CBD for Alcohol Withdrawal: Using Cannabidiol to Manage Alcoholism

Illustration of a Doctor Holding a Folder with Alcoholic Drinks
Written by Nina Julia | Last updated: November 4, 2021

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), 1 in every 12 U.S. adults suffers from some degree of alcohol addiction — adding up to 17.6 million people.

To make things worse, the risks of suddenly cutting down on alcohol consumption when you’re severely addicted can be worse than the addiction itself. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that alcohol withdrawal is to blame for over 88,000 deaths each year. Several hundred thousand more suffer from side effects such as anxiety, nausea, hallucinations, autoimmune conditions, and seizures, among many others.

At its peak, alcoholism can feel nearly impossible to overcome. Hopefully, recent studies show that whole-plant cannabis can help curb addictions — contrary to a popular misbelief associated with marijuana.

Since CBD is one of the two prevalent cannabinoids in whole-plant cannabis products, it’s within reason to assume it can offer some benefits for people recovering from alcoholism.

In this article, we’ll elaborate on using CBD oil for alcohol withdrawal and alcoholism — both in terms of mitigating the symptoms and managing our physiological and psychological mechanisms of addiction.

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol withdrawal are three terms that many people use interchangeably, while in fact, there are substantial differences in both meaning and implication.

When a person abuses alcohol, they develop a negative pattern of drinking where the individual’s priorities and relationships are affected by consumption. Alcohol abuse can put a shadow over your family life, professional career, and relationships with friends.

But abusing alcohol doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic.

It can refer to one heavy night of drinking where a person has to postpone their duties the next day.

However, the moment these patterns of abuse are manifested on a daily basis, this is where alcoholism starts to develop.

In simple terms, alcoholism is a full-blown type of alcohol abuse. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, alcoholism is a “primary chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors [that influence] its development.”

Often lethal, alcoholism usually involves one of the following symptoms:

  • Habitual inability to control alcohol consumption
  • Denial regarding consumption
  • Preoccupation with alcohol
  • Continued abuse despite negative effects on a person’s life

Moreover, alcoholics show a total reliance on the drug, meaning their daily lives become unmanageable without experiencing the effects of being under the influence of alcohol.

Kicking the habit once the physiological effects of alcoholism are at their peak can result in serious physiological and mental side effects.

What Are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

Hand Refuse a Glass of Alcoholic Drink

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are far-reaching but they’re not the same for every individual.

In most cases, people addicted to alcohol experience anxiety, sleep deprivation, mood swings, nausea, and nervousness. In more severe scenarios, tremors, seizures, racing hearts, disorientation, and hallucinations can start to manifest.

It should go without saying that any of these symptoms require seeking medical attention. When neglected for a long period, chronic diseases such as liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis may develop — not to mention different types of cancer and kidney disease.

How Is Alcoholism Typically Treated?

The most common treatment for alcoholism is admission into a detox center. In less severe cases, psychotherapy may help a person overcome the behavioral symptoms of addiction by rewiring their brain so that it becomes more resistant to addiction cues.

Detox centers provide victims with all levels of support, including medical and emotional help, helping them make a successful move towards an alcohol-free life. Doctors often prescribe medications to help patients deal with pain, nausea, loss of appetite, anxiety, and sleeplessness.

That being said, not everybody can afford to spend several weeks in a detox center — be it for personal, professional, or financial reasons.

That’s why many people are turning to CBD oil for alcohol withdrawals. It’s a less expensive alternative to medications or admittance into a detox facility.

Evidence supporting the health benefits of CBD for alcohol withdrawal is piling up, reaching far beyond anecdotal reports.

 CBD Oil for Alcohol Withdrawals: Understanding the Basics

To help you get a better grasp of how CBD works to alleviate alcohol withdrawals, we need to first take a look at the way alcohol functions in the nervous system.

Long story short, alcohol addiction affects the way neurotransmitters in the brain communicate with each other.

In healthy people — those who don’t abuse alcohol — these structures play an important role in controlling normal self-care behavior. In other words, if you’re unsatisfied or sad, they let your brain know about that, producing a behavioral response.

Alcohol abusers, on the other hand, have problems with self-control because the consumption of alcohol entirely breaches this behavioral change. It hacks the brain’s reward system in order to satisfy the cravings for alcohol and become happy.

This is actually the major reason why alcoholism is so difficult to deal with upon progression. People simply don’t want to accept the fact that the reward system in their brains is trying to change their behavior, so instead, they drink more.

The more alcohol they consume, the more unhappy they become — which contradicts the desired result; so they feel the urge to drink again.

And the vicious circle continues to spin.

