CBD for Alcoholism: Cannabidiol for Withdrawal Symptoms

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) estimates that 17.6 million Americans suffer from some degree of alcohol abuse. That’s about 1 in every 12 U.S adults. A scary statistic, no matter how you look at it.

What’s perhaps even scarier, though, are the health risks that can potentially arise for those wishing to curb their addiction; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) attributes over 88,000 deaths each year to complications stemming from alcohol withdrawal. It suggests that several hundred thousand more are left dealing with serious side effects such as seizures, hallucinations, anxiety, and severe nausea, just to name a few.

Alcoholism, at its worst, can feel a near-impossible addiction to try to overcome.

In light of new research, however, many are wondering if there may be some relief in the form of CBD oil for alcoholism. For years it was thought that whole-plant cannabis (i.e. smoking marijuana) held therapeutic measures in regard to helping curb addictions. But recent studies have shown that one cannabinoid in particular – cannabidiol – plays a crucial role when it comes to mollifying the neurological and physiological components of alcohol addiction and reliance.

It is important to note the functional differences between CBD oil and whole-plant cannabis. Behind THC, CBD (cannabidiol) is the second-most prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis.

CBD oil is simply a form of cannabidiol; it’s a way to consume cannabis without the high, so to speak. It provides all of the medical components and therapeutic benefits of cannabis, without the (often-times) unwanted effect of getting intoxicated.

In this article, we’ll touch on what exactly alcoholism is, what its symptoms of withdrawal are, and what CBD oil does to help minimize the appearance of symptoms.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and alcohol withdrawal are all mutually exclusive terms with significant differences in both meaning and implication.

The term alcohol abuse refers to a pattern of drinking in which the individual’s personal lifestyle is negatively affected by consumption. This could be in the form of relationships, family life, or professional work habits. It could imply one heavy night out drinking in which case a person has to call off work the next day, or it could refer to much more serious cases in which the patterns of abuse are manifested on a near-daily basis.

Alcoholism, on the other hand, is the full-blown manifestation of alcohol abuse; the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as a “primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors [that influence] its development.”

The disease, often fatal, is characterized by any one of the following symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with alcohol as a drug
  • Habitual inability to control drinking levels
  • Distortion in cognitive processes regarding consumption (i.e. denial)
  • Continued abuse of alcohol in spite of adverse consequences

Additionally, alcoholics display a complete and total reliance on the drug, in which case their day to day lives become unmanageable without the physiological and psychological effects of drinking.

Once the physiological effects of full-blown alcoholism manifest in an individual, quitting the drug can present an array of serious biological and emotional side effects.

Alcohol Withdrawal: What Is It, and What Are Some Conventional Treatment Methods?

The exact symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are wide-ranging and can vary significantly from individual to individual. Most commonly, victims experience a general sense of nervousness, insomnia/restlessness, anxiety, nausea, and irritability. In more advanced stages, increased heart rate, tremors, seizures, disorientation, and even hallucinations can become common.

Of course, any of these symptoms may (and often do) warrant the seeking of professional medical attention. Over a longer-term scale, chronic diseases such as cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and liver disease may develop in severe abusers, in addition to the onset of various forms of cancer and kidney disease.

As far as treatment, one of the most common and effective measures is admission into a detox center. In these facilities, victims receive all the levels of support – both emotionally and medically – that are needed to make the successful transition to an alcohol-free life. In terms of medical support, doctors often prescribe drugs to help with the onset of anxiety, pain, nausea, and loss of appetite.

Due to financial, personal, or professional reasons, though, many people find treatment facilities to be impractical. This is one of the reasons why CBD oil for alcoholism is on the minds of so many; it’s far cheaper than prescription medications and/or admittance into a treatment facility. It also allows individuals to largely self-medicate with a specific oil that is appropriate for them and their unique condition.

CBD Oil for Alcoholism: How Cannabis Alleviates the Emotional and Biological Effects of Withdrawal

To understand how cannabidiol (CBD) works to alleviate the effects of addiction and subsequent withdrawal, we need to first understand how alcohol itself functions to develop neurological reliance.

Simply put, alcohol addiction affects the neurotransmission capabilities of reward structures within the brain.

In healthy individuals (i.e. non-alcohol abusers), these structures play a functional role in implementing normal self-care behavior; that is, if we’re unhappy or unsatisfied, they let us know that a behavioral change is probably in order.

cbd for alcoholism

In the case of alcohol abusers, the consumption of alcohol entirely bypasses this requisite behavioral change. It overrides the brain’s reward structures in order to supplant the desired feelings of happiness and satisfaction.

On a side note, this is the main reason why alcoholism presents such a challenge in terms of its progression as a disease; individuals don’t want to acknowledge the reward structures in their brains telling them to change their behavior, so instead, they drink. And the more alcohol they drink, the more unhappy they become. Thus the more they feel they need to drink, and so on and so forth.

