One Pill Wonder: Can Targeted Medication Cure Binge Drinking?

Results from a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry show that naltrexone could “significantly reduce” the intensity of alcohol cravings, reducing binge drinking frequency.

One Pill Wonder: Can Targeted Medication Cure Binge Drinking?
Binge drinking rates in the United States are on the rise. Is there a wonder pill that can curb the pattern?

Have you ever woken up with a hangover after a night of drinking, feeling terrible, wishing you’d said "no" to the last few rounds? Well, you might be in luck. Findings from a new study suggest that the targeted use of the medication naltrexone can do exactly that—curb your alcohol cravings and reduce instances of binge drinking.

A for Alcohol

Alcohol has been around since the beginning of time with drinking being a major rite of passage across several sociocultural spheres. However, recent research has shown that younger generations may just be drinking less than their predecessors and experts have linked this to many reasons including health awareness, image protection and changing family relationships. This is coming at a time when anti-intoxication initiatives, such as Dry January, and non-alcoholic beer production are gaining popularity and several alcohol myths are getting debunked including the almost widely accepted belief that taking a glass of wine is good for the heart. Turns out it was more myth than fact and that alcohol has actually been linked to several diseases including cancer. Indeed, researchers have stated that even low drinking levels can have serious consequences.

However, in spite of these, recent trends also show a rise in binge drinking especially among people aged 35 years and older, with a 12 percent increase between 2011 and 2017—an increase that intensified during the pandemic. Thankfully, new study findings from an old medication may hold the answers to the binge-drinking woes we face today.

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The Alcohol Crisis Has Intensified

Even before the pandemic, alcohol abuse rates in the United States were high.

A recent cross-sectional study revealed that between 2015 and 2019, alcohol abuse accounted for 12% of deaths (roughly 90,000) among American adults between 20 and 64 years old. For those between 20 and 49, the proportion of deaths related to alcohol jumped to 20%.

The effects of the pandemic further exacerbated these numbers. As lockdowns and lifestyle changes forced people to stay indoors, many turned to binge drinking as a means of coping. A 2022 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed a whopping 26% increase in U.S. deaths related to excessive alcohol consumption.

What Is Binge Drinking?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as having five or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion for men and four or more drinks for women.

While binge drinking fits a pattern of excessive alcohol abuse and is a common precursor to alcohol use disorder, it’s still a widespread habit in the United States. One in six adults reports binge drinking, with 25% doing it at least once weekly. In fact, a recent federal health survey found that half of U.S. drinkers reported binge drinking in the last month.

The prevalence of binge drinking contributes to its general acceptance, making it harder for individuals to recognize or be aware of the detrimental effects on their health. Although it’s possible for someone to binge drink without it leading to full-blown alcoholism, binge drinking effects are still associated with many adverse health outcomes, including unintentional injuries, accidents, violent behavior, chronic illness, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.‌‌‌‌

Is There A Binge Drinking Cure?

A medication that’s been around for thirty years might be the newest answer for how to reduce your binge drinking habits

There very well might be.

Results from a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry show that naltrexone could “significantly reduce” the intensity of alcohol cravings, reducing binge drinking frequency.

Naltrexone isn’t a new medication and has been FDA-approved for decades. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) describes naltrexone as effective in treating severe alcohol and opioid use disorders.

However, new findings suggest that the targeted use of the drug can also aid in curbing binge drinking habits by blocking the endorphin receptors in the body, dulling the effect of alcohol on the brain.

With fewer endorphins reaching the body, the intensity of alcohol cravings and its general effects become less enjoyable, causing people to drink less in volume and frequency.

What Did the New Study Find?

The double-blind study was published in December 2022 and led by Dr. Glenn-Milo Santos of the University of California, Berkeley where 120 men participated in a 12-week, placebo-controlled trial.

All the men reported mild-to-moderate alcohol use, but they didn’t consider themselves alcoholics with patterns of severe dependency. Participants all belonged to sexual and gender minority groups, where alcohol abuse rates are typically higher than the larger average.

All 120 men were asked to take a pill one hour before starting a night of drinking, with half receiving naltrexone and the other half given a placebo. The study was double blind, meaning neither the scientists nor participants knew who had gotten what. Each participant also received 12 weeks of counseling during the trial.

The study’s results showed that compared to the placebo group, those who had received naltrexone had 26% fewer binge drinking days, 17% fewer weeks with any binge drinking at all, and a 31% reduction in the total amount of alcohol consumed in a month.

Additionally, follow-ups after the trial revealed that the drug’s effects had an enduring impact on people’s ability (and desire) to abstain from alcohol for up to six months, providing further evidence of the medication’s efficacy.

Curbing Binge Drinking Can Help Prevent Bigger Problems

The National Institute of Health recently rebranded patterns of mild-to-moderate alcohol abuse as "pre-addiction," paving the way for better identifying and preventing extreme dependency cases.

In Europe, regulators have already embraced the concept of treating alcoholism at the "pre-addiction" stage with the medication nalmefene, approved in 2013 to help adults reduce their alcohol consumption.

In a recent article published in The New York Times, Dr. Lorenzo Leggio of the National Institutes of Health agrees with this philosophy, stating, “If we attack the medical problem right away and early on, you cannot only treat the problem but prevent the development of the more severe forms of the disease.”

A "Binge Drinking Pill"?

Naltrexone blocks endorphin receptors, reducing the pleasure you get from alcohol and making you more likely to refuse the next drink

Researchers agree that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to treating alcohol abuse. Still, medications like naltrexone and other approved drugs are significantly under-used as many aren’t aware of them or find it difficult to anticipate their cravings and appropriately self-medicate in advance.

If purchased in bulk, a single dose of naltrexone costs $1.60, making it highly affordable, especially considering the money you’ll save on buying fewer drinks.

While it may be a bit too early to hail naltrexone as the "binge drinking pill," early results are very promising, with many positive correlations that should encourage further studies.

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