Alcohol Use Disorder

Man holding a bottle of alcohol

What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

AUD is a condition when an individual’s drinking pattern causes significant distress or harm. Previously known as alcohol abuse, alcoholism or alcohol dependence, AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. AUD can cause lasting changes in the brain that make patients vulnerable to relapse. 

Is Alcohol Use Disorder A Disease?

Alcohol use disorder is a complex illness that affects a person’s mind and behavior. It is characterized by compulsively seeking and using alcohol despite negative consequences. Addiction is not a lack of willpower or a moral failing.

Is Alcoholism Inherited?

Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD. Multiple genes play a role in a person’s risk for developing AUD. There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk, directly or indirectly. For instance, some people of Asian descent carry a gene variant that alters their rate of alcohol metabolism, causing them to have symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat when they drink. Many people who experience these effects avoid alcohol, which helps protect them from developing AUD.

However, genes alone do not determine whether someone will develop AUD. Psychological,  societal and environmental factors account for the remainder of the risk. Psychological traits such as impulsiveness, low self-esteem, and a need for approval prompt inappropriate drinking. Some individuals drink to cope with or “medicate” emotional problems. Social and environmental factors such as peer pressure and the easy availability of alcohol can play key roles. Poverty and physical or sexual abuse also increase the odds of developing alcohol use disorders.

What Are The Immediate And Long Term Consequences Of Alcohol Use?

Drinking too much alcohol can take a serious toll on your physical, mental, cognitive and social health. 

Immediate Consequences

Excessive alcohol use has immediate consequences that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking and include the following:

  • Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
  • Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
  • Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.
  • Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.

Long-Term Consequences

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Weakening of the immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick.
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
  • Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment.
  • Alcohol use disorder, Alcoholism, Alcohol Addiction.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.

Cancer: Source: National Cancer Institute

How Do Doctors Determine If An Individual Has An Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder doesn’t develop overnight. In most cases, an addiction typically starts with experimental use and progresses over time into a need to use regularly, even at the expense of health and safety. Take the Self-Test to determine how doctors determine if an individual has alcohol use disorder.

What Is The Best Way To Stop Drinking Alcohol?

The most effective treatment is personalizing care to each individual’s needs and integrating services aimed at addressing substance(s) use, medical, behavioral, mental and social health areas to provide long-lasting, positive results for the individual. Most people with AUD benefit from a combination of behavioral therapy and medication.

Are There Withdrawal Symptoms?

Alcohol withdrawal occurs due to the cessation of or reduction in alcohol use that has been heavy or prolonged. Signs and symptoms begin as early as 6 hours after the initial decline from peak intoxication and include tremor, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, and nausea. In mildly alcohol-dependent individuals, these symptoms may subside without treatment after a few days. More serious withdrawal symptoms occur in approximately 10 percent of individuals and include a low-grade fever, rapid breathing, tremor, and profuse sweating. Seizures may occur in more than 5 percent of untreated individuals in acute alcohol withdrawal. Another severe complication is delirium tremens (DT’s), which is characterized by hallucinations, mental confusion, and disorientation.The mortality rate among patients exhibiting DT’s is 5 to 25 percent.

Which Medications Are Most Effective For Treating Alcohol Use Disorder?

Medication Therapies

Three medications have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) stop or reduce their drinking and avoid relapse:  

  • Naltrexone works by blocking the receptors in the brain that are involved in craving alcohol or the rewarding effects of drinking. It comes either as a pill that is taken daily, or as an injection that can be given once per month.
  • Acamprosate is prescribed to help people with AUD maintain abstinence from alcohol by alleviating some negative symptoms of prolonged abstinence. It is a pill that is taken three times per day.
  • Disulfiram is a pill that causes unpleasant symptoms such as nausea and flushing of the skin when a person drinks. Wanting to avoid those unpleasant effects can help some people refrain from drinking.

