Curbing Alcohol Cravings: Medications, and Home Remedies
Medically reviewed by Joshua D Lee, MD, MSc
May 05, 2023
In This Article
Medically reviewed by Joshua D Lee, MD, MSc, written by Ian Landau
Alcohol cravings are the urge or desire to have a drink. These cravings can be frustrating if you’re trying to cut down on alcohol, drink less or stop drinking completely, but they are quite normal. They are not a personal weakness.
Cravings are rooted in both psychological and physical factors. Even when you’ve resolved not to drink or to drink less, temptations to have a drink are normal, and the interaction of alcohol with the body's own biochemistry makes the desire to keep drinking very predictable. Understanding and recognizing these factors will help you reduce or manage cravings more effectively.
There are three common types of triggers that can lead you to want to drink:
- Your environment
- Your thoughts and emotions
- Your physical responses to alcohol
Knowing these trigger types, recognizing their effect on you and avoiding them when possible can help you control alcohol cravings and better manage your urge to drink.
If certain environments, scenarios and places tempt you to drink, the simplest and most effective approach may be to avoid them, at least temporarily.
For example, if there are people you associate with drinking, you can ask them to meet in a spot where alcohol is unavailable.
As your cravings for alcohol become more manageable, you may decide to try reintroducing situations that previously triggered your temptation to drink.
Triggers associated with your emotions and thoughts, such as your financial situation, are harder to simply avoid.
The following strategies may help lessen the power of these "thought" triggers:
- Accept your alcohol cravings when they arise. Recognize that an alcohol craving is normal. It’s not a sign of weakness, and the feeling will pass.
- Find healthy distractions. If drinking alcohol is your go-to when difficult emotions arise, substitute it with something else. Listen to music, cook, go for a walk, take a shower, meditate: Any activity that occupies your mind can help curtail the urge to drink.
- Connect with a friend. Talk through the craving with someone you trust.
- Ask your healthcare provider if medication to help lessen your cravings is appropriate for you.
- Improve your overall well-being. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly are key to boosting your mood. The better you feel day to day, the more likely you’ll feel you can cope with challenging feelings and situations when they arise.
The triggers that lead you to crave a drink can be classified into two broad types: external triggers and internal triggers (1).
External triggers are things in your environment that make you want to drink alcohol. These triggers can be people, places, or things that make you crave alcohol.
Some examples of common external triggers of alcohol cravings include:
- People or situations you find uncomfortable or stressful, such as seeing certain family members or friends, or facing a challenging social situation
- Being around people who are drinking
- Financial difficulties or complications in your home or work life
- Being in a place—such as a bar, restaurant, or a friend’s home—you associate with drinking
It’s important to note that you may or may not be aware of these external triggers as reasons for your alcohol cravings.
Internal triggers are thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs inside you that feed your cravings for alcohol.
These thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs are not necessarily negative. You may drink to avoid certain feelings, for instance, but you also may drink to enhance certain feelings.
As with external triggers, you may or may not be aware that an internal trigger is what’s behind your urge to drink.
A few examples of internal triggers are:
- Anxiety and depression
- Negative emotions like anger, embarrassment, fear, loneliness, frustration, guilt, and sadness
- Positive emotions like happiness and a feeling of accomplishment
How long alcohol cravings last is unique to each person. Generally, the more alcohol you drink on a regular basis, the longer it takes for cravings to subside.
Prescription medications can be a useful tool in treating alcohol cravings.
In the United States, three drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the general treatment of alcohol use disorder (AUD), including cravings (2). A physician or other qualified healthcare provider can assess whether one of the following medications can help you.
Naltrexone is a medication that belongs to a group of drugs known as opioid antagonists. It binds to and blocks opioid receptors in the brain, which reduces the buzz and intoxicated feeling you get from drinking alcohol.
In addition to reducing daily drinking, naltrexone has been shown to reduce alcohol cravings as a measurable symptom (3).
Naltrexone is available as a daily pill and a monthly extended-release injection.
Guide to everything about NaltrexoneLearn about Naltrexone
Acamprosate is prescribed to people after they’ve quit drinking alcohol to help them maintain abstinence. The drug helps ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Acamprosate is believed to work by restoring balance to certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are disrupted by long-term alcohol overuse.
