Naltrexone: A Medication for Treating Alcoholism

There were over 275,000 people in contact with drug and alcohol services between 2020 and 2021, showing a slight rise from the previous year.

According to research, those in treatment for alcohol alone make up the largest group of all adults in treatment. [1]

The World Health Organisation estimates alcoholism is the third most significant cause of disease in developing countries worldwide. [2]

If you or your loved one feels they have a problem with alcohol, you may choose to go to a rehabilitation facility to tackle your problem. Naltrexone and other medications may be offered to facilitate your detox and allow you to focus on your recovery.

What is Naltrexone?

Pills

Usually sold under the brand names ReVia or Vivitrol, Naltrexone is not a complete cure for alcoholism but can help you stay sober for an extended period while you undergo treatment. [3]

Naltrexone is a medication used for alcohol addiction treatment by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. This reduces dopamine (the reward chemical) in the brain, which thus inhibits cravings in you or your loved one. [2]

Naltrexone isn’t a cure for your alcohol addiction. However, it will give you a hand when tackling intense cravings and allow you to focus on your recovery.

Naltrexone & Alcohol Treatment

Residential

You may attend a rehabilitation facility or rehab if you or your loved one feels you need help tackling your alcohol addiction. Here you will receive treatment to understand the root of your addiction and healthy coping mechanisms.

Due to alcohol being a physically addictive substance, without proper treatment assisted by medical professionals, you may experience dangerous and potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Seizures and Hallucinations (in rare cases)

If you experience intense urges to drink, you may be offered Naltrexone to curb your cravings. However, doctors suggest Naltrexone is best used in rehab, where a medical professional can moderate your withdrawal symptoms and change the medication if you experience side effects.

How Does Naltrexone Work?

The opioid receptors in your brain are those which make you feel pleasure. When you drink, these receptors light up, making you feel intoxicated and happy. Naltrexone works by blocking these parts of the brain, making you feel less need to drink alcohol.

Low doses of alcohol stimulate endorphins in your brain, which enhance dopamine activity; however, in high doses, alcohol inhibits a neurotransmitter called Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls mood, sleep and dopamine levels. This causes a sedative effect and leads to blackouts.

Naltrexone blocks these initial pleasurable feelings when you drink, and you don’t get the ‘high’ sensation that makes you want to drink more. Using Naltrexone and other medications during your treatment is known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Medical professionals may combine Naltrexone with your rehabilitation therapies to gain the most excellent chance of long-term recovery. The overarching goal is to solidify your understanding of your addiction and tackle problems you may face in everyday life that leads you to drink.

You may be offered Naltrexone alongside:

Naltrexone shouldn’t be administered if you are pregnant or trying for a baby and doctors are unsure of the effect of breastfeeding, so you should consult with your doctor before starting the medication. [4]

Naltrexone Side Effects

Naltrexone can cause side effects like any medication, with nausea being the most common. These aren’t anything to be worried about, but you should regularly consult with a medical professional when taking Naltrexone.

Naltrexone side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dizziness
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Drowsiness

You and your doctor may decide how long you are administered Naltrexone. However, the average is around 12 weeks. Researchers have found that this period is the most effective for long-term recovery. [5]

Naltrexone & Other Substances

Naltrexone is not an opioid, is not an addictive substance and does not cause withdrawal symptoms upon stopping usage. Naltrexone works by binding to the endorphin (opioid) receptors and blocks the pleasurable effects of alcohol.

Once you have stopped drinking, Naltrexone helps you or your loved one to maintain sobriety. However, your doctor will continue monitoring you after you finish taking the medication.

Naltrexone is also used when treating those with opioid addiction, like heroin or some prescription medications. Therefore, when taking Naltrexone, you should avoid all medications that contain opiates, like:

  • Narcotics like heroin
  • Codeine or medications containing codeine
  • Cough medicine

Taking these substances while on Naltrexone can cause or worsen withdrawal symptoms. You must have stopped taking all opiate substances 7-10 days before beginning Naltrexone.

After finishing treatment, to maintain sobriety, you may consider attending self-help support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART groups which have helped millions worldwide live an alcohol-free life.

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References

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/substance-misuse-treatment-for-young-people-statistics-2020-to-2021/young-peoples-substance-misuse-treatment-statistics-2020-to-2021-report

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2565602/

[3] https://familydoctor.org/naltrexone-for-alcoholism/

[4] https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2000/0315/p1891.html

[5] https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment/medications-counseling-related-conditions/naltrexone