Alcohol cravings are very common in people who are trying to stop drinking and during early recovery. They are also the main reason a person relapses when they suffer from alcoholism.
After detoxification, those suffering from alcoholism show very high relapse rates. Among alcoholics, up to 85% of all people experience a drinking relapse. This is independent of whether they have been treated as inpatients and have passed the stages of physical alcohol withdrawal.
When figuring out how to stop alcohol cravings, it is helpful to understand what is causing them. Obviously, they can be a huge problem for someone who is trying to stay sober.
Here, we explore what alcohol cravings are, why they happen, and tips on coping with them. Hopefully, this information will help you to prepare for when alcohol cravings hit and provide valuable insight into how to handle them. Also worth considering is whether you want to use a medication for alcohol cravings.
What Do Alcohol Cravings Feel Like?
Alcohol cravings feel like an overwhelming urge to drink alcohol. Your cravings might be so strong that you find it hard to concentrate or think about anything else until they pass. Some cravings can be fleeting, but others can be a real test of a person’s resilience.
You may find yourself urged surfing for what feels like hours or days on end. You may also experience other difficult symptoms alongside your cravings. These can include anxiety, sleep problems, irritability, boredom, low energy, and poor appetite.
Cravings are common in the early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction (alcoholism). You may also experience them on and off for a number of years after your last drink.
When alcohol cravings hit hard, they can really throw you out of kilter. This is especially true if you are in long-term recovery from addiction or if you haven’t realised you have a drinking problem. Learning to overcome alcohol cravings and manage them is crucial if you want to either cut down your drinking or stay sober.
Why Do We Experience Cravings?
There are three key reasons why you might experience alcohol cravings when you reduce your drinking or stop drinking completely. These are:
1. Alcohol Withdrawal:
Frequent drinking can cause your body to build a tolerance to alcohol. This means that you need to drink more in order to feel ‘drunk’. Tolerance can lead to alcohol dependence, which is a serious medical condition. Suffering from alcohol dependence means you’re likely to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms if you attempt to reduce or stop drinking. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can include feelings of anxiety, irritability, nausea, headaches, as well as strong cravings for alcohol. More severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include seizures and delirium tremens, which are life-threatening. These symptoms result from overactivity in the brain and unbalanced brain chemistry when alcohol is removed suddenly.
2. Environmental Cues Or Emotional Triggers:
Cravings can also be triggered by situations and emotions. For example, you may crave alcohol when you’re in a certain bar that you used to drink in, when you’re at a party, or when you’re on holiday. Equally, internal triggers such as stress or traumatic memories can also lead you to crave alcohol. The brain recalls the relaxed and positive feelings you used to have when you’d had a drink and sends a cue for an urge to drink alcohol.
3. Old Habits:
Habits are often quick to form and can be very hard to break. If you developed a habit of reaching for a regular beer when experiencing stress, after a long day at work, or opening a bottle of wine to celebrate the start of the weekend, you might find that you crave alcohol at these times. Old drinking patterns can act as an internal cue to drink purely through habitual association.
Now we know the different things that can act as drinking triggers, let’s look at the science of the brain, as it is the brain that is ultimately responsible for alcohol cravings.
How The Brain Causes You To Crave Alcohol
There has been much research conducted by scientists in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of craving that those with addiction experience independently from withdrawal. However, the exact mechanism has been hard to pin down. Craving is still not yet fully understood, although everyone knows that it exists.
In those who meet the DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence and drug addiction, craving is one of the defining characteristics.
Most scientists agree that alcohol cravings involve neuroadaptation of the brain. These are changes in brain cell function that result from long-term alcohol consumption. In other words, the more alcoholic you are, the more your brain has adapted to seek alcohol.
Neuroadaptation produces an imbalance in brain activity and enhanced memories of alcohol rewards that can increase drinking. Additionally, these enhanced memories can occur during periods of abstinence or reduced drinking. This type of euphoric recall can lead to relapse. Alcohol-related stimuli known as cues may trigger the neuroadapted brain to crave alcohol.
Cravings for alcohol can manifest in memories, pictures, emotions and thoughts – all related to the consumption of alcohol. As these are ‘enhanced’ a person is likely to recall how they felt after the first one or two drinks, not at their worst point when they would do anything to stop drinking.
In those with alcohol addiction, craving for alcohol can occur before drinking, during drinking, when stopping drinking, and during abstinence.
These changes that occur in the brain are long-lasting, which means a person with alcoholism cannot return to social or moderate drinking. The good news is that alcoholism can be effectively treated and recovery maintained. However, a large part of remaining abstinent from alcohol is learning effective ways to manage and overcome cravings for alcohol.
How to Stop Alcohol Cravings During Withdrawal
The first part of overcoming any addiction is to break the habit loop. In the instance of alcoholism, this means stopping drinking and doing it in a non-harmful and healthy way.
Anyone who is attempting to reduce or quit drinking when they have an alcohol dependence is likely to experience intense cravings for alcohol. These cravings happen as a result of the brain’s chemistry being disrupted.
Dr Weiss, a scientist at Scripps Research, a non-profit medical research facility, says: “It is commonly thought that people drink because it makes them feel good. But in people who have developed dependence, the ‘feel-good’ sensation that the drug produces is actually a reversal of feeling terrible.”
