What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol is a drug and affects your body by stimulating receptors in your brain called GABA receptors. These receptors have many effects, but they play an important role in reducing anxiety and slowing bodily systems.
When someone uses alcohol over a prolonged period, the brain adjusts by reducing the number of GABA receptors and the sensitivity of these receptors. This means that when alcohol is no longer in the body, there are not enough GABA receptors for the brain to function normally without alcohol. This leads to withdrawal symptoms, which will last until the brain can readjust to the absence of alcohol.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline
While the timeline for alcohol withdrawal will vary based on the individual, alcohol withdrawal symptoms are typically broken down into three stages:
- Stage 1, 6–12 hours: Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will typically begin within six to eight hours after the last drink. The alcohol level in the brain drops below the normal threshold, which initially causes mild withdrawal symptoms. Nausea and insomnia may occur, as well as anxiety and mood changes.
- Stage 2, 12–48 hours: If alcohol withdrawal is less severe, symptoms may start to resolve within this timeframe. For those who will have more serious withdrawal symptoms, this timeframe will bring symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, high temperature and a worsening of stage one symptoms.
- Stage 3, 48–72 hours: Stage three is when the most dangerous symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may occur. Delirium tremens (DT) is one of the most serious possible side effects that may happen at this time. DT involves shaking, hallucinations, agitation and causes you to forget what you’re doing. DT also increases your risk of seizures during this stage.
Can You Die From Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous drug withdrawals, and you are more likely to die withdrawing from alcohol than you are withdrawing from drugs like methamphetamine or heroin.
If symptoms become severe, alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous because it increases the risk of seizures. GABA receptors naturally suppress the likelihood of a seizure occurring, so low GABA levels make seizures more likely. Seizures can lead to severe harm, especially if you are alone.
Another significant danger is delirium tremens (DT). DT increases the risk of seizures and causes agitation and hallucinations that are often uncontrollable. DT not only increases the risk of harm to the person withdrawing, but also to those around them. Statistics show that over one-third of people who have DT and do not get treatment will die.
Detoxing From Alcohol at Home
Detoxing from alcohol at home is not recommended for people with more severe alcohol addictions, due to the risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. People with milder alcohol addictions may detox at home, but should always discuss it with their doctor or treatment provider prior to doing so. There are several important strategies that can improve your home detox experience.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking water is important for everyone, but especially during detox. You will likely sweat more during detox, making water replacement important. Staying hydrated will also help to keep your kidneys healthy, allowing them to properly filter out toxins, and will keep you in optimal health as your body undergoes the tension that detox creates.
Related Topic: Why Does Alcohol Make You Pee?
Eat a Healthy Diet
Your diet can provide you with the nutrients that you need to be in optimal health. Detox will create strain on your body, and eating healthy, nutritious meals will help you cope with the strain that withdrawal may place on your body. Be sure to avoid sugary foods during withdrawal and eat full, balanced meals.
Take Vitamins and Supplements
Alcohol use depletes your body of important vitamins, many of which are necessary for your health. Taking vitamins and supplements that are recommended during withdrawal will help to restore the deficiencies that alcohol use has caused, improving your ability to go through withdrawal.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Withdrawal often causes insomnia. When you are tired, you typically have less ability to control impulses, making it more difficult to continue through an alcohol detox. By getting as much rest as possible, you will be best equipped to tolerate potential insomnia and avoid the negative effects that lack of sleep has on your impulses.
Related Topic: How to Sleep Without Alcohol
During the middle of detox, it is easy to give up, and being alone can make it more difficult to resist these impulses. Having the support of someone who has recovered from alcohol use disorder or who is trained to support you during withdrawal will improve your chances of successfully completing your detox.
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to decrease alcohol craving symptoms and help, both during the process of withdrawal and when pursuing long-term sobriety. By practicing meditation or mindfulness, you may be better equipped to overcome alcohol cravings and succeed during your home alcohol detox.
Monitor Symptoms Closely
Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous types of withdrawal. While many people prefer detoxing at home to seeking professional help, you should be very careful to monitor your symptoms closely and seek medical help if necessary.
When Medical Supervision is Recommended
Ultimately, medical supervision is recommended when severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms are possible. The criteria for required medical supervision are very individual-specific, and anyone considering alcohol detox should consult with their doctor or rehab facility on what is best for them.
Medical supervision will usually be recommended if any of these apply to you:
- You’ve used heavy amounts of alcohol.
- You’ve used alcohol for a long time.
- You’ve previously experienced delirium tremens (DT)
- You’ve relapsed after detox before
While you may be able to do an alcohol detox at home, you should always check with your doctor beforehand.
If you are at risk for moderate to severe alcohol symptoms, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. Our medical experts can provide you with the support and medical care you need to cope with alcohol withdrawal and ultimately achieve sobriety. Contact us to get started on your recovery.
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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.