The Drug That Will Make You Stop Drinking
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The Drug That Will Make You Stop Drinking


A full-on bar, complete with dim lighting and the reek (or pleasant smell, depending on your POV) of whiskey stands right smack in the center of the National Institute of Health hospital. And no, it’s not so that pill-popping docs can enhance their oxycodone buzz or level off the amphetamines they’ve been snorting in the lab.

While the low-lights and bottles filling the bar resemble the interior of your favorite dive or the Sky Bar, the joke is on you—there’s no liquor in the bottles! Instead, they’re chock-full of food-colored water. Yep, hidden behind a wall is an array of uncovered liquor with the purpose of stinking up the joint like your alcoholic uncle’s breath.

A Fake Bar Because Why?

This all started because researchers decided to test the potency of a drug invented by Pfizer that might curb alcohol cravings. The idea behind this was that a bar-like atmosphere would trigger the brain to crave alcohol so they could test if a pill they created could counter that urge.

Some background: Because the hormone gherlin plays a big role in triggering cravings for both food and booze, lead researcher Dr. Lorenzo Leggio theorized that whatever misfiring synapses lead to overeating are also linked to overdrinking. Now I’m no scientist but I’m going to go ahead and theorize that a decent percentage of drunks already know that. Ask any alcoholic if they’ve ever stuffed their face with packages of Oreos, pints of Haagen Daaz or pounds of Krispy Kremes to the point of sickness and the answer is often a quick yes. We like everything: sex, drugs, booze, food, cigarettes and the quick rush of blowing nonexpendable income on necessities like tattoos, hookers and $300 highlights.

Still, the Pfizer drug, originally invented to treat diabetes, may be able to block ghrelin before it kicks alcoholics off the wagon. In a study reported last fall, a bunch of drunks—“heavy drinkers,” as they call them—served as guinea pigs by being given doses of the Pfizer drug that blocks gherlin. Essentially, after these boozers popped the miracle pill, they sat down at the bar, got hooked up to blood pressure machines and smelled the hard liquor reeking out from hidden bottles while the docs waited to see if their hearts would explode. If their blood pressure rose and heart rate spiked, then the determination was that they were jonesing and the drug sucked. If their heart rate stayed even keel, the miracle pill could help them put the plug in the jug. Turns out it did.

This Ain’t the First

While there are already three major drugs approved by the FDA to help with alcohol abuse (Naltrexone, Acamprosate and Antabuse), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates that less than 10 percent of alcoholics use these drugs to curb their addiction.

More about these other drugs: Naltrexone targets defective receptors in the brain’s reward system, receptors that are present only in people who are biologically predisposed to drink, by blocking the euphoric effect that alcoholics get from alcohol. Acamprosate, a pill aimed to curb cravings, has a calming, soothing effect on the brain like yoga and Yogi Honey Lavender Stress Relief Tea (something which would surely be effective if people only drank when they were frazzled at high powered jobs; alas, for many of us, any reason will do). Then there’s the better-known Antabuse, which “works” because when you drink on it, you retch like you’ve just eaten a dozen raw oysters in Tijuana.

Still, There’s One Thing That Drugs Can’t Do

While scientists and neurobiologists and the all-mighty doctors may want us to pop pills to cure our alcoholism, they overlook a crucial point: while the desire to drink is certainly centered in the brain, it’s also centered in the mind. Whether the brain and the mind are separate entities is up to you and your shaman or nearest Scientology Center, but one thing is certain: the drugs on the market aimed at curing alcoholism don’t target that insane mental obsession that’s hell bent on drinking, even when drinking means hurling all over yourself in public.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.