CBD, Alcoholism, and the Brain

Glass of Whisky and Hemp Leaves in a Wooden Board

An interesting fact about cannabis and alcohol withdrawals is that all of the above reward structures in the brain — basal forebrain, amygdala, etc. — are home to large concentrations of CB1 receptors. These receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays a crucial role in the functioning of our brain, including the feelings of reward, satisfaction, and general well-being.

It turns out that alcohol consumption has a negative effect on the availability of CB1 receptors.

A 2014 study analyzing the abundance of CB1 receptors in the brain of alcoholics and non-abusive drinkers found that those who abused alcohol had lower levels of CB1 receptors after prolonged periods of abstinence. These figures stood in stark contrast to a healthy presence of CB1 receptors among healthy drinkers after the same duration of abstinence.

This means that alcohol depletes our CB1 receptors and compromises their communication with the body’s endocannabinoids, contributing to the weakening of our reward system in the brain. This makes individuals more susceptible to addiction.

What Does Research Say About Using CBD to Treat Alcohol Withdrawals?

From a physiological perspective, one of the most difficult aspects of ditching alcohol is that, without sufficient levels of endocannabinoids, the body is deprived of its natural mechanism to cope with withdrawal symptoms, such as abnormal stress levels, anxiety, sleeplessness, pain, tremors, and more.

Fortunately, this is where CBD may help. CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in a way that allows it to replenish the body’s supply of endocannabinoids — even with the compromised functioning of CB1 receptors.

CBD signals the ECS to produce more endocannabinoids while slowing their breakdown by acting on certain metabolic enzymes.

Although more research is needed to draw definitive conclusions about CBD’s efficacy for alcohol withdrawal, current research suggests that it can become a promising treatment in the future not only to mitigate hangovers but also for alcohol abuse.

A 2015 peer-reviewed article from Substance Abuse mentioned CBD’s ability to modulate several of the neurological processes that were negatively affected due to alcohol addiction. The article acknowledged the cannabinoid’s protective mechanism for the brain’s reward structures in spite of the absence of naturally occurring endocannabinoids.

In another study conducted in 2018 by Gonzalez-Cuevas et al., the research team assessed the potential of a transdermal CBD formulation regarding drug-seeking behavior. They used rats with a history of alcohol and cocaine self-administration. The rats received CBD at 24-hour intervals for 7 days. Then, they tested for “context and stress-induced reinstatement, as well as experimental anxiety.”

The authors found that CBD reduced both context-induced and stress-induced drug-seeking behavior without building tolerance. The subjects also didn’t show any sedative effects; CBD didn’t interfere with their normal motivated behavior. The drug-seeking behavior in the rats remained reduced for up to 5 months after the treatment ended.

Other Interesting Facts About CBD and Alcoholism

More interestingly, the said study also concluded that CBD helped reduce and prevent the development of high impulsivity in rats with a history of alcohol dependence.

Gonzalez-Cuevas and colleagues believe that their study delivers a “proof of principle” that CBD can be used to prevent relapse in individuals addicted to alcohol. First, it facilitates positive actions across several vulnerabilities; secondly, and more importantly, a brief treatment provides long-lasting effects.

As the research team stated, it’s important to inform the ongoing medical marijuana debate regarding the health benefits of non-intoxicating cannabinoids and their potential for the development and use as therapeutic compounds.

However, more human studies are needed to replicate the findings from animal-based research.

A 2019 systematic review of the existing literature examined the efficacy of CBD as pharmacotherapy for alcohol use disorder (AUD). The review analyzed 303 different articles on the subject and found that only 12 were eligible for the review. Of that number, eight were studies using rats, and only three included healthy adult humans. The other study was conducted on cell cultures.

In the rodent model and the study on cell cultures, CBD produced “a neuroprotective effect against adverse alcohol consequences on the hippocampus.” CBD also reduced liver damage, and more specifically, alcohol-induced retention of lipids in the liver (steatosis).

The authors note that the rodent models pointed them to a conclusion that CBD “attenuates cue-elicited and stress-elicited alcohol-seeking, alcohol self-administration, withdrawal-induced convulsions, and impulsive discounting of delayed rewards.” They also concluded that in human studies, CBD was safe and well-tolerated, and “didn’t interact with the subjective effects of alcohol.”

CBD Dosage for Alcohol Withdrawals

There are no standard dosage charts or guidelines for CBD use in treating alcohol withdrawals and alcoholism. If you believe CBD can help you overcome addiction and its side effects, we encourage you to seek your doctor’s approval before adding CBD to your treatment. A consultation with a holistic professional experienced in cannabis use will help you find the right dosage for your situation.

The best way to start is to go with a low dose (5–10 mg) and gradually work your way up to the amount that provides you the desired results but without any side effects.

Although safe and well-tolerated, CBD has a few benign side effects when consumed in large doses, including dry mouth, dizziness, lethargy, changes in appetite, and diarrhea.