Medications used off-label that are not approved by the FDA to treat alcohol use disorder but have good evidence include:

  • Topiramate is an off-label agent for AUD. Its on-label indications are for seizure, migraine and obesity. If an individual has these comorbidities, topiramate is worth considering. One strength of topiramate is the possibility of starting treatment while people are still drinking alcohol, therefore serving as a potentially effective treatment to initiate abstinence (or to reduce harm) rather than to prevent relapse in already detoxified individuals.
  • Gabapentin is another antiepileptic medication used off-label for AUD. Its on-label indications are seizure and neuropathic pain. Gabapentin may be considered in those with comorbid neuropathy (typically alcoholic neuropathy or even diabetic neuropathy). Gabapentin in combination with naltrexone was found to exhibit additive effects compared to naltrexone alone. 
  • Baclofen is a medication approved for spasticity treatment. The efficacy of Baclofen for alcohol dependence have yielded mixed results. It is better tolerated than topiramate or gabapentin and there is good evidence to support baclofen use in treating individuals with liver disease. 
  • Varenicline (Chantix) is approved for nicotine use disorder in the US. Therefore Varenicline may be considered in individuals with AUD and nicotine use disorder. It is unclear how this medication affects symptoms of AUD. However, studies have found evidence to support the utilization of varenicline for reducing alcohol consumption and cravings. 

Not all people will respond to one medication and combining medications that utilize different therapeutic mechanisms of action may be essential for individuals with inadequate response to monotherapy. Clinical judgment weighing the risks and benefits is needed in a shared decision-making approach to treatment. 

What Kind Of Therapies Are Used To Treat Alcohol Disorders?

Also known as counseling or “talk therapy,” behavioral treatments involve working with a health professional to identify and help change the behaviors that lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can take place one-on-one with a therapist or in small groups. This form of therapy is focused on identifying the feelings and situations (called “cues”) that lead to heavy drinking, and managing stress that can lead to relapse. The goal is to change the thought processes that lead to alcohol misuse and to develop the skills necessary to cope with everyday situations that might trigger problem drinking.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy is conducted over a short period of time to build and strengthen motivation to change drinking behavior. The therapy focuses on helping the patient identify the pros and cons of seeking treatment, form a plan for making changes in drinking behavior, build confidence, and develop the skills needed to stick to the plan.
  • Contingency management approaches incorporate tangible rewards that are given to patients who achieve specific, measurable treatment goals. This approach is used to reinforce positive behaviors such as abstinence or regular attendance.
  • Behavioral couples and family counseling involve partners and other family members in the treatment process and can play an important role in repairing and improving family relationships. The approaches incorporate positive activities, communication skills training, and identifying relapse triggers.  
  • Brief interventions are usually delivered in a few short, one-on-one counseling sessions. The physician or counselor provides information about the individual’s drinking pattern and potential risks, and then works with him or her to set goals and provide ideas for helping to make a change.
  • 12-Step Facilitation Therapy is an engagement strategy used in counseling sessions to increase a patient’s active involvement in 12-step-based mutual help groups (such as AA), in addition to professionally-led outpatient treatment.  The counselor works with the patient to encourage, review, and reinforce their participation in AA, in a structured process that may include reading assignments, journaling, and setting AA participation goals for the week. 
  • Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) combines CBT skill building approaches with mindfulness practices, which promote flexible rather than “autopilot” responses to physical and emotional triggers to drink.

Research shows that combining medication with counseling, known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is more effective in treating substance use disorders than either modality alone. Individuals tend to have a healthier lifestyle and be more engaged in therapy, work, school, and other activities.

References

  1. K. Witkiewitz, R. Z. Litten, L. Leggio. (2019). Advances in the science and treatment of alcohol use disorder.” Science Advances vol. 5, 9
  2. Kim, Y., Hack, L. M., Ahn, E. S., & Kim, J. (2018). Practical outpatient pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder. Drugs in context, 7, 212308. https://doi.org/10.7573/dic.21...
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018). Alcohol Use Disorder.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-
  5. 52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/
  6. Kaskutas, L.A., Subbaraman, M.S., Witbrodt, J., & Zemore, S.E. (2009). Effectiveness of Making Alcoholics Anonymous Easier: A group format 12-step facilitation approach. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 37 (3): 228-239.
  7. Trevisan, L. A., Boutros, N., Petrakis, I. L., & Krystal, J. H. (1998). Complications of alcohol withdrawal: pathophysiological insights. Alcohol health and research world, 22(1), 61–66.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a substance use disorder or mental health condition, 

Recovery is Possible at Solstice Health & Wellness. 

Please Call (941) 330-9797 to learn more about mental health and addiction recovery services in Sarasota, FL. 

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