Cannabis, Alcoholism, and the Brain

What’s phenomenal about all of this as it relates to cannabis is that all of these aforementioned reward structures in the brain – the amygdala, basal forebrain, etc – are home to a significant density of CB-1 receptors. These receptors play a crucial functional role in, amongst other things, helping to implement feelings of reward, satisfaction, and overall well-being.

What effect does the consumption of alcohol have on the abundance and availability of CB-1 receptors in the brain? Not a good one, as it turns out.

In a 2014 study that measured the abundance of CB-1 receptors in abusive (alcoholic) and non-abusive (social) drinkers, researchers found a severely diminished prevalence of CB-1 in alcoholics, even after prolonged periods of abstinence. This contrasted sharply with a healthy presence of the receptor among social drinkers after the same period of abstinence.

What this means is that consuming alcohol directly bypasses the normal physiological mechanisms responsible for reward behavior; that is, it supplants the natural functional role of endocannabinoids in regard to their ability to communicate with the brain’s reward structures.

CBD for Alcoholism: What the Studies Are Showing

From a physiological standpoint, one of the hardest parts of giving up alcohol is the fact that, without the adequate presence of endocannabinoids, the body is lacking some of its natural mechanism to cope with everyday things like stress and anxiety.

However, this is when the therapeutic effects of CBD come into play. CBD acts as a natural replenishment to the body’s supply of endocannabinoids, which may be depleted over the course of long-term alcohol abuse and reliance.

CBD can also serve to diminish withdrawal symptoms, especially tremors and nausea.

What Does the Research Say?

In terms of research, as is the case with most forms of medical cannabis, more studies are necessary for CBD to become a conventional treatment option for alcoholism and/or other forms of abuse and addiction in the future.

In 2015, for example, researchers published a peer-reviewed article in Substance Abuse that identified CBD’s ability to function as a modulator for several of the neuronal circuits that were disrupted over the course of long-term addiction. The article recognized CBD’s ability to provide a “stand-in” mechanism for the brain’s reward structures to communicate in the absence of naturally-occurring endocannabinoids. A bit academic-sounding, but a pretty astonishing discovery to say the least.

In 2018, Gonzalez-Cuevas and colleagues conducted an animal study to evaluate the “anti-relapse potential of a transdermal CBD preparation in relation to drug-seeking, anxiety, and impulsivity.” In their study, Gonzalez-Cuevas et al. used rats with histories of alcohol and cocaine self-administration. As part of the study, the researchers gave the rats transdermal CBD at 24-hour intervals for a period of seven days. They then tested for “context and stress-induced reinstatement, as well as experimental anxiety.”

The results of the study were very promising. Gonzalez-Cuevas et al. found that CBD reduced both “context-induced and stress-induced drug seeking without tolerance, sedative effects, or interference with normal motivated behavior.” The researchers also found that even after they terminated the treatment, drug-seeking behavior in the rats remained attenuated up to five months later. This was despite plasma and CBD levels only being detectable for three days after the study.

Other Significant Findings on CBD for Alcoholism

Other findings from the study included the fact that CBD brought about a reduction in experimental anxiety and “prevented the development of high impulsivity in rats with an alcohol dependence history.” Gonzalez-Cuevas et al. believe that their study provides a “proof of principle” that CBD is useful for relapse prevention in two particular dimensions. It facilitates “beneficial actions across several vulnerability states” and produces “long-lasting effects with only brief treatment.”

As Gonzalez-Cuevas et al. put it, their findings also help “inform the ongoing medical marijuana debate concerning medical benefits of non-psychoactive cannabinoids and their promise for development and use as therapeutics.” However, more human studies are necessary to determine if the findings from these animal studies are as significant as they appear.

In 2019, Turna and colleagues carried out a systematic review of the existing literature “to evaluate the credibility of CBD as a candidate pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder (AUD).” They looked at 303 different articles on the subject and found that only 12 met the criteria for their review. Of these 12 articles, eight were studies using rodent models, and only three included healthy adult volunteers. The other was a study that used a cell culture.

In the rodent models and the study that used cell culture, CBD appeared to “exert a neuroprotective effect against adverse alcohol consequences on the hippocampus.” Interestingly, CBD also seemed to attenuate alcohol-induced hepatoxicity (liver damage), and more specifically, alcohol-induced steatosis,” (harmful retention of lipids in the liver) in rodent models.

From their systematic review, Turna et al. concluded that the rodent models indicated that CBD “attenuates cue-elicited and stress-elicited alcohol-seeking, alcohol self-administration, withdrawal-induced convulsions, and impulsive discounting of delayed rewards.” They also noted that in human studies, CBD was “well-tolerated and did not interact with the subjective effects of alcohol.”

Final Thoughts CBD Oils for Alcoholism

So far, the findings from animal studies in particular, as Turna and colleagues have concluded, point towards CBD having promise as a potential pharmacotherapy for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). In addition to the many positive findings regarding the use of CBD in these studies, researchers have also noted that cannabidiol is well tolerated in human studies. CBD’s tolerability, coupled with the absence of abuse liability, further enhance the prospect of CBD being useful as a treatment for AUD in the future.

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