Alcoholics Anonymous may be the most effective path to abstinence, study says

Mar 11, 2020, 6:16 AM
Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its 75th anniversary. Also known as AA it was founded by Bill Wilso...
Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its 75th anniversary. Also known as AA it was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in June 1935 in Akron Ohio. It has become a worldwide movement spread out with over 100,000 groups with 2 million members in 150 countries. The two books primarily used are called Alcoholics Anonymous (the "Big Book ") and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, explaining AA"s fundamental principles. Meetings are informal such as the one started in Paris in 1960 at the American Church at 65 quai dÕOrsay for English speakers such as the US military which led to the first French speaking group 50 years ago in the same room (photo). The WHO estimates that over 140 million people globally are affected by alcoholism. The International AA Convention will be held July 1-4, 2010 in San Antonio,Texas. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Alcoholics Anonymous, a worldwide support fellowship with a goal to achieve sobriety, may be the most effective path to abstinence for people struggling with alcohol use disorder, according to a comprehensive analysis published Wednesday.

Since its inception in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous and its effects were hard to study in the absence of adequate study methods, said Dr. Keith Humphreys, study researcher and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. AA may have also been contentious among professionals who were trained to address the same issues through established therapies.

The researchers evaluated 35 studies — the work of 145 scientists and more than 10,000 participants — to determine the effectiveness of AA on alcohol use disorder. They also examined the efficacy of the program’s 12 steps, that include accepting one’s inability to control their drinking by themselves, and helping others stay sober by becoming a mentor.

AA, especially when combined with Twelve-Step Facilitation in which a counselor encouraged adherence to the steps, was found to be more effective than psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy in achieving abstinence, according to the research. AA was also found to be at least as effective as professional treatments for other alcohol-related outcomes such as drinking consequences, drinking intensity, addiction severity and healthcare costs.

With more than three million alcohol-related deaths globally, and its misuse as the leading risk factor for death (PDF) and disability among 15- to 59-year olds worldwide, studies for treatment responses to these issues are needed, the review said.

“An advantage that AA has over the kind of therapies I was trained to do, is that people can persist in it a very long time, which gives them a better shot at recovery because you could literally go to AA everyday for years and years and years if you wanted to,” Humphreys said.

“That may be better matched with chronic disease than short-term interventions the health care system usually gives.”

Why Alcoholics Anonymous works for some

Alcoholics Anonymous in combination with the 12 step facilitation may work for achieving and sustaining sobriety by the social support, inspiration and availability it can provide.

When people embark on a lifestyle of abstinence, they might begin to feel lonely because they no longer have their friends who were drinking with them, Humphreys said. AA groups can provide the insular resilience members may need when situations arise that could potentially trigger them, so they can continue on the path to sustained sobriety.

“I care about the people I’ve taken care of, but I can’t be their friend,” Humphreys said. “I can’t stick with them through the years and the troubles and divorces and all the things that happen in life, and AA is there for people as long as they need it, potentially for a lifetime.”

AA can also instill hope in members in a way that is different than what professionals can do, Humphreys said.

“I can say to someone, ‘Believe me, you can have a better life than what you’ve got right now,’ but it’s pretty powerful when someone says, ‘I’m not just telling you that, I had your life. Look at me — I’m also an alcoholic, and I’m having a really good life. If I could do it, you could do it,’ ” Humphreys said.

The fact that AA is free, widely available and doesn’t require any forms or health insurance may also contribute to its efficacy. Members can attend as many times as they wish, as there are no financial or scheduling barriers that reside within having to attend therapy appointments.

Though the social benefits of AA are helpful for recovery, there still exists the need to overcome the brain’s addiction to alcohol as a reward.

AA can “help people create senses of worth and value that occur in the brain and don’t center around alcohol, retraining the brain to live differently” and replacing alcohol as an immediate reward, Humphreys said.

It might not work for everyone a

There are a number of factors the review doesn’t address, such as psychological well-being, overall health, efficacy for adolescents and whether a person was struggling with a co-occurring, serious mental disorder along with alcohol use disorder, said Dr. Jennifer Plumb Vilardaga, clinical psychologist at Duke University Health, who was not involved with the review.

“We don’t know whether AA is tackling those in a better way, the same way or worse than other programs,” Vilardaga said. “As a psychologist myself, my read of the literature is that if you have a significant mental health issue, you’re still better off seeking professional counseling to address your alcohol as well as your mental health concerns.”

Combining the professional counseling from cognitive behavioral therapy with the social support of AA could be helpful for people in these circumstances, Vilardaga said.

AA was slightly more effective for women than men, which might be surprising since AA was developed by men, and the population of people struggling with alcohol problems is more male than female, Humphreys said.

“If you look at the steps, in a lot of ways it is not an endorsement of stereotypical male traits — it’s just the opposite,” Humphreys said. “It says stop being so selfish and arrogant, do a better job in relationships, be responsible for other people, be honest about your emotions. And those are messages that, broadly speaking with lots of exceptions, may resonate more with women than men.”

Previous studies suggest AA may have an “abstinence violation effect,” in that if members slip up and drink again, they’ll overindulge and backtrack in their progress. The review, published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Review, found otherwise, that AA was just as effective as reducing drinking or harms of drinking.

“I think the take-home message is that if you feel like an AA approach works for you and you want a community of people who can help you focus on abstinence, this is the way to go,” Vilardaga said.

“But if you do not prefer this model, the concept of a higher power or any of the other elements of AA aren’t a good fit, I don’t want people to be discouraged. There are many good treatment options available and there is really good evidence to support things like medication.”

™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories


A bill on transgender healthcare — banning transgender-related surgeries and puberty blockers for...
Eliza Pace, KSL TV and Aimee Cobabe, KSL NewsRadio

Utah Senate approves changes to transgender care bill, passes on to Gov. Cox

SB16 bans gender-confirming surgeries for minors and also places a moratorium on puberty blockers for minors.
3 days ago
Havasu Falls spills into the water pools below in Supai, Arizona, in October of 2016. Photo credit:...
Forrest Brown, CNN

Grand Canyon’s Havasu Falls to reopen to visitors after 3-year closure

 (CNN) — Havasu Falls, one of the most intriguing features of the Grand Canyon system, will be reopening to visitors after a three-year closure caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But it’s with a catch. The reopening is scheduled for February 1; however, access will be limited initially to a certain, small group. People whose previous […]
3 days ago
White carnations representing each of the 1,746 unborn babies that were aborted in Utah in 2022 are...
Allessandra Harris and Simone Seikaly

Speeches, silence, during Pro-Life Utah memorial at the Capitol

About 100 people including Utah lawmakers and religious leaders attended the memorial on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
4 days ago
 A mental health clinic will reopen on Thursday after a carbon monoxide leak sent at least 17 peop...
Michael Locklear

Carbon monoxide poisoning at central Utah clinic hospitalizes 17 people

The Central Utah Counseling Center in Ephraim was evacuated a week ago after a problem with an old furnace was discovered.
5 days ago
a row of guns are pictured...
Mark Jones

KSL at Night: How do we solve gun violence?

KSL at Night hosts Taylor Morgan and Maura Carabello speak with Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council about gun violence.
6 days ago
Prescription opioid...
Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN

Amazon launches $5-a-month unlimited prescription plan

Some of the generic drugs included in the program include Bupropion, Cephalexin, Doxycycline, Estradiol and Sertaline.
6 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Alcoholics Anonymous may be the most effective path to abstinence, study says