Heavy alcohol use is an issue that affects nearly 6% of adults in the United States. Recent statistics show that approximately 29% of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 have used alcohol, and nearly 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related diseases and other issues.
If you suspect that your drinking has become an issue that you cannot control on your own, perhaps it’s time to talk to a treatment professional to determine your treatment options. Seeking medical counsel on this issue is wise, as the long-term effects of alcohol withdrawal can be downright dangerous, even fatal, if not properly managed.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
People experience withdrawal symptoms because alcohol has a significant effect on brain chemistry. Even one drink has the ability to suppress neurotransmitters in the brain, causing the familiar feeling of euphoria associated with drunkenness.
As you continue to use alcohol regularly and drink heavily over time, greater amounts of alcohol are needed to achieve the same euphoric effect. The brain attempts to perform its vital functions while being surrounded by large quantities of alcohol. As you attempt to quit drinking, neurotransmitters are no longer numb, and they become hyper-stimulated. This is what many of the withdrawal symptoms arise from as the body attempts to rebalance itself and find a natural state of calm once more.
The longer you have been using alcohol, the more likely it is that detox symptoms will be severe. The absence of alcohol in an understimulated brain makes the new normal even more impactful.
Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can start as early as two hours after you’ve had your last drink. Depending on the history of alcohol use and the quantity that was consumed, symptoms can range from mild to severe, needing hospitalization and supervision to withdraw successfully. Someone who has used alcohol for 20 years or more will notice symptoms much faster than one who hasn’t been drinking as long.
Withdrawal Timeline: Common Symptoms
While individual experiences may vary, many people undergoing withdrawal symptoms experience commonalities. The following covers a common timeline of symptoms.
In the first six to 12 hours, you may notice some of the following signs and symptoms that your body is beginning to detox:
- Agitation and extreme nervousness
Some more common symptoms experienced in the first 24 hours include:
- Hand tremors
48 Hours or More
Some of the more severe symptoms will begin to set in within the first 48 hours and after, including:
- Sweating, fever
- High blood pressure
- Delerium Tremens
Getting the right treatment is essential to overcoming the damaging effects that alcohol has had on your body and your life. A combination of therapies is needed for long-lasting results and success as you rebuild a life without drugs and alcohol.
Medical Intervention With Alcohol Use
Medical and pharmaceutical interventions, along with professional counseling and supervision, have been known to have significant positive impacts on treatment and a reduction of relapse incidents. Choosing the right program means incorporating all of these aspects of care and management so you can experience the best chance of recovery.
The Rationale Behind Pharmaceutical Intervention
It’s understandable that the thought of going through detox and withdrawal should incite feelings of anxiety and fear. As the majority of withdrawal symptoms are considered physical, the added stress of fear and anxiety exacerbates what people might experience if they were to opt for no medication. For that reason, many individuals seeking alcohol use treatment choose to add pharmaceutical interventions to their protocol to help them ease symptoms and reduce feelings of worry, anxiety, and other difficult emotions surrounding the process.
There are a variety of FDA-approved medications that are considered both safe and effective at helping manage alcohol detox and withdrawal, making the process more comfortable. As clients enter detox, a team of intake professionals will evaluate them on the basis of:
- Medical history
- Substance use history
- Physical and mental health
- Individual expectations and desires for treatment
Substance use experts will then prescribe approved medications that will alleviate or reduce symptom severity, promote feelings of calm well-being, and manage physical conditions and symptoms to ensure that detoxification and withdrawal unfold in a safe, manageable way.
Medications Often Used in Detox and Withdrawal Settings
With moderate to severe cases of alcohol withdrawal, your team of detox professionals may administer a number of medications to help ease symptoms and provide you with a more comfortable experience. Failing to take advantage of the treatment options provided by pharmaceutical intervention may have a future impact on the withdrawal process. The following medications have been known to have significant positive effects on people undergoing detoxification and withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety and panic, as well as to control certain types of seizures. This class of sedative medications helps to manage a significant portion of the more uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Some of the more common brand-name benzodiazepines used in treatment include Librium and Valium. Longer-acting forms of these drugs are the first-line defense against seizures, while shorter-acting formulas play a vital role in helping improve symptoms for the elderly and those with chronic liver issues.
