Alcohol Use During Recovery From Drug Dependence Leads to Relapse

Alcohol Use During Recovery From Drug Dependence Leads to Relapse

Alcohol Use During Recovery From Drug Dependence Leads to Relapse

Alcohol Use During Recovery From Drug Dependence Leads to Relapse Drug dependence is the standard term for a physical/chemical reliance on the effects of a drug to experience a sense of normalcy. Some drug-dependent people develop the cravings and dysfunctional behaviors that mark the onset of drug addiction, and subsequently require treatment to overcome their condition. In a study review published in 2013 in the journal Addiction, researchers in the U.S. and Australia examined the potential effect of alcohol consumption on efforts to recover from drug dependence or drug addiction. In particular, the researchers wanted to know if alcohol can become a substitute source of addiction or play a role in drug addiction relapse.

Drug Dependence and Addiction

Use of the word dependence can be confusing in the context of drug (or alcohol) intake. Strictly speaking, dependence occurs when a drug user’s brain and body only feel “right” when the drug in question is in effect. One sure indication that this state has arrived is the onset of withdrawal symptoms when a user stops taking a drug or quickly curtails his or her habitual level of drug consumption. However, dependence alone does not always point toward a significant problem with drug use. In fact, many people who take drugs (i.e., medications) appropriately for legitimate ailments become dependent upon those drugs in order to feel normal and capable of carrying out a daily routine.

Dependence becomes a problem when a dependent drug user develops additional symptoms that include a strong, recurrent urge to use a given substance, a disruptive or damaging pattern of behavior that places drug acquisition and use above all other priorities, and an inability to voluntarily halt both drug intake and the behaviors associated with drug intake. In lay terms, the combination of dependence and these associated symptoms defines the presence of drug addiction. However, the term addiction is not officially part of the lexicon used to diagnose drug-related problems in the U.S. Instead (and somewhat paradoxically), mental health and medical professionals use the term dependence. Together with a dysfunctional pattern of non-addicted drug abuse, addiction-related drug use (i.e., dependence) forms the basis for a diagnosis called substance use disorder.

Alcohol Use

Like drugs of abuse, alcohol can trigger problems with abuse or addiction when used too often or in excessive amounts. Most people can limit their risks for alcohol-related problems by controlling their daily and weekly consumption levels. However, some people experience alcohol-related risks even when they follow current guidelines for moderate intake. In some cases, these risks are directly associated with drinking. In other cases, they stem from the potential interaction between alcohol consumption and other physical or mental health concerns.

Reviewing the Risks

In the study review published in Addiction, researchers from the University of Washington and Australia’s Deakin University looked at 567 previous studies that examined the potential impact of alcohol use before recovery from drug dependence/addiction, during recovery from drug dependence/addiction and following the establishment of abstinence and long-term dependence/addiction recovery. Out of all the available studies, they chose 13 that treated these subjects more or less completely and maintained a high level of scientific rigor.

After completing their review of the 13 targeted studies, the researchers concluded that there is considerable evidence to indicate that former drug users with an established pattern of abstinence substantially increase their risks for relapse back into drug use if they start drinking alcohol. However, they could not fully determine whether people in drug recovery who start drinking run a risk of replacing drug addiction with alcohol addiction. Despite their lack of a final determination on this point, the researchers concluded that at least some recovering drug users likely have a very real chance of inadvertently substituting one addiction for another.


Above and beyond their findings regarding the impact of alcohol use on drug addiction recovery, the authors of the review published in Addiction note the fact that researchers as a whole have devoted relatively few resources to exploring the issue. Although no one knows for sure why modern research efforts haven’t fully explored the interaction between alcohol intake and recovery from drug addiction, the authors believe that a specialized focus on isolated substances of abuse may be responsible. They urge future researchers to widen their approach and include alcohol-related issues in their studies of drug addiction treatment.

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