Does Ketamine-Assisted Therapy Work for Alcoholism?

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Medically reviewed: Paloma Lehfeldt, MD
an alcoholic considering ketamine-assisted therapy

Could Ketamine Help You Overcome Alcohol Dependency?

Alcoholism is an ever-present challenge in the United States. As recently as 2019, nearly 15 million Americans struggled with alcohol addiction – a condition that medical professionals now refer to as alcohol use disorder (AUD).(1)

What is Alcoholism (aka Alcohol Use Disorder)?

Alcohol use disorder, more commonly known as alcoholism, is a condition that makes it very difficult for a person to control the frequency and amount of alcohol they consume – even when overuse is causing harm to their health, career, or personal relationships.(2)

From a medical perspective, “heavy alcohol use” occurs at the following levels of consumption:(3)

Men: more than four drinks per day or more than 14 drinks per week
Women: more than three drinks per day or more than seven drinks per week

Individuals can be classified as “binge drinkers” if they consume more than five drinks on the same occasion (for men) or more than four drinks on the same occasion (for women).

Both heavy alcohol use and binge drinking increase the risk of someone developing an alcohol use disorder. Alcohol can also be used as a tool to avoid emotional stressors, which can contribute to an inability to control consumption for some.

What are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?There are many symptoms that can indicate a problem with alcohol. Importantly, doctors can diagnose a patient with mild alcohol use disorder if the patient has exhibited just two of the following symptoms within the past year:(4) 

Drinking more or longer than intended
Trying to cut down or stop drinking without success
Suffering from hangovers or other physical consequences of over-drinking
Unable to focus on anything besides the desire for alcohol
Drinking—or being sick from drinking—interferes with taking care of duties a work, home, or school
Continued drinking despite troubles resulting from it
Giving up activities that were important to drink instead
Engaging in activities that are more dangerous while drinking (i.e., driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or unsafe sexual behavior)
Continuing to drink despite depression, anxiety, or other health problems related to drinking 
Having an alcohol-related memory blackout
Having to drink much more over time to get the desired effect 
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when taking a break from alcohol, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, dysphoria (feeling uneasy or unhappy), fatigue, or seizures.

The severity of a person’s alcohol use disorder depends on how many symptoms they exhibit. Two to three symptoms indicate mild AUD. Four to five symptoms indicate moderate AUD. Anyone who exhibits six or more of these symptoms is considered to have severe AUD.(5)

Rapid Heartbeat
Shallow or Fast Breathing
Feelings of Fear
Avoidance Behaviors
Intrusive Worrying

Regardless of the root causes, the severity of someone’s symptoms can often be determined by the frequency and quantity at which alcohol is consumed. In other words, if you drink too much too often, there may be an increased risk that you could develop a diagnosable alcohol abuse condition.

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

Despite its prevalence, alcoholism differs from person to person and has multiple contributing factors. Medical providers believe that factors such as economic background, genetics, and culture play a role in the development of this addiction. Other risk factors contribute to alcohol use disorder as well.(6) These include:
Beginning to drink at an early age
Steady drinking throughout one’s lifetime
A history of emotional trauma
Depression and other mental health challenges
Regardless of the root causes, the severity of someone’s symptoms can often be determined by the frequency and quantity of consumption. In other words, if you drink too much and/or too often, there may be an increased risk that you could develop a diagnosable alcohol abuse condition.

Can Ketamine Help with Alcohol Abuse?

The good news in all this is that there is a relatively new treatment that is showing promising results in curbing alcohol abuse. The treatment involves the administration of a drug called ketamine, often in combination with talk therapy.

Ketamine is a short-acting anesthetic used on humans and animals since the 1970s.(7) The drug gained some notoriety during the 1980s in the club scene.

A recent study compared the effects of one 52-minute infusion of ketamine to benzodiazepine midazolam in individuals seeking treatment for alcohol dependence. The results showed that the individuals in the ketamine group were more likely to abstain from alcohol and had a reduced inclination to drink heavily compared to the participants in the midazolam group. 

While more research is needed, these results indicate that ketamine could have promise as a treatment for alcohol abuse disorder.

a woman treating alcoholism with ketamine therapy

How is Ketamine Therapy used to Treat Alcohol Abuse? One double-blind, placebo-controlled study (neither the test administrator nor participants knew which group was the control) utilized ketamine to determine its effectiveness in combating alcoholism.(8 The study was split into four groups of participants: 1) those who received three weekly ketamine infusions plus psychological therapy; 2) those who received three saline infusions combined with psychological therapy; 3) those who received three ketamine infusions plus alcohol education; and 4) those who received three saline infusions along with alcohol education.

After six months post-study, the results showed that the ketamine groups had a significant increase in the days in which they abstained from alcohol compared to the group that received the saline. Even more promising is that the abstaining days were even greater in the ketamine group that also received therapy (compared to the saline group that received alcohol education).(9)

Is Ketamine for Alcoholism Effective?Overall, ketamine appears to be effective in curbing alcohol abuse. Indeed, in the study referenced above, participants who received ketamine infusions could abstain from drinking significantly longer than those in the placebo group (e.g., those who received saline injections). Notably, those who received the ketamine infusion and psychological therapy reaped the greatest benefits.(10) 

The Science of Ketamine for AlcoholismWhile further research is needed on ketamine’s usefulness in treating alcoholism, early findings offer theories about how and why the treatment is effective. Primarily, it is thought that ketamine combined with talk therapy helps the brain rewire itself. This may be due to ketamine’s dampening of the fear response.(11) Reducing feelings of fear may allow patients to be more open with therapists when discussing difficult and emotionally troubling subjects. 

Ketamine-assisted therapy also seems to have an additional physiological effect on the brains of individuals with an alcohol use disorder. Specifically, it appears to break the connections alcoholics have between the smell and taste of alcohol and the pleasurable sensation they’ve historically received from those stimuli.(12

How Safe is Ketamine for Alcohol Abuse?Research and a long history of medical usage indicate ketamine may be a relatively safe treatment option when used in an appropriate, professional setting. Studies have shown that ketamine therapy for alcoholism may be safe and effective. Patients may experience significant symptom relief from a single ketamine infusion coupled with talk therapy.(13)

Could Ketamine Help You Overcome Alcohol Addiction?As with any medical condition, you should consult a physician or psychologist before undergoing a new treatment regimen for alcoholism. Ketamine may not be right for everyone. If you think ketamine could help you with an alcohol use disorder, you should contact a medical professional. Ketamine therapy may require a diagnosis and referral. Find a ketamine clinic near you, and take your first step to better mental health. 

Where to Find
Ketamine TreatmentLocate outpatient ketamine clinics and at-home ketamine service providers in the U.S. that offer care for pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and addiction.