Taking a one-time pill may help curb binge drinking, study finds

(NEW YORK) — A medication that is already on the market may help people who binge drink, new research shows.

The medication, naltrexone, is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat alcohol use disorder as well as opioid use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.

When taken for alcohol use disorder, naltrexone is taken daily in pill form.

A new study published in December in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that taking naltrexone prior to an expected episode of binge drinking, as opposed to taking it daily, can help curb the amount of alcohol consumed.

Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a “pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above.”

That typically means consuming five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men and four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, according to the CDC.

The new research, first reported by The New York Times, looked at young men who took the pill one hour before they expected to drink.

In addition to the medication, the participants also received education on reducing alcohol use.

After 12 weeks, participants who took naltrexone prior to drinking reported consuming less alcohol than the participants who received a placebo.

The participants who took naltrexone also reported its effect lasting up to six months, according to the study.
 
The medication works by binding endorphin receptors in the body, which helps block the “effects and feelings of alcohol,” according to SAMHSA.

“Naltrexone reduces alcohol cravings and the amount of alcohol consumed,” the agency states on its website, adding that with alcohol use disorder, the treatment typically lasts for three to four months. “Once a patient stops drinking, taking naltrexone helps patients maintain their sobriety.”

Binge drinking on the rise

The new research on naltrexone for helping to curb excessive alcohol use comes amid an increase in binge drinking in the United States.

The annual number of binge drinks among adults who reported binge drinking jumped on average from 472 in 2011 to 529 in 2017, a 12% increase, according to a CDC study published in 2020.

Increases in binge drinking were most prominent in people 35 or older and those with lower educational levels and household incomes, according to the CDC data.

One in 6 adults in the U.S. binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about seven drinks per binge, and binge drinking is twice as common among men than among women, according to the CDC.

Drinking a steady amount of alcohol in a short amount of time has a different impact on your body than drinking, for example, one glass of wine each night over the course of one week, according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OBGYN.

For women, a moderate alcohol intake per week is defined as seven servings of alcohol or less. For men, it is 14 servings of alcohol or less per week, according to the CDC.

One serving of alcohol is defined as 5 ounces for wine and just 1 1/2 ounces for hard alcohol, far less than what is typically served in bars, restaurants and people’s homes.

Dr. Darien Sutton, a board-certified emergency medicine physician and ABC News medical contributor, said people who are concerned about their alcohol use should speak with their medical provider.

“The first step, I always want to advise patients, is acknowledging to yourself that you might have a problem,” he said. “Talk to your physician about your symptoms so that you can get a good gauge on what the issue is and the other possible treatments.”

SAMHSA also has a 24/7 free and confidential helpline available at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), and online at samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.

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