Alcohol Cravings: Causes and Coping Strategies

Last Updated: April 9, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Regular, heavy drinking can alter the standard function of the human brain in a variety of ways. One of the most common changes is the onset of cravings for more beer, wine or hard liquor between periods of active drinking. These powerful urges reinforce a pattern of excessive drinking and thereby make it harder to break such a model and establish sobriety. Fortunately, people struggling with this problem can fight alcohol cravings with the help of proven coping strategies. In addition, people under a doctor’s care can receive assistance in the form of urge-reducing medication.

What Causes Alcohol Cravings?

Alcohol is well-known for its widespread impact on the brain. Among other things, its presence alters the standard levels of a family of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These substances, produced inside specialized nerve cells called neurons, play a vital role in the transmission of information to and from the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). They make it possible for chains of neurons to communicate and produce the broad array of signals that control other nerves throughout the body.
People who establish a pattern of heavy drinking will almost certainly experience significant changes in their levels of two particular neurotransmitters: dopamine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). In a brain area called the limbic system, repeated increases in dopamine levels lead to an expectation for high feelings of pleasure. Throughout the brain, repeated increases in GABA levels will lead to a general slowdown in the normal rate of neuron-to-neuron communication.

Sooner or later, the brain will come to treat the altered levels of dopamine, GABA, and other neurotransmitters as an everyday reality. Cravings for further drinking arise when there is not enough alcohol in the bloodstream to support these altered levels. They serve as a first-stage warning to consume more alcohol. If this warning goes unheeded, the brain may follow up with the stronger (and much more unpleasant) mental and physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Alcohol craving and withdrawal symptoms are two of the official criteria for a condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD), which covers both alcoholism (i.e., alcohol dependence) and non-addicted alcohol abuse. By themselves, they’re not enough to merit an AUD diagnosis. However, their presence points toward such a diagnosis, and clearly indicates a dangerous pattern of alcohol intake.

Alcohol Craving Symptoms

A person craving alcohol may experience a variety of mental and physical symptoms. Common examples of these symptoms include:

  • Preoccupation with thoughts of drinking
  • A vague sense of unease
  • Unusual irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sleep disruption
  • An inability to think clearly
  • A down or depressed mood
  • Unusual anxiousness
  • Unexplained changes in mood
  • Loss of a sense of self-control

These symptoms may appear in mild, moderate or severe form. Even in a person committed to not drinking, they can increase the likelihood that alcohol intake will occur. In many cases, cravings are “triggered” by internal or external events. Internal triggers for drinking urges can include such things as:

  • Stressful thoughts
  • Anger or emotional frustration
  • Physical pain or discomfort
  • The positive feelings associated with happiness or excitement

External sources of cravings can include:

  • The sight of other people consuming alcohol
  • Being in a social setting associated with drinking (e.g., a bar or club)
  • Time of day when drinking normally or frequently occurs

Most people find it easier to recognize external triggers and harder to identify internal triggers.

How to Curb Alcohol Cravings?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recommends some actions that can help reduce alcohol cravings. First on this list of actions is avoiding situations known to increase the urge to drink. Potential steps to take here include:

  • Establishing an alcohol-free household
  • Staying away from events or places that feature drinking as an activity
  • Working with friends and family to establish alcohol-free activity options

Unfortunately, given the popularity of drinking, it’s almost impossible to steer clear of alcohol on a continual basis. This means that people attempting to reduce their exposure to cravings will need to develop some coping skills. Experts at the NIAAA emphasize the importance of skills such as:

  • Creating reminders that underscore the personal importance of avoiding drinking
  • Creating healthy distractions to drinking (e.g., exercising, talking with friends, participating in a favored hobby)
  • Discussing drinking urges with a trusted advisor, friend or family member
  • Examining and challenging the thought patterns that give strength to alcohol cravings
  • Planning out coping strategies in advance when entering alcohol-using environments
  • Keeping track of the intensity of drinking urges
  • Accepting the existence of the urge to drink without following through and consuming alcohol

Medication for Alcohol Cravings

In a treatment environment, doctors can help curb alcohol craving by prescribing a medication called naltrexone. This medication takes advantage of an essential connection between the effects of alcohol and the impact of opioid-based drugs and medicines. Opioids trigger chemical changes in the brain by accessing sites in the body called opioid receptors. While alcohol is not an opioid, it produces some of its intoxicating effects by activating the same receptors.
Naltrexone is an opioid receptor blocker. When present in the bloodstream, it creates a barrier that shuts off these pathways to the brain. In a person affected by alcoholism, the blockading effect of the medication leads to a reduction in the intensity of drinking urges. It also leads to reduced feelings of alcohol-related pleasure. Studies show that use of naltrexone can help people in recovery maintain sobriety and avoid drinking relapses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a long-acting, injectable form of the medication (branded as Vivitrol) for alcoholism treatment.

