What is the Best Psychedelic Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Discover the latest in psychedelic treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder. Explore innovative therapies for AUD and their potential benefits.
Psychedelic Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder. A photograoh of a hand coming from the left side of the image, handing a bottle of alcohol to someone on the right. From the right side of the image, a different person's hand is declining the alcohol with a "no" or "stop" motion. Behind the hand is a blue and purple floral radiating light pattern, and swirling around the person's hand are some pink and purple psychedelic liquid shapes.
Author: Adam Miezio
By Adam Miezio
April 29, 2024(Updated: May 28, 2024)

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) has been a persistent issue in the United States. That said, there have been many new treatments in recent decades developed to address it. The discovery of novel therapies now includes the use of psychedelic medicines as therapeutic agents for individuals with AUD. More specifically, ketamine and MDMA are being used in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Spravato (esketamine) on March 5th, 2019, for treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Currently, ketamine is the only FDA-approved psychedelic medicine in the U.S. 

As the Chinese proverb states, “May you live in interesting times.” People mean this saying as both a blessing and a curse. Quite often, problems lead to breakthroughs. Substances once demonized now offer healing and relief from addiction, pain, and suffering. Please join us in this three-part blog series as we investigate the latest revolutionary treatment used for alcohol misuse. 

Substances such as MDMA and Ketamine are undergoing clinical research, while at the same time, anecdotal reports of psychedelics to self-treat AUD are trending. 

This series will cover:

  • An introduction to psychedelic treatment for alcohol use disorder
  • MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a psychedelic treatment for alcohol use disorder
  • Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy as a psychedelic treatment for alcohol use disorder

Want to learn what the best psychedelic treatment for alcohol use disorder might be for a friend, loved one, family member, or you? Want to have a profound impact on someone’s life? If you answered yes, then you are encouraged to keep reading. 

Introduction to Psychedelic Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

Psychedelic Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder. A bright purple background with an orange arch shape and some text over it reading, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Below the text is the name of the author of the quote, " Jiddu Krishnamurti". There are some other graphic shapes in light blue incluing two centered vertical lines above and below the text, as well as a half circle at the top of the image.

The Role of Psychedelics in Mental Health

Psychoneuroimmunology recognizes that the mind and the nervous and immune systems are interconnected. This has given rise to different mental illnesses and personality disorders. Treating mental health holistically versus pharmaceutically provides hope for a brighter, more innovative future. Psychedelics can shift our conscious mind into different, non-ordinary states. These allow us to release trauma and process what has happened in our past by creating a better relationship with our thoughts to find peace of mind. 

Historical Context and Efficacy of Psychedelics

These “non-ordinary” states often lead individuals to experience ‘peak-psychedelic’ experiences, which are said to be similar to mystical experiences. Although the definition of ‘peak-psychedelic’ experiences is unclear, researchers believe they are crucial to the overall effectiveness of psychedelic therapy. Studies from the 1950s have shown that mystical experiences combined with psychotherapy led to higher rates of abstinence (Halpern, J. H., 1996). Psychiatrist Humphry Osmond was one of the early researchers in the field who used LSD to treat approximately 2,000 patients with AUD. Follow-up data from his work showed that 40 – 45% of the treated patients remained abstinent after one year of treatment. A meta-analysis included six randomized controlled trials (RCTs). It found that after a single dose, LSD reduced AUD symptoms for up to three months (Alper et al., 2018). When looking at research from the 1950s and 1960s, it is important to remember that individuals during this time were also completing work “underground.” Here, they veered from being under the spotlight of the public eye to refrain from the attention psychedelics were receiving from the media and government. 

Trauma is a risk factor in nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.

—National Council for Behavioral Health

Psychedelics have already been shown to be helpful for those who are terminally ill, have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, and other comorbid disorders (e.g., having both depression and an eating disorder). Many psychedelic treatments only need 2-3 administration sessions to have profound healing effects. At the same time, pharmaceutical drugs are taken daily and suppress the struggles of a given individual by manipulating the neurochemical compounds in the brain. Furthermore, we are seeing a shift from more mechanistic (pharmaceutical) thinking to more holistic healing. This shift in thinking gives hope for the healing of future generations and that we will live in a more open, non-judgmental society. 

