For recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, staying sober is a lifelong challenge. Even for people who have been sober for years, the risk of a relapse is always there.

Getting clean and staying sober is hard work, and it often takes addicts and alcoholics several attempts at rehabilitation before they can get past the 12-month mark. In fact, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 40 and 60 percent of people who've been treated for addiction or alcoholism relapse within the first year. And, while relapse is most common early in recovery, people with years of sobriety may still resume self-destructive drug use or drinking.

Why do so many alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery relapse?

One answer is the brain chemistry of addiction. The use of drugs or alcohol releases dopamine in the brain. This in turn regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers as well as its emotional responses. An addict’s desire for the feelings that come with that dopamine release becomes more important than anything else — even when that person knows they are risking a relapse, the destruction of their work and home life, and potentially death.

How do recovering alcoholics and addicts stay sober?

Once an alcoholic or addict is sober for a while — whether they achieve this by spending time in treatment, attending 12-step support group meetings or some combination of the two — staying that way is still challenging. Many addicts work at maintaining their sobriety using one or more of these approaches:

  • 12-step programs. Using meetings and one-on-one sponsorships, 12-step programs operate on the premise that people can help each other achieve and maintain sobriety.
  • Prescription medication. Naltrexone and Vivitrol can help some opioid users break their addiction.
  • Methadone. Methadone can help heroin users stay off the drug by easing the symptoms of opiate withdrawal and blocking the euphoric effects of opiates.
  • Lifestyle changes.Addicts and alcoholics need to stay away from people and situations that could prompt them to drink or use drugs again.
  • Coping strategies.Stress, depression, fatigue, and loneliness are all triggers for relapse. Addicts need to develop alternative coping skills and strategies for dealing with life’s up and downs.

Still, addicts are always vulnerable to relapse — even those who successfully employ these tactics for staying sober. And researchers continue to try and find better and more effective treatments to help addicts in their struggle for lifelong sobriety.

Can CBD help reduce the risk of relapse for alcoholics and addicts?

CBD is a cannabinoid molecule produced by cannabis. Unlike THC, which is the most common cannabinoid, CBD is non-intoxicating. It also has significant pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties. It is currently being studied as a possible therapy for treating epilepsy, autism, and certain psychiatric disorders. CBD is also being studied for its potential in treating drug addiction.

In a recent study by the Scripps Research Institute, a team of scientists led by Friedbert Weiss conducted research to determine the effect of CBD on rats addicted to cocaine and alcohol. The results are encouraging.

The study found that rats with cocaine and alcohol addiction were less likely to relapse when given CBD. This was true even when the rats were placed in circumstances designed to increase their stress and anxiety levels — a known trigger for relapse in humans.

The researchers used a gel containing CBD which was applied to the skin of rats daily for seven days. These rats had a history of addiction-like behavior in which they regularly and voluntarily consumed alcohol or cocaine. The team performed various tests to see how the animals reacted to stressful and anxiety-provoking situations. They also tested their levels of impulsivity — a psychological trait that may lead to drug addiction. The results showed that CBD effectively reduced stress relapse along with reducing anxiety and impulsivity.

Furthermore, while the brains and blood of the rats were clear of CBD within three days of stopping the gel application, the beneficial results of the CBD appear to have lasted much longer. In fact, after five months the animals that had been treated with CBD still showed a reduction in relapse.

In a press release, Weiss said "Drug addicts enter relapse vulnerability states for multiple reasons. Therefore, effects such as these observed with CBD that concurrently ameliorate several of these are likely to be more effective in preventing relapse than treatments targeting only a single state.”

Read the results of the study

These results could be a game-changer for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. If further research supports these initial findings, and the results can be replicated in humans, CBD may be able to help addicts stay sober even when they are coping with stress or anxiety. CBD may also offer long-lasting benefits with only brief treatment.

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