Foods that Stop Alcohol Cravings

Nutrition can play an essential role in reducing the urge to drink, especially in people affected by alcoholism. There are several key reasons for this fact. First and foremost, many alcoholics develop ongoing nutritional deficiencies that have a widespread impact on their physical and mental well-being. During the withdrawal process, alcoholics can have a hard time telling the difference between the desire to drink and an underlying feeling of hunger. In many cases, if they eat, their cravings will subside and their sense of stability will increase.
Nutritional well-being also has another significant effect. As demonstrated, many of the triggers for alcohol use are based on negative emotional states such as depression, anxiety and general mood instability. Consumption of a poor diet increases the likelihood that these emotional states will occur. When an affected person’s nutritional standing improves, mood fluctuations decrease and the intensity of drinking urges may diminish. Some alternative health aficionados make specific recommendations about the best types of foods for reducing alcohol cravings. However, as a rule, the key is consuming a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of low-fat proteins, healthy carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals.

How to Deal with Alcohol Cravings?

Strong cravings for alcohol can cause problems for alcoholics, as well as for people who don’t currently qualify for an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. No one can say for sure how long alcohol cravings last in any given person. Factors that influence the answer to this question include genetic predisposition for alcohol problems, the presence or absence of alcoholism, and the severity of any alcoholism symptoms. Even after receiving successful treatment, some people continue to feel an urge to drink for weeks, months or years.
Fortunately, anyone craving a drink can use a range of techniques to fight the urge. Whenever possible, the best course of action may be avoidance of any situation or event where alcohol consumption occurs. And when avoidance is impossible, practical use of coping strategies can help reinforce a commitment to abstinence. In addition, any person who feels intense cravings may gain significant relief by making dietary changes or seeking help from a doctor or trained addiction specialist.

Page Sources

  1. Hartwell EE, Ray LA. Craving as a DSM-5 Symptom of Alcohol Use Disorder in Non-Treatment Seekers. Alcohol Alcohol. 2018 May 1;53(3):235-240.
  2. Helstrom AW, Blow FC, Slaymaker V, Kranzler HR, Leong S, Oslin D. Reductions in Alcohol Craving Following Naltrexone Treatment for Heavy Drinking. Alcohol Alcohol. 2016 Sep;51(5):562-6.

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 9th, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


Leave a comment

  • Whitney
    I have a question. Before i started abusing alcohol, I drank like a regular person (socially/occasionally). So is there a point after quitting that my brain can repair itself to how it was before and I can go back to social drinking without it being a “relapse”?
    • kathy
      Hi Whitney, I’m in the same boat as you are but I’m also a physician so I’ve done quite a bit of research on this. I would love to be a social drinker again which is why I’ve begun a program that uses Naltrexone as a means to decrease cravings. For many people, getting on such a program can be transformative. You can go from being a problem drinker to a social or take it or leave it drinker. It doesn’t work for everyone meaning that you may realize alcohol has no good place in your life. I recommend doing some research to see if there are any providers who do the Sinclair method.
  • Hanna
    I can say one thing, non-alcoholic beer or other alcoholic-like drink is a very bad idea to cope with those cravings. When we drink non-alcoholic beer, we surround ourselves with reminders of our drinking history. Lesser triggers have pulled good men and women off the wagon in the past. Why take a risk on this one? People may gravitate to “near beer” because they don’t like feeling left out during parties and other social occasions where people are drinking. However, it’s better to stick with water or soda at these gatherings. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy yourself during these festivities that don’t center on drinking. We can simply categorize alcoholism as an addiction. The mechanism here is fairly simple – we have a product/substance/habit that we enjoy/use a lot for some reason and overdo; because it is so enjoyable or gives us some sort of feeling of contentment, we do not stop and repeat the cycle all over again, regardless of the consequences. Therefore, if you want to break this addiction, you neeed to change your habits. Drinkink non-alcoholic beers or wines is not a good idea, because you’re still in your bad habits.
  • Mbali
    Hi my name is Mbali my problem is my man is habitat to vodka and he drinks a lot even during a week the problem is that he gets sick when he is not drunk, he’s got stumuch cramps, and have sweat too and now I don’t. What to do
  • Jim
    Good advice. I’ve written some of your points down in my diary to get on with. Today’s probably been the worst day yet for my alcohol cravings, but I’ve managed to hold out.