Most people don’t think about the process of withdrawal from alcohol other than the all-too-familiar hangover, but there is a significant period of physical and mental withdrawal from the drug. Alcohol detox is amongst the most dangerous of all commonly abused substances, and can be fatal in extreme conditions and without medical support. This depends on the severity of the drinking and whether there are additional complications. Finding out about the effects of alcohol withdrawal on the body and the different treatments that may be provided is essential to getting the right care for yourself or your loved one.
The alcohol we most commonly drink is referred to chemically as ethanol. Most people are familiar with the effects of alcohol, and they’re assumedly caused by the interactions ethanol has with various receptors in the brain. The theories with the most experimental support are that alcohol binds to glutamine and GABA receptors, as well as stimulating the production of dopamine and endorphins. By binding to those specific receptors, alcohol slows down the brain function, and by releasing two happy, soothing neurotransmitters it improves mood. However, it’s so easily soluble that it’s distributed all through the body and puts strains on organs such as your liver.
When an individual drinks heavily and frequently they develop alcoholism. Dopamine and endorphins are two neurotransmitters commonly acted upon by addictive substances, because they relieve stress and improve mood. Alcoholics continue to drink because their brains become dependent on these chemical pick-me-ups to feel “normal,” and in the process they are trashing their other organs. When the brain has adapted to deal with the constant influx of alcohol, removing it causes several withdrawal symptoms. These have to be managed during alcohol treatment.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can last for weeks, and vary in severity depending on the amount you drink. Most drinkers will experience depression, irritability, inability to think clearly, anxiety, mood swings and fatigue. There are also several additional symptoms that aren’t as common, such as insomnia, headaches, dilated pupils, tremors and loss of appetite. If you drink over 20 units per day, chances are you’ll need medical treatment during alcohol detox, and heavier drinkers should seriously consider inpatient detoxification.
The most severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms from alcohol fall under the heading of delirium tremens. This can involve tremors, hallucinations, seizures, irregular heartbeat, confusion, fear, sensitivity to light, decreased attention span and mood swings. There is the potential for seizures or an irregular heartbeat to have fatal consequences, and as a result you should consider delirium tremens a medical emergency. It is more common in people who drink over 20 units a day for a period of several months.
There are several medical treatments you could be offered during alcohol detox, such as benzodiazepines to manage the symptoms of withdrawal or other drugs to do things like reduce cravings. There are also some medications, such as disulfiram, which cause serious side effects when combined with alcohol. This helps individuals stop drinking, but doesn’t offer any comfort during withdrawal. The most important treatment during alcohol detoxification is psychological counselling, which addresses the root causes of you or your loved one’s drinking and helps you stay sober. This should continue well after the treatment for alcohol withdrawal has finished.