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Naltrexone and Alcoholism: Your Ultimate Guide


Opioid addiction steals all the headlines, but there’s another epidemic raging in America — alcoholism. In 2019, there were more than 95,000 alcohol-related deaths nationwide, making it the third most preventable cause of death.

As far as numbers are concerned, alcoholism is an even bigger problem in our society than opioid addiction.

If you’re doing research on effective treatments for alcoholism, you’ve undoubtedly come across the name “Naltrexone.” But what is Naltrexone, exactly, and how does it work? Aren’t you just swapping one addiction for another?

Most importantly, how effective is Naltrexone in the battle against alcoholism — and is it the right choice for you?

We’ll answer these questions and much more below, so keep reading for your in-depth guide to Naltrexone and alcoholism.

What Is Naltrexone?

Naltrexone is an FDA-approved medication used to treat both opioid use disorder (OUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Interestingly, it was first approved in 1984 to treat opioid addiction by helping patients manage substance cravings and blocking the opioid receptor to the brain. Doctors soon realized that it has a similar effect on patients with alcohol addiction. In 1995, the FDA approved it for use against alcohol use disorder as well.

It’s now one of the go-to choices for both conditions as Naltrexone has no abuse or addiction potential. It produces no “high” or other effects that could be pleasurable or addictive.

Any side effects are mild and transient, making it a safe choice for most patients. There are also no withdrawal symptoms once the medication wears off or the treatment stops.

Naltrexone has been approved in pill form since 1984. Patients typically take a pill once a day, with or without food, although this varies depending on the patient’s needs.

How Does Naltrexone Work?

Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it counteracts the pleasurable effects of alcohol or opioid use. In other words, it has the ability to reduce or even eliminate cravings.

Does this mean that Naltrexone is a “cure” for alcoholism or other addictions?

No. Medical experts recognize that alcoholism is a complex, multi-faceted disease that impacts both physical and mental health. The best treatment plans are comprehensive, focusing on both the physical cravings and the behavioral and emotional aspects of the disease.

Doctors use Naltrexone to address the physical effects of alcoholism — namely, reducing cravings for alcohol. It works by binding to and blocking endorphin receptors, which reduces and suppresses cravings. This all-important first step is key in winning the battle against alcoholism, allowing the patient to focus on other aspects of the recovery process.

But Naltrexone goes a step further by also canceling out the euphoria associated with drinking alcohol. If the patient does drink alcohol while taking Naltrexone, they don’t receive that “reward” their body is looking for. This makes it easier to abstain from alcohol altogether (or to drink less if they do give in).

Are There Any Side Effects of Naltrexone?

Numerous studies show that most side effects of Naltrexone are generally mild. These might include:

Of course, many of these symptoms are associated with alcohol withdrawal in general. It’s impossible to say whether these side effects are from the medication or just part of the body’s natural detox process.

Either way, it’s common for doctors to check liver function while the patient is on Naltrexone. Because the medication gets processed through the liver, they need to ensure that the patient maintains a healthy liver function before and during treatment.

Naltrexone is generally safe for most patients, although it’s not suitable for pregnant women or anyone with severe kidney or liver problems. The patient will need to abstain from alcohol for a minimum of five days before they begin treatment.

It’s safe for patients to take most medications such as allergy pills or antibiotics while using Naltrexone. Non-opioid pain relievers or anti-inflammatory medications are also generally safe to take. Patients will want to let their doctor know of any medications that they regularly take (including over-the-counter medications) to ensure there are no possible interactions or complications.

What Happens If I Take Naltrexone With Alcohol?

The good news is there are no known cases of severe reactions in patients who do succumb to drinking while taking Naltrexone.

While it does eliminate the pleasurable effects of alcohol, it does not eliminate the impairment effects. A patient who drinks to the point of intoxication will still experience its unpleasant symptoms — without the euphoric buzz that occurs first.

For most people, this strongly reduces the desire to drink.

What Is Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)?

As mentioned above, Naltrexone is just one piece of the puzzle in the battle to overcome alcoholism. It’s one component of a larger program known as Medication-Assisted Treatment or MAT.

As the name suggests, MAT includes the use of a medication like Naltrexone. It also includes a combination of behavioral therapies and counseling to enable the patient to overcome their addiction. This “whole patient” approach ensures a customized treatment plan that’s tailored to each patient’s unique needs.