Keep a journal of your daily doses and write down how you feel each time after taking CBD oil.

How to Take CBD for Alcohol Withdrawals?

Hand Holding CBD Oil Bottle and Dropper

CBD can take many forms, including oils, capsules, gummies, vapes, and topicals.

CBD oil is the most common form of CBD. It’s sold in glass bottles with a dropper for accurate dosing. You take it under the tongue, holding it there for about 60 seconds to improve absorption.

CBD capsules and soft gels are better for beginners because they contain a fixed dose of CBD per serving. They’re also easy to take on the go, making them more convenient for people living busy lives.

Edibles work in a similar manner — and they also feature delicious flavors that make CBD consumption more enjoyable than with oils and capsules.

Finally, you can try CBD vapes. These come in a vape pen format and offer the fastest and most effective way to deliver CBD to your system.

Topicals aren’t the best form of CBD for alcohol withdrawals because they are designed to target localized discomfort. Unless your withdrawals involve headaches, joint pain, or stomach pain, we suggest that you opt for one of the above formats.

Key Takeaways on Using CBD for Alcohol Withdrawal

So far, the evidence from animal and human studies suggests that CBD has the potential to become a treatment for alcohol withdrawal and alcoholism.

CBD is also safe and well-tolerated, which, coupled with the lack of abuse potential, further supports its use as adjunctive therapy for alcoholics in the future.

However, before CBD oil becomes a pharmacotherapy for Alcohol Use Disorder, we need more clinical trials on humans to confirm the preliminary findings on larger samples.

If you’re considering adding CBD to your alcoholism therapy, consult a holistic medical professional to gauge your initial dosage and establish the right routine to avoid interactions with other medications.

CBD & Alcohol Withdrawals: FAQ

Looking for more answers? You’ll find them here.

Is CBD safe for recovering alcoholics?

CBD is a safe supplement for recovering alcoholics. Although there has been some controversy around its use due to associations with marijuana, CBD is non-intoxicating, and as such, it doesn’t cause a person to form habits around it. CBD is non-addictive in both physical and behavioral terms. Studies have also found that CBD reduces anxiety and extends REM sleep duration, possibly by reducing inflammation in the brain.

Can CBD cancel out alcohol?

There are no studies that would confirm CBD’s ability to cancel out the negative effects of alcohol. That being said, CBD can be used to reduce a person’s alcohol intake by helping them cope with anxiety, cravings, and sleeping difficulties.

Is CBD a substitute for alcohol?

CBD is a healthy alternative to alcohol as a means of relaxation. You can take off the edge without toxic side effects like hangovers — let alone the long-term consequences of alcohol abuse. There are now many CBD-infused beverages such as cocktails, kombuchas, tea, coffee, and other similar products to drink instead of booze. However, it is best to understand the validity and effects of mixing alcohol and CBD first before taking one.

Does CBD help with anxiety?

Many people use CBD oil for anxiety, and for a good reason. There’s a large number of studies suggesting that CBD has remarkable stress-relieving effects and can reduce anxiety by acting on the body’s neurological mechanisms. CBD regulates serotonin secretion and increases GABA levels, balancing the nervous system and reducing inflammation in the brain.

Is CBD addictive?

Unlike THC, which can be habit-forming, CBD is not addictive in any way. It actually has anti-addictive qualities. Since both CBD and THC occur in cannabis in different ratios, it’s quite self-explanatory why cannabis isn’t believed to be as addictive as alcohol or tobacco.

References:

  1. Chye, Y., Christensen, E., Solowij, N., & Yücel, M. (2019). The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabidiol’s Promise for the Treatment of Substance Use Disorder. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 63. (1)
  2. Prud’homme, M., Cata, R., & Jutras-Aswad, D. (2015). Cannabidiol as an Intervention for Addictive Behaviors: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Substance abuse: research and treatment, 9, 33–38. (2)
  3. Gonzalez-Cuevas, G., Martin-Fardon, R., Kerr, T. M., Stouffer, D. G., Parsons, L. H., Hammell, D. C., Banks, S. L., Stinchcomb, A. L., & Weiss, F. (2018). Unique treatment potential of cannabidiol for the prevention of relapse to drug use: preclinical proof of principle. Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(10), 2036–2045. (3)
  4. Turna, J., Syan, S. K., Frey, B. N., Rush, B., Costello, M. J., Weiss, M., & MacKillop, J. (2019). Cannabidiol as a Novel Candidate Alcohol Use Disorder Pharmacotherapy: A Systematic Review. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 43(4), 550–563. (4)

Nina created CFAH.org following the birth of her second child. She was a science and math teacher for 6 years prior to becoming a parent — teaching in schools in White Plains, New York and later in Paterson, New Jersey.

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