Can alcohol detox cause a stroke?

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Can alcohol detox cause a stroke?

Alcohol detox can trigger a stroke because the detox phase is the most dangerous stage in the recovery process. To understand how detox increases the chances of a stroke, you need to understand the effects of alcohol addiction on the body. 

Substance abuse and alcohol use significantly alter the brain's chemistry and affects the body's organs. These drugs directly affect the heart's muscles, blood vessels, nerve tissues, neurotransmitters, and organ functions.  

The severity of these effects depends on the duration and intensity of alcohol use. Factors such as age, sex, genetics, and the presence of other medical conditions also increase the risks. 

When an alcoholic goes for detox, they undergo alcohol withdrawal symptoms. People exhibit withdrawal symptoms differently because of our difference in physio-biology.  

Generally, the alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on the intensity of alcohol use and duration. For mild to moderate alcoholics are likely to show moderate withdrawal symptoms.

However, those who are heavy drinkers are at a high risk of experiencing life threatening withdrawal symptoms, including a stroke. 

What triggers stroke? 

Alcohol detox can be dangerous if undertaken without medical assistance. Your body is affected when you suddenly stop drinking or you significantly reduce your alcohol intake.  

Heavy alcohol use leads the body to build a tolerance for alcohol.  

This effect leads to complications in the cardiovascular system, the brain, and the respiratory system. Thus, when you quit drinking, the body struggles to reverse the effects of the alcohol leading to complications. 

Both the brain and the heart require oxygen to function. But excessive alcohol use results in a complication where the blood vessel that supplies blood to the heart becomes partially or fully blocked.

Consequentially, the area of the heart and the brain that has become partially blocked will die. 

Alcohol increases the risks for a stroke because it facilitates several medical conditions that are likely to trigger a stroke. Some of these conditions are: 

a).  High blood pressure: This is the most important risk factor for a stroke. Alcohol leads to blood pressure by damaging the arteries.

This causes low blood flow and oxygen limitations leading to heart disease. High blood pressure contributes to 50% of all strokes in the UK [1]. 

b).  Atrial fibrillation:This condition involves developing an irregular heartbeat. When that happens, the chances of you having a stroke are increased five times. 

c).  Weight gain:Alcoholic drinks are rich in calories. Therefore, it will be difficult to lose weight if you abuse alcohol. 

d). Diabetes:Alcohol addiction alters the functioning of insulin. This, in turn, increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. 

e). Liver damage: Heavy drinking impedes the performance of your liver. This disrupts the liver from making substances that help your blood clot. 


Types of strokes 

A stroke (or brain attack) occurs when certain areas of the brain do not receive oxygen. There are types of strokes such as: 

  • Ischemic stroke: This stroke occurs when there is a blockage on the blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain. This is the most common type of stroke. 

  • Haemorrhagic stroke: This stroke occurs when a weakened vessel breaks or leaks in the brain. This is the least common type of stroke but also the deadliest. 

  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA) or minor stroke is a temporary phase where one experiences symptoms similar to a stroke. People who develop this stroke have a higher chance of developing major strokes. 

  • Thrombotic stroke: This is a stroke caused by a thrombus (blood clot) that develops in the artery surrounding the brain. 

  • Embolic stroke: This stroke happens when fragments of plaque formed in another area of the body break and reach the brain. Once they reach the brain, they block smaller vessels there, leading to brain damage. 

How much alcohol can cause a stroke? 

Heavy drinking increases your chances of having a stroke. Alcohol misuse is defined as drinking in a way that's harmful or becoming dependent on alcohol [2].  

When you drink regularly or take more than 14 units a week, you increase your desire for drinking. 

The NHS states that a unit of alcohol is about 8 g or 10 ml of pure alcohol.  

This is about half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%) and a 25ml shot of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%) [3].  

A small glass of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol (125ml, ABV 12%). 14 units of alcohol are about six pints of your average beer and six 175ml glasses of your average strength wine [1]. 

You are safest when you do not exceed 14 units of alcohol per week (both men and women).

The best prevention measures that you can take to lower your risk are: 

  • Limiting the amount, you drink on any occasion. 
  • Drink more slowly and alternate your drinks with water to avoid dehydration. 
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced foods. 