Aside from the supervised use of Naltrexone, the other vital components of MAT are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and peer counseling. Let’s take a closer look at these other elements.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

CBT is an effective psychological treatment often referred to as “talk therapy.” It’s used to treat a wide variety of emotional and behavioral issues, from anxiety and eating disorders to marital problems and addictions.

How does CBT work? The goal is to help the patient to identify any disturbing or destructive thought patterns that lead to unwanted behaviors. For someone with alcoholism, this goal is to identify (and change) the situations or negative thoughts that lead to drinking.

CBT is based on these core principles:

Unlike more analytical forms of talk therapy, CBT takes a very focused and structured approach. The goal is to empower the patient with the knowledge and skills they need to maintain sobriety after treatment ends.

How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work?

Once the patient understands their faulty thoughts or emotional responses, they’ll work with the counselor to overcome them. In a way, CBT prepares the patient to become their own therapist so they can maintain a healthy lifestyle in the future.

Counselors may use a variety of techniques to help the patient identify and overcome their weaknesses. The first step is trying to change unwanted thinking patterns. Strategies to accomplish this include:

Once the patient changes their thoughts, it’s time to translate those thoughts into new, helpful actions. To change unwanted behavioral patterns, the counselor may help the patient by:

During each session, the therapist helps the patient to develop coping skills they’ll need to avoid relapse after treatment ends. Rather than dwelling on the past or things that may have contributed to their addiction, the focus is on moving forward and maintaining sobriety.

As you can imagine, CBT can only be effective if the patient has a clear mind and can fully focus on the therapy. This is why Naltrexone goes hand-in-hand with CBT. It reduces physical cravings so the patient can better focus on the emotional and behavioral aspects of their addiction.

The Final Piece of the Puzzle: Ongoing Peer Support

During the recovery process, the patient needs to feel that they’re understood, accepted, and validated. This is what makes the final part of MAT — peer support — just as important as Naltrexone and CBT.

Partnering with others who have overcome their battle with alcoholism is invaluable to those at the beginning of their journey. Peer support allows both parties to share their experiences and develop goals and strategies they can use in the future.

The Beat Addiction Recovery Program offers 24/7 live peer support through a HIPAA-compliant app. Each patient is paired with a peer whose profile is similar to their own — age, gender, and substance of abuse (in this case, alcohol). The app offers phone, text, and video options, making it easy to integrate into the patient’s everyday routine.

Peer support is available for a minimum of six months. This ensures the patient has the support network they need once their initial MAT treatment ends and they’re navigating the “real world” on their own.

Depending on the patient’s needs, they might also seek the support of a traditional 12-step program such as AA. The more treatment and support options they take advantage of, the better equipped they’ll be to succeed in the future.

How Affective Is MAT Against Alcoholism?

Now that you know more about Naltrexone and its role in a Medication-Assisted Treatment program, let’s focus on the most important question: Does it work?

Extensive research shows that the combination of medication, counseling, and therapy can help even patients with severe alcoholism to recover. Statistics show that the longer a patient stays in treatment, the better their chances of avoiding relapse in the future. On the other hand, patients who don’t complete their full treatment program are much more likely to relapse.

Common outcomes for those who successfully complete MAT include:

In one study of people with both alcoholism and severe mental illness, the group who completed MAT showed significant improvements over the non-MAT group. Another study suggests that MAT can reduce the all-cause mortality rate for substance abuse patients by over 50%.

What makes MAT so effective? Research is still ongoing, but experts believe the root of its success lies in its whole-patient approach. Rather than only addressing the physical symptoms of cravings and withdrawals, MAT goes deeper to address any underlying mental and emotional problems as well.

For those in the early stages of recovery, MAT may be the perfect stepping stone to a fulfilling, addiction-free life. Naltrexone eases physical cravings while CBT and peer counseling help the patient overcome the contributing factors to their addiction. All of this combined could be (quite literally) just what the doctor ordered.

Naltrexone and Alcoholism: Is It the Answer for You?

As we’ve discussed, Naltrexone is a highly effective treatment method for overcoming alcoholism.

However, it’s not enough to take the medication on your own. It works best when combined with counseling, therapy, and other components that encompass Medication-Assisted Treatment programs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, don’t wait any longer. The time to get help is right now, and it’s easier than ever to get the support you need.

Click here to learn more about what the Beat Addiction Recovery program can do for you. When you’re ready to find a provider in your area, contact us at or call us at 888-993-1099.

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