Many of us know it's not easy to cut back on something we enjoy, like drinking alcohol. It's an intrinsic part of our culture that plays a role in our social lives, from weddings to baby showers to even funerals. But researchers at the University College London have found mindfulness meditation can help curb alcohol cravings for heavy drinkers, without the need to quit.

After completing an 11-minute mindfulness training session, heavy drinkers had fewer drinks over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques. The mindfulness group had 9.3 fewer units, or the equivalent of 3 pints of beer, in the following week compared to the week prior to the study. There was no significant reduction in alcohol use among those who practiced relaxation techniques.

"By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving," said Dr. Sunjeev Kamboj, lead author of the study and part of the UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, in a statement.

Mindfulness can help drinkers achieve a heightened awareness of their feelings and bodily sensations to help them pay attention to their cravings rather than suppress them. Drinkers were told that if they notice their bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as "temporary events" without needing to act on them. In other words, this technique can help redirect focus on what's happening in the present moment.

Typically, mindfulness-based treatments can involve several hours of training over sessions. For example, a 2012 study found practicing 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day over 16 weeks can significantly lead to improvements in neural functioning linked to enhanced focused attention. The quality of our attention determines whether we're present and alert, or mentally and/or emotionally distracted, which can influence how much we do or do not drink.

In the study, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers sought to observe whether a brief intervention - an informal mindfulness meditation session lasting 11 minutes — could benefit people at risk for problems with alcohol. A total of 68 adults who drink heavily, but not to the point of having an alcohol use disorder, were separated into two groups: mindfulness training techniques and relaxation techniques. Half of them listened to an 11-minute audio recording that taught mindfulness training; the other half did relaxation training designed to reduce cravings. Both groups were encouraged to practice their respective techniques throughout the week.

The researchers note the study was double-blinded, which means people did not know what intervention they were being given. For example, the word "mindfulness" was not used in any recruitment or experimental materials. This would ensure drinkers' preconceived notions about the technique would not influence the study's findings.

Since the training sessions were both brief, researchers expected to see a small change in drinking habits, and small differences between the two groups. However, the mindfulness meditation group reaped more benefits than the relaxation group. Kamboj believes it's because mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges.

Also, the findings suggest limited mindfulness training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect if it's continually practiced. Kamboj and his colleagues believe its effects could extend to more than just alcohol.

"Our team is also looking into how mindfulness might help people with other substance use problems," said Shirley Serfaty, co-author of the study and part of UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology.

Mindfulness meditation can help heavy drinkers curb their drinking habits, especially since they're a group at risk for alcohol addiction and abuse. Moreover, excessive drinking can raise the risk of health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression, among many others. Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis affects every body system, although its effects can vary for each individual.

Reducing drinking with mindfulness meditation could help prevent more severe alcohol-related problems from developing.

Source: Kamboj SK, Irez D, Serfaty S et al. Ultra-Brief Mindfulness Training Reduces Alcohol Consumption in At-Risk Drinkers: A Randomized Double-Blind Active-Controlled Experiment. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017.