An article by Harvard medical school shows that "high risk" or too much alcohol occurs when you take [4]: 

  • Four more drinks in one day (for women). 
  • Five or more drinks in one day (for men). 

When binge drinking, you increase your risk of harm by taking four or more drinks over two hours for women or five or more drinks over two hours for men. 

Can your body go into shock when you stop drinking? 

Yes, your body does go into shock when you stop drinking. This occurs because you've suddenly quit drinking after a long period of alcohol use. Frequent drinking leads the body to develop a tolerance for alcohol.  

One way that the body does this is by altering the function of the neurotransmitters in the central nervous system.

Chronic alcohol use leads to the alteration of the neurotransmitters dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which trigger feelings of excitement and reward when a person drinks. 

When you begin alcohol detox, the body goes into shock as it tries to restore the equilibrium before the alcohol use. You could develop withdrawal delirium because of this shock.  

Delirium tremens can lead to symptoms such as: 

  • High blood pressure 
  • Withdrawal seizures 
  • Heart attack 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Confusion 
  • Diaphoresis 
  • Autonomic hyperactivity (tachycardia and hypertension) 

Delirium tremens is uncommon. It occurs in about 3% to 5% of patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal [5]. The withdrawal symptoms usually start in a few hours after your last drink and can persist for up to a week. 

Is red wine good for stroke patients? 

Red wine is known to have properties that shield the brain from stroke. Studies show that red wine can lower the risk of ischemic stroke [1].

However, after a stroke, the recommendation is to limit yourself to one glass of wine or one ounce of hard liquor per day. 

You should ask your doctor about what is safe for you. For some stroke patients, even one glass of wine may be harmful. 

Your doctor should provide medical advice on whether alcohol will impact your medicine or stroke risk. They will tell you: 

  • If and when to take alcohol 
  • How much you can drink 

Can alcohol detox cause brain zap? 

Brain zaps are withdrawal symptom that occurs when you stop taking medicines for anxiety and depression. 

Alcohol does not trigger this symptom. However, alcohol triggers its effects. Brain zaps are also called brain shocks, brain shivers, or head shocks. 

During alcohol detox, the changes in the brain can contribute to the onset of brain zaps. Alcohol withdrawal medicines such as benzodiazepines which help manage anxiety, can trigger this withdrawal symptom as well. 

Alcohol withdrawal results in a lot of uncomfortable symptoms. Some studies show many people avoid quitting alcohol or medication such as antidepressants because of the withdrawal symptoms.  

Access to rehab offers you a chance to withdraw from drugs safely. You can seek treatment at a care facility or a rehab centre.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can kill you. 

Alcohol withdrawal can lead to severe symptoms such as convulsions, irregular heartbeat, and seizures.

A study published by the Lancet showed that higher consumption resulted in an increased risk of injury [5]. 

Cases such as suicide and homicides are often alcohol-related. Therefore, if you do not know how to manage withdrawal symptoms, you put yourself at risk of death from injury. 

The physical symptoms of withdrawal, e.g., high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, tremors, vomiting, and diarrhoea, can be life threatening if left unchecked.

If you are a chronic alcoholic, you are at risk of developing the dangerous symptoms associated with delirium tremens. 


There are ways that you can safely detox from alcohol or any other drug. If you or a loved one want to quit drinking but are concerned about the risk factors, an excellent place to start would be to talk to your medical practitioner.  

Physicians can help you find the best addiction treatment depending on your needs. Alternatively, you can go for alcohol rehab at a treatment facility. 

There are various treatment options available locally for alcohol detox. You have the option of outpatient detox, inpatient, or home detox.

Most people prefer home detox because they feel comfortable in the home setting.  

But detoxing from home puts you at risk of developing the dangerous withdrawal symptoms and health complications associated with detox. 

Alcohol abuse significantly alters the body's mechanisms. That's why when you quit alcohol; your brain goes into shock.  

Other risk factors determine the severity of the detox process; as such, it is best to speak to a medical practitioner to determine how you can safely detox. 

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About the author

Laura Morris

Laura Morris is an experienced clinical practitioner and CQC Registered Manager with over twenty years experience, over ten of which have been as an Independent Nurse Prescriber.

She has held a number of senior leadership roles in the substance use and mental health sector in the NHS, the prison service and in leading social enterprises in the field.

Last Updated: November 3, 2023