Treating Alcoholism with Medical Cannabis: What You Should Know

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Alcoholism is a devastating and incapacitating disease that is unfortunately on the rise. It is responsible for the deaths of over 88,000 people per year and is linked to almost 10,000 deaths annually due to alcohol-related driving accidents. Also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism is known for the inability of sufferers to quit their drinking despite their strong wishes or medical need that they do so. There are many current pharmaceutical medications available to aid in the treatment of alcoholism but, according to a 2018 published study, only 9% of patients actually receive these medications. Further complicating matters is the fact these medications are not without their own negative side effects. There is an increasing number of alcoholics who are seeking an alternative treatment: medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana. For these patients, medical cannabis provides relief from alcohol withdrawal and the symptoms of alcoholism (nausea, vomiting, and insomnia) while serving as a healthier and less damaging substitution for alcohol. Below we will take a closer look at alcoholism, its current treatments, and the role that medical cannabis can play in treating alcoholism.

Understanding Alcoholism

Alcoholism is often chronic and can progress pretty quickly. People with this disease will continue to crave and consume alcoholic beverages even though they have repeated problems due to their alcohol use such as DUIs, interpersonal relationship problems, and issues with obtaining and/or maintaining employment. In addition to the physical dependence on alcohol, there are other elements involved such as culture, genetics, and psychosocial influences. An estimated 15 million Americans are alcoholics and a whopping 70 million Americans are affected with alcoholism in their family. The effects of alcoholism can be serious and can include a poor diet and malnourishment, angry and violent outbursts, missing school or work, poor personal hygiene, lying or other manipulative behavior, and many other negative outcomes. As for physical symptoms, alcoholics can expect to feel symptoms of withdrawal such as nausea, shaking, and vomiting as well as blackouts or lapses in memory. Serious illnesses such as cirrhosis and alcoholic ketoacidosis are also common in alcoholism.

It is equally important to discuss the psychological aspects of alcoholism and how mental health can suffer as a result of this disease. When someone is drinking heavily they are at a greater risk for developing symptoms of depression. This is because the regular intake of alcohol lowers the levels of serotonin in the brain and can lead to a breakdown in the regulation of mood, causing imbalances and mood swings. These mood swings can affect work performance and interpersonal relationships,leading to more feelings of depression. If one is drinking in an attempt to mask their depression or elevate their mood they can in turn begin triggering a cycle that can feel impossible to break free from. In addition to depression, anxiety is also very common in those who drink heavily. Alcohol has even been linked to memory storage damage and difficulty with memory retrieval.

Current Treatments and their Side Effects

Each patient’s treatment plan will depend on their individual needs and the severity and duration of their alcoholism. The treatment can involve either an inpatient or an outpatient program as well as group counseling or individual counseling. Since there are physical as well as mental health issues involved, the most successful treatment plans will attempt to address both. The ultimate goal of treatment is to stop the patient from using alcohol and overall improve their quality of life. 

The most common forms of treatment include medical detox and withdrawal and prescription medications. A detox program is one where a patient will begin the process of alcohol withdrawal under the care of a medical professional. This process can take anywhere from two days to a week and may also include pharmaceutical medications to prevent some of the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. Detox is usually undertaken in an inpatient center or other medical center, such as a hospital. Once a patient is successfully detoxed they will usually be referred to a support group or a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous to help them acquire coping skills beyond drinking. 

Doctors often prescribe pharmaceutical medications in an attempt to help patients overcome their alcoholism. These medications, however, are not perfect and can often have negative and unwanted side effects. After detox, many patents are given Naltrexone which works to block the receptors in the brain which are associated with the euphoric effects of alcohol. When used in conjunction with alcohol, it can be successful in reducing the cravings for alcohol. Unfortunately, Naltrexone has also been linked to gastrointestinal problems, tearfulness, dizziness, appetite loss, increased anxiety, irritability, and decreased energy. Another medication frequently prescribed is Acamprosate. Acamprosate is prescribed in an attempt to encourage the brain to return to its chemical state prior to alcoholism. The side effects associated with Acamprosate are constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, blurry vision, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, muscle pain, flu-like symptoms, and weakness. Another type of pharmaceutical medication, Disulfiram (also known as Antabuse), can be prescribed by a doctor and will cause a patient to experience physical discomfort when they consume alcohol. Side effects for this medication are impotence, metallic taste in the mouth, headaches, swollen tongue, and skin rashes or acne.

How Medical Cannabis Helps treat Alcoholism

When treating alcoholism, many patients have been turning to medical cannabis as a safer alternative to prescription medications and the research is starting to back up their decisions. The Harm Reduction Journal recently published a study on using cannabis as a potential substitute for alcohol and found that approximately 40% of patients were able to successfully substitute alcohol with medical cannabis. The patients reported that medical cannabis provided better management of their symptoms, less negative side effects, and a lack of withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting their cannabis use. Another study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that the chemicals in cannabis known as cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) can behave as a sort of neuroprotective shield and help to prevent damage to brain cells which can occur during withdrawals from alcohol. In another study from 2014, medical cannabis researchers concluded that cannabinoids can help to ease cravings for alcohol and aid in recovery. Additionally, these researchers discovered that due to the antioxidant properties of the cannabinoid CBD they were able to reverse oxidative stress in the liver caused by binge drinking. 

Medical cannabis can provide additional health benefits beyond those listed above. It has been observed to help with relieving some underlying causes as well as symptoms associated with alcoholism such as anxiety, depression, stress, PTSD, nausea, and pain. Using medical cannabis under the supervision of a qualified practitioner can help patients to obtain relief for these and other physical or psychological conditions without the additional dangers of addition, withdrawal, and side effects associated with alcohol and prescription medications.


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