Paradigm Shift and Cultural Reflection

The War on Drugs put a halt to research conducted in the field until recently. We are experiencing a mental health crisis, seeking reform in the field, and seeking new and more efficient ways to heal. Interestingly, the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry has proven insufficient, sometimes causing more harm than good. However, the economy is dependent on patients who use pharmaceutical drugs. The NIHM estimates that costs associated with serious mental illnesses are more than $1.5 million per patient lifetime burden. This excludes milder forms of mental illness that many individuals commonly struggle with. Here is where things get interesting. Psychedelic psychotherapy is finding ways to be more cost-effective (as the psychotherapy itself can be expensive. Despite this, patients seeking help do not have to take medicine every single day.

The Need for Reform and Mental Health Intervention

With the rise of psychedelic medicine, we are hearing of new approaches to mental health treatment that don’t rely on daily medication use to suppress symptoms. There is a desperate public need for effective interventions and reform in how we recover. We need a fix. We have been experiencing (and enabling) a global mental health crisis. So, what is more important? The economy? Or the betterment of society’s mental health?

We are currently living in a constant paradigm shift. What was once vilified now heals, and what we thought helped now destroys. We are learning the most demonized “drugs,” like psychedelics, have significant healing potential. We are also learning that “normal” societal substances, like alcohol and nicotine, for example, are actually quite destructive. 

However, alcohol is deeply engrained in our culture and society to the extent that we no longer question its presence and use. Typically, more often than not, individuals throughout the U.S. drink alcohol to cope with problems, overcome boredom, and “numb” the pain. No one in American culture did a better job summarizing our relationship with alcohol than The Simpsons. An image of Homer Simpson raising a beer glass in a toast reads, “To Alcohol! The Cause Of—and Solution To—All of Life’s Problems”.

The famous American professor and writer Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.” 

To see how a society heals and celebrates, look at what substances it consumes. And if this is true, we must ask ourselves, why do we consume so much alcohol?

Why Does America Drink So Much Alcohol?

No easy answer exists. However, we have some insight. First, it is important to note that, throughout history, society has viewed problematic alcohol use through one of two lenses. Research “shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for AUD” (NIAAA). Another common belief is that overconsuming alcohol is a choice. The latter perspective is the one held by our legal and judicial system. It punishes those struggling with addictions for a choice they supposedly made. Thankfully, recent strides in research and psychotherapy are revealing how incorrect the societal perception of addiction is. 

Dr. Gabor Mate is a notable person in the field of addiction who has contributed many books and viewpoints. Dr. Mate has turned our beliefs regarding addiction on its head, starting in 2010 with his seminal work, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He posits the groundbreaking notion that childhood trauma leads to addiction. Learn about it in this short and impactful After Skool video below.

(Be sure to read the top comment below the video from the addiction treatment facility in Dayton, Ohio. It’s touching and heartwarming.) 

So, is it trauma that is causing alcohol use disorders across our society? This explanation seems to make sense and provides a broader explanation for the causes underlying alcohol misuse. In fact, Gabor Mate’s latest book, The Myth of Normal, points out the prevalence of trauma in our society and echoes the sentiments of Krishnamurti’s quote above. 

How Much Trauma Do We Have in America?

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health:

“70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. That’s 223.4 million people.”

These numbers are a cause for great concern. They point to the disparities in the mental health care system in the U.S. The outlook grows more grave after understanding the symptoms and effects of trauma on individuals‘ lives and how those symptoms ripple out into communities. As the National Council for Behavioral Health further states, “Trauma is a risk factor in nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.”

[Alcohol is] the most common substance involved in nonfatal overdoses among homeless veterans.

— American Addiction Centers

We have yet to discuss the unfortunate part of the American trauma epidemic. A pair of recent events drive the dire state of our nation’s mental health—military veterans and the COVID-19 pandemic. These two topics deserve attention and coverage. Let’s quickly examine some numbers. 

Military Veterans + AUD = Beer is Cheaper Than Therapy

Understanding Trauma in Veterans

To be clear, childhood trauma is not the sole cause of addiction. Dr Mate’s focus on childhood trauma highlights the discovery of an entirely new diagnostic tool that was missing from the psychotherapy toolbox. Childhood trauma is known as “little t trauma.” However, when most of us think of trauma, we imagine a serious car accident, being in a war, being abused, etc. This distinction is known as “Big T Trauma.” Between military veterans and COVID-19, no one in America is a stranger to Big T Trauma. 

