Alcohol Use and Drug Relapse: Are They Related?

man holding a glass of alcohol and pills
May 16, 2017
|   Updated:
September 17, 2023

Addiction is addiction. That’s a fundamental principle to grasp when differentiating between different types of habits. In modern culture, drug use is generally stigmatized and alcohol use is generally socially acceptable—however, the two behaviors are often intertwined, particularly in the lives of recovering drug addicts. There are two prevalent theories for how alcohol use might impact recovery from drug addiction.

Alcohol Use Theories

The first theory is generally referred to as drinking-induced relapse; the idea is that, since drinking lowers inhibitions, it could lead recovering drug addicts to episodes of relapse. In effect, the mental barriers they’ve constructed to battle their addictions are lowered as they consume more alcohol. Additionally, the feeling of drinking may be similar enough to the positive feelings they associate with drug use that it increases desire for their drug of choice.

The second theory, called substitution hypothesis, holds that drinking may become more prevalent as recovering patients seek ways to combat the loss of their preferred drug. Essentially, this idea is that one more socially-acceptable vice gets substituted for another.

Studying Alcohol Use Theories

The Recovery Research Institute recently conducted a meta-analysis of thirteen international studies in an attempt to determine if either of these ideas had merit. Their findings were mixed:

There seemed to be little evidence that drug addicts in recovery turned to alcohol as a means of coping with the loss of their primary drug. However, the study found some statistical support for the idea that alcohol use was linked to increased drug relapse. Particularly, the study found that participants in treatment for cocaine abuse had higher rates of successful recovery if they also abstained from alcohol. Additionally, some long-term effects were found; even six months later, participants who had begun drinking after leaving treatment had higher rates of return to cocaine.

As the study puts it: “Resolving one substance abuse problem makes it less likely that they will develop another.” This mirrors results from another RRI study, which found that individuals with one substance abuse disorder were twice as likely to develop another disorder.

Alcohol Use Takeaway

For individuals in recovery, then, the message seems clear: addiction is addiction. And recovery is recovery. It’s likely that, just as alcohol and drug abuse may share a similar framework, the mechanisms used to overcome one addiction are transferable to other addictions. This information may be helpful for those in recovery, their families, and the treatment centers they depend on for advice.

About the Author

Soberlink supports accountability for sobriety through a comprehensive alcohol monitoring system. Combining a breathalyzer with wireless connectivity, the portable design and technology includes facial recognition, tamper detection and real-time reporting. Soberlink proves sobriety with reliability to foster trust and peace of mind.

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