abdominal cramping
Naltrexone is not recommended for pregnant women or breast-feeding mothers, and it poses a special risk to patients with liver disease or hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). At one time, doctors expressed concern about possible risks of liver damage in healthy patients on Naltrexone alcohol treatment regimens, but research studies have not verified the existence of such a hazard.
What are the Benefits of Naltrexone for Victims of Alcohol Dependency?
Medical researchers have performed numerous randomly controlled studies on the effectiveness of Naltrexone as a treatment for alcohol use disorders. The majority of these studies have confirmed its usefulness, and they’ve helped us gain a greater understanding of how, specifically, Naltrexone can help you overcome an alcohol abuse problem.
While abstinence from alcohol is always the best course of action if you have a drinking problem, Naltrexone can be effective even if you continue to drink, and that is what makes it so useful as an adjunct to an organized treatment plan.
Assuming you do continue to drink while on Naltrexone, studies show the drug will:
- Reduce the amount of alcohol you consume when you do choose to drink
- Lessen the length and severity of relapses
- Increase the number of days between drinking episodes
- Gradually decrease the strength of your cravings
- Protect you from some of the greatest risks associated with alcohol abuse (traffic accidents, exposure to violence, missed time at work or school, etc.)
Naltrexone alone isn’t recommended as a remedy for alcoholism. But it can be an important contributor to an ongoing recovery program, once you’ve decided to get alcohol out of your life for good.
How is Naltrexone Used in Alcohol Treatment Programs?
When you take Naltrexone, alcohol will lose its ability to make you feel intoxicated. This undermines alcohol dependency in a fundamental way.
But alcohol addiction has other dimensions besides the desire to escape into drunkenness. Even the physical cravings for alcohol it causes are only part of the story, and while Naltrexone can help you eliminate them it won’t touch the underlying issues that made you vulnerable to addiction in the first place.
Therefore, your alcohol treatment recovery program should include more than just Naltrexone or any other type of drug therapy. Vital services such as detox, psychotherapy, life skills training, mind-body healing techniques and family therapy should always be included as part of a good rehabilitation program, and your participation in 12-step aftercare programs or other aftercare initiatives are equally essential to reinforce the changes you made during rehab.
Daily doses of Naltrexone wouldn’t be the core of your rehab program, but the drug can function as an extra ingredient that increases your chances of finding success. Naltrexone can protect you from the worst consequences of relapse and help you get your rehab started even if you aren’t yet ready to give up drinking entirely.
If prescribed in pill form, you must be diligent about taking Naltrexone every day and if you don’t you could easily sabotage your own recovery, whether you do so accidentally or intentionally. Naltrexone is also sold in an injectable form, and when taken this way it will remain effective against alcohol for up to four months before it needs to be renewed.
The latter option may be preferable if you are worried about your ability to stay faithful to your newfound sobriety. However, if you suffer unpleasant side effects from the drug, you’ll have to endure them until its effects wear off. For this reason, it is probably best to start taking Naltrexone orally regardless of your circumstances, and then perhaps switch to the injectable form if the side effects are relatively mild.
Naltrexone, Alcohol Abuse and the Future of Alcoholism Treatment
Some doctors and addiction treatment professionals are reluctant to suggest drug therapy to patients trying to recover from a drug dependency. They see it as a quick fix that may not promote long-term abstinence, since that isn’t required to make it work. They also believe patients who use Naltrexone are simply substituting one drug for another, and may not be focused enough on getting drugs out of their lives permanently.
But research and anecdotal evidence support the assertion that Naltrexone is useful as an aid to recovery from alcohol dependency. Abstinence is the ultimate goal for anyone taking Naltrexone, and the drug lets you approach that goal gradually, possibly making sobriety and the lifestyle changes that support it more sustainable once they have been achieved.
If you have an alcohol abuse problem, you should make every effort to stop drinking completely, and the sooner you can do it the better off you’ll be. That is the only kind of safe recovery, and a person taking Naltrexone but still drinking is not really in recovery.
Nevertheless, when you include Naltrexone in your alcohol treatment regimen it can help you retrain your brain’s reflexes, modify your thinking patterns and alter your behavior in ways that are beneficial to your long-term health.