“When this reversal of feeling terrible is experienced repeatedly, then environmental cues that become associated with this experience produce a much more powerful craving than the initial ‘feel-good’ craving,” said Weiss.
In other words, the more severe the alcohol use disorder, the stronger the craving for alcohol. Mild alcohol cravings can usually be dealt with by staying well-hydrated and ensuring you have enough rest and good nutrition on board. However, intense cravings for alcohol are a different matter entirely. They have the power to pull you back into a drinking problem.
If you are a person who has repeatedly attempted to quit drinking but keeps going back to it to relieve feelings of discomfort, you are likely someone who needs medical help to detox and rehabilitate.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are not just physical in nature. They are also psychological. A medical detox for alcohol helps to minimise the impact of both and reduce their intensity.
Medical alcohol detoxes should only be conducted within a registered treatment facility with full medical supervision. This is because it involves careful management and administration of powerful pharmaceutical medications.
Medications To Help Stop Alcohol Cravings
Anti-craving medication for alcohol can be a helpful tool in assisting recovery from alcoholism. There are a number of medications that are currently approved for the treatment of alcohol use disorder. However, they all work in different ways and have side effects that may be counterproductive.
Medications to help reduce alcohol cravings are not intended to be a stand-alone treatment for alcoholism. They are designed to be part of a comprehensive rehabilitation programme.
You can access these medications through your local drug and alcohol services. Some rehab centres will also prescribe anti-craving medications as part of their discharge plan.
The Main Approved Anti-craving Medications For Alcohol Are:
- Disulifram: Disulifram works as an aversion therapy. Whilst taking this medication, ingesting any alcohol will cause a very unpleasant reaction. Alcohol and disulfiram can produce symptoms such as vomiting, flushing and heart palpitations. Disulfiram does not stop alcohol cravings, but the knowledge of what will happen if you drink whilst taking this medication does.
- Naltrexone: Naltrexone works by blocking the rewarding feelings you gain by drinking alcohol, making drinking it pointless. Again, this medication does not actually stop cravings for alcohol but acts as a deterrent by stopping the reward.
- Acamprosate (Campral): It is not fully understood how Campral works, but studies have shown its overall efficiency in reducing the desire to drink alcohol compared to a placebo. Campral has minimal side effects and is usually well tolerated by most people.
Anti-craving medications can work for some people in helping them to stay sober when combined with traditional evidence-based treatments. They can help to change a person’s response patterns to triggers and drinking cues by altering the outcome of drinking alcohol. These medications can be helpful in buying a person time whilst they learn how to manage their emotions and rebuild their life.
Supplements for Cravings
Cravings can be, in part, caused by exhausting the body’s supply of natural resources. For example, low levels of NAD (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) are a common cause of the strong cravings and unpleasant symptoms of detoxing from alcohol. You can improve these with a healthy, balanced diet, although this is a slow process. NAD infusions at a detox clinic can fast-track this process. There are also supplements on the market that can improve your NAD levels, which reduces cravings and side effects.
Managing Cravings For Alcohol In Sobriety
Once you have passed the initial detoxification phase, alcohol cravings can still occur. These cravings can seemingly come out of nowhere. This is why it can be useful to keep a diary of when, where and with whom they happen.
Creating mindfulness around likely cues for alcohol cravings provides you with more awareness, so they are less likely to throw you off balance or lead to alcoholic relapse.
5 Tips For Coping With Alcohol Cravings:
1. Acknowledge the craving:
Knowing that the craving is only temporary and will go away on its own can help you to get through it without reaching for a drink. Acknowledge this natural sensation and remind yourself that it will subside.
2. Talk to someone in recovery:
Other people in recovery will know exactly what you are going through and can help provide insight as to why you are experiencing a craving for alcohol. Many people in recovery from alcohol attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where they find support and structure in overcoming alcoholism and living a sober life.
3. Distract yourself:
It’s a good idea to make a list of things you can do when alcohol cravings hit. Distractions may include going for a walk, calling a family member or friend, making a cup of tea or a snack, reading a chapter of a book, listening to your favourite music, having a bath or shower, or talking to someone from your support network if you have one.
4. Learn to manage stress and other difficult emotions:
Feelings of shame, fear, anger, guilt, and increased stress levels are all a recipe for craving alcohol in recovery. This is likely because you used alcohol to block or numb uncomfortable emotions. Trying new things that relieve stress is important. Everyone is different and finds their own way of achieving a peaceful mind. For some, meditation works. For others, pounding a treadmill. Just as important is learning to identify the source of where difficult emotions arise from. This is where therapy can be invaluable. Therapy will help you to identify the triggers for uncomfortable emotions and show you how to manage them in a healthy way.
5. Check-in with yourself:
In early recovery, it is easy to get entangled in a mixture of emotions. Don’t beat yourself up for this. It is all part of the learning process. Instead, ask yourself simple questions where the answers can easily be resolved. Questions such as Am I hungry? Am I tired? Am I bored or lonely? These all have simple solutions other than reaching for an alcoholic drink.
Remember that managing alcohol cravings takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and seek support from professionals if needed.
Help For Alcohol Withdrawal
Detox Plus UK are able to help you or a family member withdraw safely from alcohol whilst managing uncomfortable cravings. Our registered detox clinics and rehab facilities provide around-the-clock professional care and approved detox medications.
If you would like to know more about what the detox process involves, what to expect and the associated costs, please call us for a free assessment and confidential advice.