By Tracey Logan
Presenter, Health Check Alcoholism special
Meditation has had some positive effect
Problem drinkers attending the faith-based Alcoholics Anonymous groups are 30% more likely than others to remain sober for at least two years, according to research published this month.
The study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found their treatment also costs 30% less than conventional cognitive behavioural therapy.
According to lead researcher Dr Keith Humphreys, based at Stanford University, this is because it requires fewer hospital visits and admissions.
Up to 80% of alcohol dependent patients start drinking again within six months of a hospital detox.
So why do AA members have a better chance than average?
Dr Humphreys told the BBC's Health Check programme that many AA members point to the spiritual component of their 12-step programme as crucial in fighting the urge to drink.
Its non-doctrinal approach means people of all faiths - or no faith - can benefit.
Dr Humphreys said: "It used to be accepted dogma that there would never be a 12-step group in an Islamic country.
"But today I would bet that it is Brazil and Iran where 12-step groups are growing the fastest."
Last year a group of Iraqi clerics visited Britain, where Professor Sadar Sadiq, the country's National Advisor on Mental Health works as a practicing psychiatrist, to study approaches to alcohol treatment at first hand.
"They attended AA meetings and would like to implement it in Iraq," said Professor Sadiq.
"But with the conflict and lack of security our progress is very slow."
Professor Alan Marlatt of the University of Washington's Addictive Behaviours Centre, in Seattle, said other spiritual approaches must be developed to help alcoholics.
"Many people can't buy into AA's basic assumption that you're powerless and have to turn your individual decision making over to a 'higher power'."
An experiment in the benefits of Vipassana - or mindfulness - meditation at the nearby King County North Rehabilitation Facility offered the chance for Professor Marlatt to measure its effects among alcoholics and drug addicts.
The ten day programme required the prisoners to meditate silently for up to eleven hours a day.
He said: "We have a technique called urge surfing - you imagine that when the urge comes it is like an ocean wave.
"Starts small, gets bigger. You feel like you're going to be wiped out. But you use your breath as a surf board to ride the wave without giving in to it."
Not only did the meditating prisoners drink and take drugs less after their release, they were also less likely to be depressed or to re-offended than others.
Mindfulness meditation is a spiritual approach that requires no religious faith, said Professor Marlatt.
So is it just as effective a drug as conventional belief?
A painful experiment at Bowling Green State University in Ohio answered that question for psychology professor Kenneth Pargament.
He gave two groups of people two competing sets of mantras, one spiritual (ie: "God is love") and one secular ("grass is green") and timed how long each could keep their hands in a bowl of iced water.
His findings were published, in 2005, in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine.
"We found that spiritual meditators were able to tolerate the pain of the iced water for twice as long as the secular meditators. " he told Health Check.
"And we've replicated the study among people with migraine headaches, and people chanting the spiritual mantra experienced a much sharper decline in the number and severity of their headaches."
Similarly, ongoing research at the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind suggests religious people suffer less physical pain when focussing on religious images vs non-religious pictures.
Lack of definition
So what is stopping clinicians taking note? Partly the unscientific lack of definition of "spirituality".
A recent of 265 books and papers on the subject showed researchers can mean at least 15 different things by it.
And even if researchers did agree on what spirituality is, they don't yet know how it mediates its therapeutic effects in the brain.
In the past, the idea of a science of spirituality was a contradiction in terms and few would risk their reputations to study it.
But that is now changing - thanks in part to the example of recovering alcoholics of AA.
At a time of constrained health finances - especially in developing countries where alcoholism is rising fastest - an effective treatment programme that costs 30% less than usual is generating plenty of interest.
Professor Pargament said: "I think there are a number of scientists who have been sceptical but, like good scientists, have been persuaded by the data.
"And the data suggests that there are some really important links between spirituality and health and wellbeing."
Tracey Logan assesses the benefits of spiritual approaches to treatments for alcoholism in a special edition of Health Check on the BBC World Service. Click to listen here