New antioxidant may help people reduce alcohol consumption

4 Jul 2024

When Gene* was offered the chance to participate in a trial investigating a promising new antioxidant that could help people reduce their alcohol intake, he was keen to sign up.

NAC Image

"[The opportunity to join the trial] provided me with a sense of relief that I might actually be able to cut back with their help,” he said.

After participating in Dry July to “get healthier” and reduce his alcohol intake, Gene soon realised that cutting back was harder than he’d first thought, especially on his own.

“I didn’t really want to reach out for support,” he said. “But when I joined, I realised just how beneficial the support could be.”

Commonly called NAC, for N-acetylcysteine, previous studies have found that the antioxidant significantly improved impulse control and reduced relapse. However, there is little understanding of how this may occur.

By examining the impacts of the antioxidant through a multi-site randomised controlled trial, a team of researchers at Turning Point is seeking to better understand NAC’s potential to help people resist craving and reduce the risk of relapse.

The challenges people face when cutting back

Gene’s difficulty with cutting back on his drinking without support is typical. Many people face challenges when trying to cut back on their drinking.

It is also the reason why the ‘drink in moderation’ messaging promoted by the alcohol industry is often ineffective when combatting the harms that are caused by alcohol.

Regular alcohol consumption can cause changes in multiple brain circuits, which can also make it increasingly difficult to resist the craving and cut back.

NAC’s capacity to counteract circuits relating to craving and impulse control is of key interest to researchers because of the medication’s potential to reduce cravings and the likelihood of relapse. 

Benefits of participating in the trial

The potential benefits of using NAC as a supplement were one of the reasons why Gene was keen to sign up for the trial.

Even though he did not know whether he was receiving the NAC medication or a placebo, he found the habit of taking the tablet twice a day also helped.

"It gives you a reminder that you’re trying to do something to reduce your alcohol [intake],” he said.

Participating in the trial also gave Gene access to a comprehensive medical assessment by specialists as well as a dedicated research nurse who monitored and supported him throughout the 12 weeks.

Gene found that the medical support helped him to better understand the mechanisms at play when using an addictive substance.

"You might see a psychologist or a psychiatrist about other things, but it’s quite unique to highlight this issue,” Gene said.

“Any dependence might be because of other things that are occurring in your life, but it’s helpful to focus on this one thing, and the habits you’ve created … it helps you to look at that objectively to think of ways to adjust,” he said.

While alcohol is the most common reason why people seek help from AOD treatment services, Gene feels lucky to have had access to such support during his participation in the trial without the delays that can occur due to a long waiting list.

“[The dedicated support nurse has] the training,” he said. “They help you to recognise [that challenges with alcohol] are common. Lots of people have this issue. And you recognise symptoms or habits as you get older – like drinking while you are cooking. The researchers give you signposts that you might need help to adapt."

For Gene, the experience "definitely helped" him cut back on this drinking.

"You can see it from an external perspective, rather than being part of everyday life. They give techniques you can employ. I use them at home now and with my partner. It’s helped me to learn what I unconsciously linked so that I can make changes."

“You’re not going to lose anything… and you’re not by yourself”

Gene encourages anyone who would like help cutting back on their drinking to contact the researchers for more information.

"If you get to the stage where you’d like to make changes, go ahead and inquire. You’re not going to lose anything. It’s completely anonymous. And you’re not by yourself. I talked about it with my partner and she's been applying some of the techniques as well."

If found to be effective, this medication may become part of a frontline treatment to help people reduce their drinking and protect themselves from the harms that come with high levels of alcohol consumption

Given that alcohol dependence is recognised as a leading public health concern, with 6,000 deaths and 150,000 hospital admissions annually in Australia, the findings from the trial could benefit our whole society.

*name has been changed

Click here for further details about participating in the trial.

Find out about other opportunities to participate in Turning Point trials.

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