People who are still drinking are not prescribed acamprosate. It is available in tablet form.
Disulfiram is a pill that causes unpleasant side effects when combined with alcohol. The drug blocks an enzyme involved in metabolizing alcohol. This causes you to feel hangover symptoms shortly after drinking.
When taking disulfiram, drinking even a small amount of alcohol can produce effects such as flushing, headache, and nausea.
Along with medication and other treatment support, a range of alternative therapies may be effective in lessening alcohol cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.
Eating nutritious foods can help curb alcohol cravings by improving digestion, keeping blood sugar steady, and supporting a balanced brain chemistry.
The following five foods may be particularly effective in stopping cravings:
The fiber-rich, complex carbohydrates in whole-grain breads and foods like brown rice, quinoa, barley, and farro are digested more slowly, which help keep blood sugar levels steady. This is key to keeping cravings under control, especially when your body is used to using alcohol as a quick form of fuel.
Eating simple carbohydrates and processed foods may induce cravings.
Bananas are rich in vitamin B6, which the body needs to produce and use serotonin. This neurotransmitter is key to reducing depression and anxiety—common reasons people use alcohol and also common issues that arise when quitting alcohol (4).
The protein in poultry and fish helps in the production of dopamine, which can help improve your mood as you fight alcohol cravings.
Omega-3-rich fish like salmon and mackerel may also help improve focus and overall brain health.
Beans, legumes, tofu, nuts, and nut butters are good alternative sources of protein for vegetarians.
Yogurt contains probiotics that are beneficial for gut health, which can be damaged from prolonged heavy drinking.
Dairy products in general are good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins and minerals that you’ll need to replenish to stay healthy and fight cravings.
Before starting any complementary treatment, be sure to discuss it with a doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.
Kudzu extract is taken from the root of the kudzu vine. It’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Some small clinical studies have shown it can reduce alcohol cravings and alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
One of the active ingredients in milk thistle extract is silymarin, which may improve liver function in people with alcohol use disorder.
Ashwagandha is an herbal supplement used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It has long been used to prevent alcohol cravings, improve immune function, and reduce stress.
Similar to ashwagandha, holy basil may help alleviate anxiety from alcohol withdrawal.
Most commonly used to treat depression, St. John’s wort may also help curb the urge to drink.
Meditation, practiced on your own or via guided meditation, can help you learn to react less to alcohol cravings (8). This can be a key to breaking the hold that your triggers to drink have on you.
Over time, meditation can help you become more comfortable with the thoughts and feelings that arise in moments when you crave alcohol, which will help lessen cravings in that moment and in the future.
A survey of academic research on exercise and AUD has generally shown a correlation between physical activity such as cycling, running or other aerobic activity and reduced alcohol cravings or alcohol consumption (9).
As a specific example, a small study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence involved 140 adults and indicated that a short session of aerobic exercise reduced cravings for alcohol (10).
There is some scientific evidence suggesting acupuncture provided by a qualified practitioner can help cut alcohol consumption and lessen alcohol withdrawal symptoms (11).
Alcohol cravings are caused by psychological and physical factors that form triggers that tempt you to drink.
Counseling, medication, support from family and friends, changing your diet, taking supplements, and alternative treatments may all help lessen your alcohol cravings.
Yes. Three prescription medications are approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol use disorder in general, including alcohol cravings: naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.
For some people, the urge to drink does go away completely. For others, it may not fully go away. Learning the best ways to manage your own cravings for alcohol is critical to managing the urge to drink when and if it does arise.
Trying to ignore alcohol cravings is not the best way to manage them. It is better to accept them as normal and actively treat them through a variety of methods, including possibly taking medication.
About the writer: Ian Landau is a journalist who's written extensively about health and wellness since 2010. He is also the author of The Hypochondriac's Handbook (Skyhorse, 2010).
About The Author
Josh Lee is a clinician and researcher with a focus on medication-assisted treatment of alcohol and opioid use disorders. He has conducted multiple clinical trials examining the use of naltrexone in primary care and other community settings. As a practicing physician, Josh helps manage the NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue addiction medicine clinic in adult primary care.