How to Detoxify From AlcoholAnna Ciulla
No matter how confident you are that you can handle your liquor, when it comes to drinking alcohol –especially when you find yourself doing it more and more often—this may be an indication that your social drinking is getting out of hand. Indeed, excessive alcohol use is responsible for approximately 88,000 premature deaths per year. Furthermore, an estimated 14.5 million people had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2017, according to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Maybe you’ve already crossed over from casual drinking to everyday drinking, even binge drinking on occasions. While you might not be a heavy drinker just yet and need formal alcohol detox, it could be a smart move to consider detoxifying from alcohol. How do you do it? As it turns out, there are several methods to consider.
REDUCING QUANTITY, FREQUENCY AND ALCOHOLIC CONTENT
One route many people who make a conscious decision to curb their drinking is to set limits for how much, how often and what amount of alcohol is in the drinks they do consume. The method is a type of tapering, although not in the clinical sense. Self-limiting alcohol consumption does take a certain amount of discipline, yet it is the quickest, most inexpensive and socially acceptable method. It is not, however, a way to detoxify from alcohol. That requires complete cessation of alcoholic consumption. Yet, limiting drinking is a good first step toward the goal of detoxifying from alcohol. For one thing, it puts you in the right frame of mind. For another, it’s something you can do on your own. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to ditch your good intentions the minute friends invite you to a party or you’ve had a bad day and feel like you need to belt back a few to forget your troubles.
GOING COLD TURKEY – QUITTING ALCOHOL ABRUPTLY
Giving up alcohol altogether and all at once is a way of detoxifying from alcohol known as going cold turkey. You may be among the fortunate who are able to go through the process safely and without too much inconvenience or negative consequences. Then again, you may not be so lucky.
The most serious consequence of trying to go cold turkey from alcohol is the onset of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS). This involves a cluster of symptoms that include anxiety, headache, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, shaking, and may even include the onset of delirium tremens (DTs), a potentially fatal condition. The longer you’ve been drinking, the more dangerous it is to attempt to detoxify from alcohol on your own.
In addition to having to cope with unpleasant, painful and possibly life-threatening complications when trying to detoxify from alcohol at home, you’re less likely to be successful in your attempt to get clean and sober. What’s to stop you from giving up on your intention to detox and going back to drinking? Not only that, but who’s going to be around to get you emergency medical help if you need it? Most family members and friends are ill-equipped, as are you, to deal with such eventualities.
COMMON STEPS FOR ALCOHOL SELF-DETOX
Deciding to quit. This is the first part of the self-detox process. Quitting drinking is a big decision, one you’ve likely thought about it for a while. Next, create a goal with specific completion dates. For example, if you’re quitting completely, write down the date you’re going to quit.
You should also let others know your intentions to quit. These include loved ones, family members and friends. Ask for their support and encouragement as you undertake alcohol detox.
Next, go through your home and get rid of all alcohol— no exceptions!
You may wish to consider attending a 12-step support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous at this point.
Getting ready to self-detox. Check with your doctor first. You may have a medical condition that makes quitting alcohol on your own too risky, or your drinking may be too severe to risk the complications that may occur. At the very least, your doctor may prescribe medications to make the detox easier, and/or recommend you take certain vitamins and supplements.
Arrange for someone to stay with you during your self-detox. This entails the person being with you all during at least the first 3 days, and then regularly checking in to see how you are for about a week.
Educate yourself about the risks and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so you know what to expect.
In line with this, be sure your support person (the one who will stay with you during your detox) knows when he or she should call for emergency help. Examples include a high fever, convulsions or seizures, hallucinations, severe and constant vomiting or dry heaves, violent outbursts, extreme agitation, or delirium tremens (DTs).
Stock the house with plenty of food and water, especially fresh vegetables and fruits, high-protein foods such as fish, chicken and peanut butter, soup (chicken soup is best), and only the vitamins and supplements your doctor recommends.
Since you have to allow for about a week for the self-detox process, make sure you’ve asked for and received time off from work, and/or notified school of your upcoming absence, made arrangements for child care or other household responsibilities.
Starting the detox. Now that you’re beginning the self-detox process, take some time to journal or write down why you want to quit drinking. Why do this? When the going gets rough during some intense withdrawal symptoms, reading what you wrote can help maintain your motivation.
Meditation can help you weather some of the extreme cravings to drink. Focusing on the present, instead of thinking about how miserable you are, being grateful for the good things in your life, and established mindfulness meditation can work wonders for your morale and boost motivation.
Drink lots of water. Vomiting and diarrhea cause dehydration. You must replenish those lost fluids and water is the best source.
Make sure to eat— even if you don’t want to. Eat small meals, just so you’re getting nutrition you need as the alcohol leaves your system.
Go outside for fresh air and sunshine. Combine this with exercise, such as a short walk, to boost your emotional outlook.
Engage in conversation with your aide/support individual to let him/her know how you’re feeling.
Once the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal subside, you may still have intense cravings. Many people try to self-detox from alcohol give up at this point and return to drinking. Recognize that you may need additional help in the form of a medically supervised detox to get past this hurdle.
After self-detox. It’s important to recognize that you may still have some residual effects for some time to come. These include irritability, insomnia and headaches.
Coming to grips with why you needed to drink is an area you should explore with the help of counseling. Even if you don’t attend formal alcohol treatment, seeking the help of a therapist can help you sort things out, map out your goals, and maintain your commitment to sobriety.
