You’re done, finished, no more booze for you. After several mistakes and dumb decisions, you’ve decided to put down the bottle forever and never drink again. You’re going to quit cold turkey for your health, your family, and yourself. Most of that sounds fantastic except for the quitting cold-turkey part. Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, changes the way our brains and bodies function, and quitting cold turkey can be put your health in extreme danger due to alcohol withdrawal.
Let’s learn why quitting alcohol cold turkey is a dangerous idea, what withdrawal symptoms you can expect, and the best way to ensure a safe and comfortable detox. Quitting drinking is a great decision but only if you do it safely.
What Happens During Alcohol Withdrawal?
Think of your brain as a big electrical grid – that’s not too far from the truth. Your brain sends electrical impulses and chemical signals, known as neurotransmitters, to keep you functioning. When alcohol is introduced to your brain it has a hard time controlling the release and regulation of these different signals which you experience as intoxication. That’s fine for casual drinkers but alcoholics can drink so much that they rewire their brain to believe the flood of neurotransmitters is normal. This is when the danger begins.
Once your brain and body have become chemically dependent the flood of alcohol is how your brain thinks things are supposed to be. A boozed-up brain becomes the new normal. When you take alcohol away, your body and brain believe something has gone terribly wrong since it’s not getting its normal influx and will act accordingly with withdrawal symptoms. Electrical impulses go haywire, presenting several symptoms.
Mild Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
- Upset stomach
- Shaky hands
- Trouble focusing
- Sleep Problems
Severe Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Severe symptoms kick in around 48 to 96 hours after the last drink. If you experience any of the following symptoms you should seek professional help immediately.
- Delirium Tremens – Also known as the shakes or simply DTs. DTs are a collection of severe symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal. Many of the symptoms below are part of DTs.
- Skyrocketing Heartrate – Skyrocketing heart rate can cause a heart attack
- Skyrocketing Blood Pressure – Rising blood pressure can lead to stroke
- Psychosis and Hallucinations – Those quitting alcohol have reported seeing snakes, pink elephants, hearing voices, and felt bugs crawling on them.
- Seizure – Out of control electrical impulses can easily lead to seizures
- Coma – Severe symptoms can cause your body to shut down
- Death – Alcohol withdrawal can and will kill
How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?
Acute alcohol withdrawal can kick in just a few hours after your last drink. Most acute withdrawal symptoms weaken after a few days though some can experience symptoms for multiple weeks. The slow progression of symptoms makes alcohol withdrawal more dangerous since many think they’re out of the woods and don’t seek professional help soon enough.
Factors in Alcohol Withdrawal
Anyone who’s chemically dependent has the potential to experience severe withdrawal symptoms but three distinct factors determine the likelihood of dangerous withdrawal.
Years of Alcohol Abuse
The longer you abused alcohol the more likely you will face severe withdrawal symptoms. There’s no set number of years that ‘turns on’ severe symptoms but the longer your brain as been swimming in booze, the more chemically dependent your brain and body are.
How Much Alcohol Consumed
The amount of alcohol consumed over your ‘drinking career’ also plays a part in determining symptoms. Someone who drank 4 to 5 beers daily is less likely to experience severe symptoms compared to someone who drank a fifth of liquor every day. Again, withdrawal is about chemical dependence. The more alcohol you consume regularly, the more dependent your body becomes.
How Many Times Have You Detoxed Before?
The number of times someone has detoxed and relapsed also plays a role in symptoms. Every time your brain and body become chemically dependent and then withdraws your they become more sensitive to chemical changes in a process known as kindling. A few cycles of sobriety and relapse will greatly increase your chances of more severe symptoms. Alcoholics who have yo-yoed on their sobriety must seek professional help to avoid the dangers of kindling.
Treating Alcohol Withdrawal
How do you treat a dangerous alcohol withdrawal? At a licensed and reputable alcohol detox or treatment center. Every treatment center is different but most use drug therapy, nutrition and supplements, and counseling.
To keep your brain from going off the rails, treatment centers use a tapering treatment, also known as stair-step, to slowly wean your body off booze. Most modern treatment centers use benzodiazepines or barbiturates since they act like alcohol.
Nutrition and Supplements
Most alcoholics are malnourished. Treatment centers use a combination of nutrition, vitamins, and supplements to bring your body back to baseline. A healthy body full of necessary vitamins and minerals gives you a much better chance at recovery.
Treatment centers use one-on-one counseling, group therapy, and several other therapies to help you psychologically. While alcoholism can happen on its own there’s no doubt it’s also tied to several psychological issues that must be dealt with for permanent recovery. Being able to open up to counselors and other alcoholics who understand your situation gives hope and can help you learn how other people are succeeding. Alcohol treatment without proper counseling and therapy isn’t much treatment at all.
Be Smart About Alcohol Withdrawal
If you feel like alcohol has taken on a larger role in your life than you want to, it’s time to quit. As we learned above quitting drinking and alcohol withdrawal can present life-threatening situations and should only be attempted under the care of a medical professional. If you’re tired of drinking reach out to a local detox or treatment center to learn how you can get off the bottle safely and comfortably.