Anticonvulsants are another option for clients looking to minimize seizure activity. The anticonvulsant can be used as a replacement for benzodiazepines or alongside them for even better results. The anticonvulsant class of drugs has less potential for use and abuse than benzodiazepines, but they do not prevent delirium tremens or grand-mal seizures that can occur during withdrawal from heavy drinking. Anticonvulsants commonly prescribed for alcohol withdrawal include carbamazepine.
Barbiturates are a unique class of pharmaceuticals that are used to treat withdrawal symptoms in cases where benzodiazepines are not effective. These drugs are most often used in emergency withdrawal situations. Studies to determine the specific effects of barbiturates on the brain and the role they play in detox and withdrawal are ongoing.
Otherwise known as Antabuse, this drug prohibits the body from metabolizing alcohol as expected. With regular use, disulfiram will cause very unpleasant side effects when someone attempts to consume even small amounts of alcohol.
As prescribed, disulfiram will cause various side effects in combination with alcohol:
- Extreme anxiety
- Flushed face
- Blurred vision
These side effects are designed to discourage clients from drinking and could even lead them to psychologically associate these symptoms with drinking. Side effects of disulfiram could last one to two hours after alcohol has left the body. For those who are resistant to the treatment options, the use of disulfiram has been proven effective at discouraging drinking and even craving alcohol.
Naltrexone was originally designed to treat individuals with opioid addiction and substance use disorders, but the FDA determined it was also effective in treating symptoms of alcohol dependence and withdrawal. Reports from clients reveal that their urge to drink was significantly reduced. This allowed them to abstain from toxic behaviors, such as seeking out alcohol and drinking when obtaining alcohol was easier.
Acamprosate is used to help restore balance to the central nervous system between glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid. As inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters are balanced, you don’t feel the desire to experience “a high,” and cravings for alcohol and other substances are reduced. Unlike other substances, such as naltrexone and disulfiram, acamprosate is not metabolized by the liver, so it is more easily assimilated by those with hepatitis and liver disease.
Natural Supplements Used in Alcohol Withdrawal
In their quest to clean house and detox more naturally, some clients choose to opt for natural supplements, minerals, and vitamins as a means of minimizing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Some of the most commonly used supplements in the treatment of alcohol use withdrawal include:
DL-phenylalanine is a naturally occurring amino acid in the body that plays a vital role in the health and proper function of the nervous system. A body that is deficient in this amino acid is more likely to experience confusion, fatigue, memory issues, and reduced appetite. Incorporating DL-phenylalanine into a treatment protocol can help with feelings of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other emotional triggers that may lead to alcohol cravings.
L-glutamine is another excellent supplement for anyone trying to reduce alcohol consumption. This naturally occurring amino acid is a building block for brain chemicals that help quell anxiety and depression. Adding L-glutamine into treatment helps to naturally boost mood and reduce withdrawal symptoms that may lead to relapse.
Individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol are deficient in B-complex vitamins. Vitamin B deficiencies lead to weight loss, fatigue, irritability, and, in extreme cases, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, known as wet brain. Increasing your B vitamin levels will boost mood and improve energy levels, reducing the urge to drink.
Taurine is yet another amino acid that easily breaks down acetaldehyde levels. This toxic element is produced as a by-product when your body breaks down alcohol. Studies of those who incorporated taurine supplements into their treatment revealed that they experienced fewer severe withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinations and delirium tremens.
Glycine is an amino acid that is used to create protein in the body. This is an especially good supplement to take if you have incurred alcohol-related liver issues. Glycine is helpful in treating both alcoholic cirrhosis and alcoholic hepatitis, two common liver disorders that result from heavy drinking. Taking glycine as a proactive measure can offset the long-term effects of drinking.
DHM is an herbal remedy that is often used to soothe hangovers. Another little-known benefit of DHM is its ability to metabolize alcohol faster, thus removing it from the body in less time. Recent studies point to DHM and its ability to reduce both fat accumulation and inflammation in the liver as well, guarding against alcohol-related liver issues.
Milk thistle is an herb that is native to the Mediterranean. Long used to treat a variety of illnesses, its most significant achievement is helping to protect the liver against free radical damage. Milk thistle is available in tincture, tablet, and tea form, making it simple to incorporate into your treatment protocol.
Take an Active Role in Your Recovery
Taking an active role in your recovery process gives you the power to make decisions that will help sculpt a healthier, happier life after treatment. As you ponder the various options for detoxification and treatment, take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of medical professionals who can lead you through the ups and downs to see a brighter future ahead.
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