Another excellent way to continue being sober is to join and regularly attend 12-step meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
Finally, you’ll need to learn how to effectively manage cravings. This includes avoiding triggers, practicing distraction, becoming comfortable turning down a drink, talking with supportive people about your cravings (such as your 12-step sponsor), and reminding yourself why you wanted to quit drinking in the first place, as well as what you want for your life going forward.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING ALCOHOL DETOX?
When considering how to detoxify from alcohol, it’s important to know what to expect during the process. What actually happens may be quite different than what you believe will occur. Some of your misinformation may have come from friends who’ve tried and failed to detox themselves, or you may have gotten bad advice from various online forums about how to get off alcohol. What you need to know right away is that, depending on how severe your drinking problem has become, it’s not going to be easy to just stop drinking and get alcohol out of your system. You may, indeed, need professional alcohol detox.
Suppose, though, that your drinking is of the more moderate kind, and you haven’t suffered any major negative consequences as a result of your drinking. What are some of the symptoms you’re likely to experience during alcohol detox— whether you decide to self-detox or get help from professionals in a medically monitored alcohol detox facility?
Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal
When you’re in the process of detoxifying from alcohol, there are a number of withdrawal symptoms to be aware of. Some are minor annoyances, things you can probably tolerate without too much distress. Others, however, may be more intense – even to the point of being unbearable. How much you can withstand before going back to drinking to stop the withdrawal symptoms from alcohol leaving your system is not something you can predict. Even if you’ve detoxed on your own from alcohol before, this time may be different. You may have been drinking longer, or more frequently, even constantly. You may have become so dependent on alcohol that you have to have a drink just to feel normal. If so, your signs of alcohol withdrawal and accompanying symptoms will be worse.
Some of the signs of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Increased heartrate
Severe withdrawal symptoms can include hallucinations, seizures, severe confusion, DTs, even death.
How Long Alcohol Withdrawal Takes
There’s no exact way to know how long it will take for alcohol withdrawal, especially since what happens during the detox process depends on multiple factors having to do with the individual— including how long he or she has been drinking, age, weight, presence of any co-occurring medical and/or mental health conditions, family history of drinking, prior attempts at alcohol detox or treatment, alcohol relapse and more. In general, however, alcohol withdrawal can last anywhere from 24-72 hours or several weeks or longer. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol detox averages less than 8 days.
Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal start to appear within 6 hours. Moderate ones occur between 6-12 hours after the last drink (nausea, vomiting, insomnia, etc.). Some individuals experience visual or auditory alcohol hallucinations between 12-24 hours. The onset of brief seizures may occur between 24-48 hours, but they can happen much more quickly in cases of chronic drinkers or alcoholics. Peak alcohol withdrawal symptoms set in between 48-72 hours and may include DTs. Symptoms begin to fade after 72 hours, although some symptoms can remain for weeks after alcohol detox is completed. It’s important to note that cravings for alcohol can persist for months or years after alcohol detox and subsequent treatment (if any).
WHAT HAPPENS DURING MEDICALLY MONITORED ALCOHOL DETOX?
For heavy or chronic drinkers, functional alcoholics, and those who are addicted to alcohol (with diagnosable alcohol use disorder), the recommendation from addiction treatment experts is to go through medically monitored alcohol detox at an accredited drug and alcohol treatment facility. The goal of medically monitored alcohol detox and treatment is to provide a detoxification experience that is safe and effective for those who desire to completely get off alcohol. There is a process that the medical professionals follow to help ensure the best possible detox outcomes— minimizing any pain and discomfort from alcohol withdrawal symptoms as well as tending to any co-occurring medical and/or psychological issues that need to be addressed.
Medical and clinical assessment – This is a complete and thorough review of medical and clinical issues or problems that is undertaken before proceeding to alcohol detox.
Treatment plan customized to meet needs – Upon completion of the medical and clinical assessment, the treatment professionals will prepare a plan for treatment that is designed to meet your individual needs.
Round-the-clock medical supervision of alcohol withdrawal symptoms – Treatment professionals are by your side 24/7 to monitor your progress through alcohol detox. Their express goal is to help ensure your comfort and safety during detox and minimize painful, uncomfortable and/or serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) – You may experience strong cravings for alcohol, so intense, in fact, that you may consider leaving treatment. Addiction psychiatrists can help you handle these strong cravings with medication-assisted treatment, an evidence-based use of medications to minimize and reduce alcoholic cravings.
Dual diagnosis treatment (for co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders) – If you currently have clinical anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) or other diagnosed (or just diagnosed) mental health disorders, the alcohol detox and treatment professionals can provide appropriate simultaneous treatment to address those conditions.
Clinical interventions that are evidence-based for effectiveness and safety – Medical professionals have an array of treatment modalities to employ that have proven effective in assisting those who are detoxing from alcohol and going on to treatment.
12-step group participation and other therapies – As soon as you are medically able to take part, you will be introduced to 12-step groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) and other treatment therapies designed to speed your recovery and get you back to feeling normal and functioning in everyday life without the crutch of alcohol.
No-cost family therapy and support available – Getting a handle on your problems with alcohol isn’t only your responsibility. Your family also needs to learn about alcohol and what it does to the person and everyone affected by your drinking. Family therapy and support is an invaluable tool in your recovery from alcohol detox and treatment.
For more about alcohol detox, withdrawal and recovery, check out these articles:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Fact Sheets — Moderate Drinking.” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
- Healthline. “Alcohol Withdrawal: Cold-Turkey Dangers.” Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/cold-turkey-alcohol-withdrawal-can-cause-serious-health-issues#1
- Mayo Clinic. “Alcohol Poisoning.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20354386
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64115/
- The JAMA Network. “Screening and Behavioral Counseling Interventions to Reduce Unhealthy Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Adults.” Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2714537