Individuals who are dependent on alcohol often suffer from negative side effects such as physical dependence, anxiety, depression, confusion, organ damage, strained relationships and difficulty meeting major responsibilities. Making the decision to quit drinking can help alleviate these symptoms by improving mood and lessening the physical side effects.
Abstaining from alcohol can be a difficult decision as it requires significant lifestyle changes. This process can be made even more difficult by symptoms of withdrawal and alcohol cravings. Fortunately, there are several medications that can aid in alleviating alcohol cravings. Several of these medications are approved by the FDA and are available by prescription only. A few supplements are also available over-the-counter (OTC), described as agents that can help curb alcohol cravings.
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What Medications Help People Quit Drinking?
Medications used to help people quit drinking are generally prescription-only and include:
- Topiramate is a prescription medication generally used to treat seizures. While this drug is not yet FDA-approved to treat alcohol addiction and cravings, increasing amounts of evidence show that topiramate can be used to treat alcohol cravings if used as your doctor prescribes.
- Alcohol mimics the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA inhibits impulses that are fired in the brain to generate a relaxed or tired feeling. Topiramate works to inhibit the activity of GABA. It also suppresses the alcohol-induced release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and pleasure.
- Naltrexone was originally designed to treat opioid addiction. However, it is now FDA-approved for the treatment of alcohol dependence and cravings. Naltrexone works on various opioid receptors in the brain to reduce the “reward” feeling that is created by alcohol consumption. Individuals taking naltrexone can still drink and become intoxicated, but they will not experience the pleasure and reward that alcohol provides, thus disincentivizing the consumption of alcohol.
- Acamprosate works in a similar way to topiramate. Acamprosate interacts with GABA signaling to restore the proper chemical balance in the brain following chronic alcohol exposure. This process leads to the reduction of alcohol craving and alcohol consumption in individuals dependent on alcohol.
- Unlike other drugs for alcohol dependence, Antabuse does not address the symptoms of alcohol cravings in the brain. It acts as a physical deterrent from alcohol consumption. Antabuse changes the way the body processes alcohol to create very uncomfortable and unpleasant side effects following alcohol consumption. More specifically, Antabuse causes the build-up of acetaldehyde when alcohol is ingested. It’s a toxic chemical responsible for common hangover symptoms. This build-up leads to sudden and severe effects such as nausea, excessive vomiting, hyperventilation, headaches, chest pain, sweating and vertigo.
Can Antabuse Be Bought OTC?
Antabuse is not available OTC and requires a prescription from a doctor. People should consult with their doctor to determine if it is the right drug for their alcohol dependence. Never take a new medication or adjust existing prescriptions without the approval of a doctor who is aware of previous health issues and current prescriptions.
Are There Any OTC Alcohol Withdrawal Medications?
Alcohol withdrawal can be very unpleasant and uncomfortable. Depending on the severity of alcohol dependence, one should consider undergoing alcohol withdrawal under medical supervision. This precaution is due to the fact that side effects, such as seizures, can be life-threatening. However, should one choose to facilitate their own withdrawal at home, there are some over-the-counter withdrawal medications and supplements that may help:
- Hydration, vitamins and minerals:
While undergoing withdrawal, it is important to stay hydrated, as dehydration can make withdrawal symptoms worse. Supplementing with vitamins and minerals is also important because long-term alcohol consumption and dependence can deplete these elements, particularly the B vitamins.
Intense alcohol cravings can occur during alcohol withdrawal. Kudzu is an ancient Chinese herbal supplement that is said to reduce alcohol cravings. It is the only natural supplement that is recognized by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Several peer-reviewed studies demonstrated that supplementation with kudzu can lead to a decrease in alcohol consumption in individuals considered to be heavy alcohol consumers. It is not entirely understood how kudzu works to diminish alcohol cravings.
- Other supplements:
Other supplements such as L-glutamine and milk thistle are thought to decrease cravings and aid in detoxifying the liver, respectively. There is some evidence that milk thistle aids in the regeneration of liver cells. However, these supplements have not been thoroughly substantiated with scientific research to confirm the efficacy of their actions and benefits. Nonetheless, they are safe to take and may help to alleviate some symptoms of withdrawal and cravings.
Importantly, individuals looking to discontinue alcohol use should consider seeking help from health care providers and counseling services, who have access to better, prescription medications for alcohol treatment. These services can also assist in the process of detox and help with the development of coping skills to prevent setbacks. Additionally, depending on the severity of alcohol dependence, withdrawal from alcohol can have life-threatening side effects and should be completed under the supervision of medical staff.