As Seasonal Drinking Increases, Closet Alcoholics Find Hope in New Treatments

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Studies show alcoholics increase their drinking at the end of the year because of holidays, stress, and other factors. Women are particularly hard hit. New options in treatment which include anti-craving medication, blended therapies and online support are providing solutions to those who need help.

It’s important that people have choices and adopt strategies that work for them.

The numbers are staggering: 18 million alcoholics in the United States alone. An additional four “problem drinkers” for every hard core alcoholic. Year-long success rates under 30% for those who seek traditional treatment.

And, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, the numbers will bump up at year’s end. Increased seasonal drinking leads to what they call “The January Effect”: overindulgence during the holidays followed by New Year’s resolutions to change.

But those resolutions may be easier kept thanks to cutting edge strategies now available to help drinkers get sober. A new kind of therapy, available at inpatient centers and doctors’ offices across the country, has attracted the interest of drinkers who formerly rebuffed conventional treatment. Instead, they’re opting for an emerging, blended approach centered around newly approved anti-craving medications. According to program administrators, droves of drinkers are quietly rushing in for help.

“It’s like what we witnessed nearly twenty years ago for people with depression,” says recovered alcoholic Roberta Jewell, who, with addiction specialist Dr. Linda Garcia, MD, wrote the popular self-help recovery book “My Way Out”. “Doctors started treating patients with medications that targeted brain chemicals like serotonin,” she says. “They also recommended dietary and lifestyle changes. The combined therapy has proven very effective.”

The same is true, says Garcia, of alcohol dependence.

“For years, we as clinicians have offered highly ineffective treatment,” she admits. “We’ve told patients to attend 12 step meetings or we’ve prescribed medicine that makes them sick if they drink. But we’ve not dealt with this condition like we do hypertension or diabetes,” says Garcia, an internist. “We’ve largely ignored the physiological underpinnings that often result in illness.”

New anti-craving medications may help change that. The FDA has recently approved three drugs to treat alcoholism. They include Revia, Campral and Vivitrol. Topamax, an anti-seizure medicine, is also commonly used off-label, which means it is prescribed for a disorder other than that for which it was approved. Antabuse, which became available in 1951, behaves differently and is used as aversion therapy.

According to Garcia, the new class of drugs can be helpful because they affect the reward signaling center of the brain, blocking receptors and balancing neurotransmitter activity. “I tell patients it helps calm the ‘beast brain’”, she says. Garcia has prescribed the medications to many of her patients and says pharmacological intervention can play an important role in recovery. “But drugs are not the be all and end all,” she’s quick to point out. “They are only one tool and they must be incorporated into a comprehensive program.”

Jewell, who self-experimented years ago with an anti-craving medication, agrees.

“I thought I’d found the magic bullet,” she says. “But it wasn’t long before I had reverted to my old drinking habits. The alcoholic brain may be wired differently, but we still need to address the underlying emotional issues, drinking triggers, and our physical health if we hope to overcome that overwhelming desire to drink.”

Jewell says during her 20 years of research she identified a number of therapies that seemed helpful in the short term. But it wasn’t until she combined medication with self-administered hypnotherapy, nutritional supplements and exercise that she was able to finally overcome her addiction. She has since worked with a team of specialists in fine tuning a 12-week program which she describes in her book. She says support is equally important and is provided for free on the My Way Out message board.

Newsweek health reporter Temma Ehrenfeld has researched and written about the advent of virtual therapy. She says the Internet has become an effective option for recovering addicts looking for support from others, but who may be uncomfortable attending 12-step groups.

“Apparently face-time isn't the key, and in fact can make you clam up,” she says, “Online support really works for a lot of people.”

It seems to be true of Jewell’s online community. To date, her combined web-based forums have logged nearly 1.5 million visits. Hundreds of people check in from across the globe each day to share their experiences and offer advice to one another. Jewell, who administers the site, says most people seem to appreciate access to an anonymous support system and are usually surprised and inspired by the similarities they share with others. “It may be a virtual community,” she says, but it’s a very powerful one.”

Jewell says some individuals in her program elect to join local, fellowship based programs like AA or Women for Sobriety, as well. “And that’s fabulous,” she says. “It’s important that people have choices and adopt strategies that work for them.”

Garcia concurs. “No more stigma, no more shame. Let’s get people the help they need in the environment best suited to them. Let’s get them started on the road to recovery.”


Alcoholism and Gender Differences

Roberta Jewell says approximately 80% of visitors to her recovery support site are women. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control, excessive drinking puts women at greater health risks than their male counterparts. Women’s health risks include:

  • More brain damage and atrophy than men who drink the same amount
  • A higher risk of developing diseases related alcohol abuse, such as liver disease, heart disease and breast cancer
  • Becoming addicted to alcohol more quickly than men
  • Drinking heavily later in life
  • Less likelihood of being properly diagnosed with alcohol dependence
  • Putting babies at risk if women drink while pregnant


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Kellie Hyder
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