Can LSD Cure Alcoholism?

In a truly mind-bending acid flashback, a new study reports that LSD could help alcoholics kick their addiction. Based on a new analysis of six randomized controlled trials from the 1960s and 70s, and published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers from Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Harvard Univeristy found that a single dose of the hallucinogen “had a significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse” for up to 12 months.

Dropping acid on a one-time basis also “compares favorably” with the effectiveness of such daily treatments for alcoholism as the FDA-approved addiction-fighting drugs naltrexone and acamporosate, the researchers report. Overall, 59 percent of the 536 study participants treated with a single dose of the psychedelic drug showed improvement in their alcohol habits, compared to 38 percent of those who didn’t take LSD.

Here’s a closer look at this startling study.

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Why would a hallucinogenic drug help with a drinking problem?

The researchers point out that, “LSD is well-known for inducing spectacular and profound effects on the mind,” and “can help prevent a relapse of alcohol abuse…by eliciting insights into behavioral problems and generating motivation to build a meaningful and sober lifestyle.”

The theory is that dropping acid is like speeding up psychotherapy, so alcohol abusers achieve similar results to years of psychotherapy in a single LSD trip, helping them break past habits and obstacles that have kept them from kicking their addiction.

Scientists who conducted one of the 1970s studies included in the analysis also noted that, “It was not unusual for patients following the LSD experience to become much more self-accepting, to show greater openness and accessibility, and to adopt a more positive, optimistic view of their capabilities to face future problems.”

Learn when it may be time to turn to a psychologist.

How scientific were the studies supporting LSD as a therapy for alcohol abuse?

While treating problem drinkers with a mind-altering drug may sound counterintuitive or even crazy, all the studies analyzed were randomized clinical trials (the gold standard of scientific research), in which one group of participants received a single dose of LSD ranging from 210 mcg to 800 mcg, and another group didn’t get LSD.

Almost all of the participants were men who had been admitted to substance abuse centers for alcoholism. Some of those who received LSD were put in quiet rooms with flowers, music, and scenic views to promote a "good trip," while others were safely strapped to their beds so they didn’t hurt themselves while in the throes of their mind-bending visions.

Afterwards, all participants were monitored with urine tests or other methods to see if they remained abstinent or made progress in overcoming their dependency. The analysis found that LSD had a positive effect on the alcohol habits of people for up to six months after treatment, but the benefits disappeared after one year. The LSD could have other health benefits: those tested were also found to have reduced anxiety and less pain.

Isn’t giving alcoholics LSD just replacing one dependency with another?

"Psychedelics are not known to be toxic to the body or dependence-producing,” says study author Pal-Orjan Johansen, who theorizes that while booze and drugs like heroin or cocaine are typically abused to elevate mood and escape problems, LSD seems to help people get insights into the issues in their lives and may aid in finding healthier ways to cope.

However, since the studies that were analyzed only tracked participants over the short term, it’s unknown if they experienced any long-term psychological harm from dropping acid, such as recurrent flashbacks.

What about bad trips and other side effects?

Taking LSD can trigger nightmarish experiences known as “bad trips,” marked by anything from acute anxiety to sheer terror. The analysis reported that eight patients showed adverse effects, ranging from “bizarre behavior” to agitation. One patient had a grand mal seizure, but the researchers note that this patient was in the throes of alcohol withdrawal and had a history of seizures.

One of the studies found that some participants experienced nausea, vomiting, and moderate anxiety that was improved by social support and a more soothing environment during the LSD experience. The low rate of adverse events and high rate of short-term improvement has led the researchers to conclude that LSD treatment for alcoholism could be a valuable but overlooked approach that merits further study.

What’s the bottom line on LSD and alcohol abuse?

The researchers strongly caution against trying the illegal psychedelic at home and emphasize that LSD may not be the answer for every alcoholic. However, they also point to the serious toll that alcohol abuse takes as evidence of the urgent need for better treatments.

Four percent of all deaths and five percent of disabilities are directly attributable to alcohol abuse, and many addicts don’t respond to current treatments. That’s why, say the researchers, a flashback to an approach that was explored in medical experiments and alcohol treatment programs during the hippie era might just make LSD and other psychedelics a breakthrough for those who find it challenging to abstain from alcohol.

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