Excessive alcohol use is a leading risk factor for premature death around the world. In the U.S., almost 90,000 people a year die from alcohol-related causes. Irresponsible use of alcohol is considered our country’s number one public health issue.
Adverse physical and mental health effects from excessive alcohol use can be deadly. Alcohol contributes to life-threatening conditions like heart and liver disease, diabetes, stroke, brain damage, and more. Research also confirms the link between heavy alcohol consumption and mental disorders leading to violence, self-harm, and permanent memory impairment.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Problem alcohol use was once referred to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependency, or alcoholism. Now known clinically as alcohol use disorder (AUD), it is recognized as a treatable chronic disease.
AUD may be diagnosed when a person can’t stop drinking even though alcohol consumption is causing negative consequences in their life. The drinker may be experiencing problems with their family and friends, at work or school, or with financial, health, or legal matters.
It’s not unusual for those with an AUD to deny that they have an alcohol problem or to recognize there is a problem but feel incapable of stopping the behavior. Sometimes, the fear of withdrawal symptoms prevents an individual from seeking the help they need.
Why Alcohol Cessation Causes Withdrawal Symptoms
To understand why withdrawal symptoms occur when individuals stop chronic drinking, it’s important to understand how alcohol affects the brain.
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing both physical and mental functions. Adverse effects may include impaired coordination, judgment, and memory, confusion, slurred speech, dizziness, nausea, low blood pressure, and dangerously slowed breathing.
Alcohol also triggers the motivation and pleasure center of the brain to release large amounts of dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals. Increased levels of these mood-regulating chemicals promote a greater sense of happiness, calm, and overall well-being which serves to reinforce the experience as “desirable” and worth repeating.
Although the body naturally increases dopamine production in reaction to a positive experience, alcohol causes unnaturally high levels to be released, causing a rush of euphoria and a more intense desire to repeat the behavior. “This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits,” states the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
As individuals consume high amounts of alcohol regularly, the brain adapts to its presence and remains in a state of overstimulation. As neural connectivity is damaged, the brain demands increasingly higher amounts of alcohol to deliver the desired effect. This is called tolerance, meaning the body is now physically dependent on the influx of alcohol.
If alcohol use stops once tolerance has developed, withdrawal symptoms can occur as the body fights to regain a natural balance.
Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on a number of factors, including age, duration, frequency, and amount of alcohol typically used, co-occurring physical or mental illnesses, concurrent use of prescription or illegal drugs, and any past withdrawal history.
Symptoms caused by alcohol withdrawal usually begin within 6 to 48 hours after heavy alcohol use stops, and typically peak within 72 hours. However, it’s possible for symptoms to continue for several weeks or longer.
Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe. Because certain symptoms can be life-threatening, withdrawal should always be medically supervised.
Alcohol withdrawal often includes at least two of the following:
- increased heart rate
- high blood pressure
About 5 percent of heavy, long-term alcohol users experience delirium tremens (DT) when they stop drinking. This is the most severe type of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and may include extreme confusion and agitation, seizures, hallucinations, and severe impairment of the circulatory and respiratory systems. Anyone undergoing DTs is experiencing a medical emergency and needs immediate help.
Don’t let fear of withdrawal stop you from recovery, however! There are many steps both you and your health professionals can take to ease withdrawal symptoms and increase your comfort as your body detoxifies from alcohol.
Start by talking to your doctor or addiction specialist for guidance and resources. If you have used large amounts of alcohol for a long time, also use prescription or illegal drugs, or have a co-occurring physical or mental disorder, it’s vital to be medically supervised throughout detoxification.
How Medical Professionals Help with Alcohol Withdrawal
To ensure you are safe and as comfortable as possible during detoxification, it is best to undergo treatment at a medical facility or addiction treatment center. Health professionals will make sure blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature remain within safe levels, keep you hydrated, and administer medications to ease the effects of withdrawal.
How to Ease Withdrawal Symptoms and Strengthen Your Recovery
Recovery is a life-long process. To be successful, you must determine your recovery goals and commit to doing what it takes to stick to those goals. Lifestyle changes you integrate into your recovery plan will keep you on track, enhance your quality of life, and prevent relapse.
Start by writing down all the reasons you’re quitting alcohol. List the ways alcohol has damaged your personal relationships, your work or school accomplishments, your health, your behavior, and more. Pinpoint your goals for the future. Write down all the details of the life you want and what you will do to obtain this life. These are your recovery goals.
As you undergo detox, and throughout your recovery journey, keep your recovery goals firmly in mind. Here are several ways to make withdrawal and recovery easier.
- Ask someone you trust to help you through the withdrawal and recovery process.
- Commit to a healthy diet. Drink about eight 8-oz glasses of water every day. During detox, it’s helpful to consume drinks containing electrolytes. Eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Try to eliminate caffeine, sugar and other refined carbs.
- Regularly attend AA or other support group meetings. Fellow members can offer valuable support during alcohol withdrawal, as well as help keep you on your recovery path.
- Practice yoga, meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, and regular exercise. All of these practices help reduce stress, create a sense of well-being, and improve both physical and mental health.
- Stay busy. Resume an old hobby or learn a new one. Listen to music, read or listen to positive and inspirational messages, and take a break from negative news or people.
- Stay away from people, locations, or situations that have triggered your drinking in the past. If you don’t have sober friends, make new ones through sober activities, support group members, or others. Meetup.com has many designated sober groups around the country and world.
- After you complete your treatment program, consider continuing therapy. It can be invaluable as you transition back into the “real” world. Commit to keeping all medical appointments and follow all medical directions.
An alcohol-free life can give back your health, your relationships, your self-respect and so much more. Don’t let fear over a short period of discomfort stop you from living a happy, productive life.
Contact BlueCrest Recovery Center today to learn more and to see how we can help you or a loved one succeed in recovery.
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Thomaso Skorupski, D.O.