The Struggles of Veterans with Alcohol Use Disorder

There have been numerous stories about veterans returning home after their time at war and becoming plagued by the symptoms of PTSD and problematic substance use. Young Americans across the country endure unfathomable, long-term suffering due to their time on and off the battlefield. Due to our less-than-robust knowledge and treatment of trauma, many veterans succumb to obsessive alcohol consumption as an attempt to manage the pain and the invisible wound in their souls. 

The Journey to Healing: Marcus Capone’s Story

Unfortunately, alcohol use disorder represents just one of the many struggles veterans endure. Experiencing suicidal ideations makes matters far worse, and often, AUD reflects an even bigger problem. Alcohol doesn’t stray far from veterans, however. This war documentary called Beer is Cheaper Than Therapy demonstrates the paradoxical relationship between trauma and alcohol use for veterans. One veteran who knows better than anyone is Marcus Capone. 

Marcus is a former Navy S.E.A.L. He had PTSD after his service, along with AUD and other issues. Regardless of the amount of alcohol consumed, Marcus never seemed to find a sense of healing or peace. However, with time, he finally found the answer when he took matters into his own hands. Marcus attended an ibogaine clinic in Mexico, reporting it as the only treatment for AUD that worked for him. Through this experience, Marcus reports that he healed himself and turned his life around. Now Marcus runs VET Solutions with his wife Amber. It’s an organization for veterans to access help and healing through psychedelic medicines. 

American Addiction Centers reports that 20% of all service members drink heavily, in addition to alcohol being “…the most common substance involved in nonfatal overdoses among homeless veterans.” 

The veteran AUD problem qualifies as a crisis on its own. However, that crisis, along with the mental health crisis at large, spread across America, no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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COVID-19 Drove America to Drink More

When COVID-19 made its way across the U.S., the country began to go inward. It led to the inevitable lockdown and made millions of Americans isolated. Social isolation has profound, detrimental effects on people. Thus, the people who were already teetering on the edge got pushed over into states of mental unwellness. On top of that, anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. This experience of social isolation significantly impacted peoples’ mental health. It caused anxiety about their health as well as that of their loved ones. Through the struggle of the pandemic, along with the fear struck by the pandemic, many people looked to alcohol to help them cope during this time.

Alcohol sales rose more than 45% during the pandemic, while online sales tripled in April 2020. The sales took their toll. Researchers found that in 2020, “…alcohol-related deaths increased by 25%. Compared with all other causes of death, which increased by 16%, alcohol-related deaths increased at a higher rate.” Alcohol-related deaths soared, going from 78,927 in 2019 to 99,017 in 2020 and reaching 108,791 in 2021. 

As of today, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 138.522 million Americans age 12 and over drink alcohol. Of those, 28 million, or 20.4% of them, have an alcohol use disorder, and less than 8% receive treatment. America has a deadly drinking problem. 

How Can Psychedelic Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder Help?

A good starting place to begin would be Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as A.A.). But what does A.A. have to do with psychedelics, you ask? Well, you have to read the story of Bill Wilson, the founder of A.A. 

Wilson, himself an alcoholic, had taken LSD and reaped the healing benefits of this psychedelic. He stopped consuming alcohol and lifted his depression. His profound experience inspired him to create A.A., where he further shared the impact LSD had on him with members of A.A. This took place decades ago, well before the current psychedelic revival.

The precedent of using psychedelics to alleviate alcohol use disorder existed long ago. Current research seemingly reaffirms our prior knowledge of the therapeutic advantages psychedelics have. Now the question becomes, which substance can be the best medicine? 

Please click through to read the next installment in our series- How MDMA-assisted psychotherapy heals alcohol use disorder. 

The article was reviewed and edited for scientific accurracy by Allison Feduccia, PhD.

The content provided is for educational and informational purposes only and should be a substitute for medical or other professional advice. Articles are based on personal opinions, research, and experiences of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Psychedelic Support.

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Author: Adam Miezio
Adam Miezio
Originally from Chicago, I call Austin, TX home with stops in Spain and Florida in between. I’m active in the psychedelic culture here, allowing me to see speakers like Jamie Wheal, Anthony Bossis, Roland Griffiths and Dennis McKenna. Austin led me to my first ayahuasca retreat, which supports my yoga, meditation and floating practices. I hike national parks, enjoy abusing my passport, listen to the Flaming Lips and read: Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Montaigne, Graham Hancock and Alan Watts. As my beloved Bill Hicks said, “It’s just a ride” so put more pronoia into your life.

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