According to a 2015 report by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), about 15.1 million adults in the United States struggled with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Excessive drinking is a serious problem that leads to 88,000 deaths every year and people who drink excessively cut an average of 30 years off their lives. Overcoming AUD and binge drinking is important for short- and long-term health. But quitting alcohol, and undergoing alcohol detox isn’t easy. People who drink a lot for months or years are at risk of withdrawal symptoms because the brain has become dependent on the presence of alcohol to regulate the body and emotions.
The Science Behind Alcohol Dependence
Individuals addicted to alcohol may feel like they have to drink to feel normal, not overly anxious, or calm in social settings, or to get to sleep.
Alcohol activates the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. A neurotransmitter, GABA is one of the most important chemicals in the brain, and it’s highly involved in signaling among neurons. Alcohol mimics GABA and slows the brain’s processes. This slowing leads to intoxication and symptoms like slurred speech, slow thinking and reaction times, weakness, sleepiness and pleasant relaxation.
Alcohol dependency means the brain doesn’t produce enough GABA to safely regulate neurons. This leads to withdrawal symptoms like physical shaking, anxiety, jumpiness, insomnia, headaches, irritability and rapid heartbeat.
Withdrawal Can Be Dangerous
Withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable — and some can be life-threatening. This means detoxing at home is risky, not just because you’re more likely to relapse back into alcohol use, but also because you might need hospitalization or may even die.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Physical shaking
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat and breathing rate
Should You Detox Cold Turkey?
Without medical supervision, withdrawal symptoms will feel intense. They typically begin six hours to three days after the last drink. If a person tries to quit “cold turkey,” the symptoms may cause them to return to drinking — or relapse — in order to cope, which puts them at risk of alcohol poisoning.
A person may also develop alcohol withdrawal syndrome or delirium tremens (DTs) — life-threatening conditions that can lead to lasting harm and even death.
Symptoms of DT’s
- Sudden, severe confusion (delirium)
- Tremors all over the body
- Changes in cognition and mental function
- Extreme agitation and mood swings
- Fear or paranoia
- Bursts of energy followed by extreme fatigue
- Restlessness and excitability
- Sensitivity to light, touch, sounds, and other sensory input
- Stupor, or appearing conscious without response
Long-term alcohol abusers are at a greater risk for DTs. Resulting seizures, paranoia and hallucinations are dangerous and require hospitalization if they occur. This will likely happen 12-48 hours after the person stops consuming alcohol.
Why Medically Supervised Alcohol Detox Is The Best Course Of Action
With medical supervision at an inpatient facility, the detox process is manageable and can help the brain to relearn to produce GABA without the presence of alcohol.
Medical supervision also helps prevent relapse, which can lead to overdose and death, as well as reduce discomfort and risk, and help individuals overcome their physical dependence on alcohol. In fact, most people who develop alcohol withdrawal syndrome recover with supervised medical treatment and therapy. But the first step is simply to seek treatment.
If you’d like more information about alcohol detox, contact the team at Landmark Recovery today. We offer medical detoxification, residential treatment, IOP and more. Let us help you begin your transition to sobriety today.
About The Author
Freelance writer D.D. Kullman is a tennis player, snow skier, animal lover and early tech adopter. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, Joe, and Sheltie, Koko and is an adjunct instructor at Grand Canyon University.