Why should someone seek detox for alcohol?

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Anyone who suffers from alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence should seek detox for alcohol. This is important because alcohol is a toxic substance to which the body develops a tolerance the more you continue drinking. 

Most people find it hard to believe that alcohol is affecting their lives. Yet, when you take a moment to examine your life or the life of a loved one taking alcohol, you may be surprised to see that they've become dependent on the substance. 

People who have used alcohol for quite some time may have trouble engaging in their daily routine or even thinking clearly without a drink.  

They may develop a pattern of alcohol use whenever they feel stressed, anxious, or sad. They may turn to alcohol to make them feel good or feel normal. 

We live in a society that has normalized the use of alcohol. However, out of all the substances people abuse, alcohol is one of the substances that significantly affects the brain [1].  

Alcohol use alters the brain chemistry, thereby making the body tolerant to it. The more you engage in alcohol consumption, the more the brain exaggerates the stimulatory neurotransmitters in the brain, such as glutamate.  

Since the brain doesn't want you falling or sleeping, it exaggerates the stimulatory neurotransmitters.

The GAMA system, which helps calm the body, also lowers its function as the individual is taking alcohol to help them calm down [2]. 

Alcohol use affects you physiologically. You realize the physiological symptoms once you've had your last drink. When you stop drinking, the brain becomes imbalanced, and the body begins showing symptoms.  

The withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe depending on how long you or your loved one has been drinking.  

The withdrawal symptoms experienced include: 

  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Tremor and shakiness 
  • Sweating (this can range from mild to profuse) 
  • Anxiety or agitation 
  • Disorientation 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Headaches 
  • Insomnia 
  • Rapid abnormal breathing 
  • Seizures 
  • Muscle spasms 
  • Mood changes 
  • Fatigue 
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances 

The severity of the symptoms depends on the person and the level of physiological alcohol dependence [3]. The stages of withdrawal are: 

Stage 1 (mild symptoms). Symptoms such as heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, hand tremor, gastrointestinal disturbances, 

Stage 2 (moderate symptoms). Includes the mild symptoms plus other symptoms such as high blood pressure or increased heart rate, rapid abnormal breathing, confusion, mild hyperthermia.

The symptoms are different in others, with Alcoholic cardiomyopathy (which leads to shortness of breath) and swollen legs and feet [4]. 

Stage 3 (severe symptoms). Symptoms include stage two symptoms plus others such as hallucinations, alcohol withdrawal seizures, declined decision-making ability, impaired motor coordination, disorientation, etc. 

Alcohol leads to social issues depending on the duration and severity of use. It can lead to an unproductive work-life, trouble in relationships, and financial problems.

Alcohol is also associated with an increased risk of injury, accidents, and alcohol-related deaths [5]. 

Quitting to drink on your own (cold turkey) is life-threatening. If you or your loved one would like to get your life back by stopping the addiction, you should seek treatment providers for detox. 

Why does alcohol need to be detoxified? 

Alcohol needs to be detoxified first before the addict can go through the next phase of treatment. Imagine going to rehab while you still drink alcohol. It will be impossible for you to attend therapy and make the changes you need in your life.  

You need to get rid of the alcohol toxins in your body for the body to function normally. 

When you stop alcohol use without medical help, the alcohol cravings and the withdrawal symptoms will lead you to drink even more to compensate for the time you've not been drinking.  

Treatment centres are the safest way for you to be detoxified. You work with a medical provider who will conduct a physical assessment and prescribe medication for detox.

The medication mimics the effects of alcohol, thereby making the withdrawal symptoms easy to manage. 

Detox from alcohol is essential because freeing yourself from alcohol abuse is challenging. The NIAA defines alcohol use disorder as a medical condition.  

This substance impairs your ability to stop or control abuse despite the adverse effects of alcohol use. It's important to note that the term alcohol use disorder encompasses other conditions commonly known as alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, alcohol dependence, and alcoholism [6]. 

Alcohol withdrawal is a painful process, especially if you are severely dependent. Yet you need to get detoxified to begin treatment from the alcohol abuse.

Detoxification helps the body rid itself of the toxins that have built up over time due to alcohol use. Once you complete detoxification, you'll have a balanced, toxins-free body. 

How long is a typical alcohol detox? 

There is no exact timeline on how long an alcohol detox can take. This is because the duration is influenced by several factors, such as: your weight, metabolism, presence of other medical conditions, how many drinks you've had, and duration of use.  

As pointed out earlier, alcohol abuse affects the brain. When a person stops drinking, the body goes into shock resulting in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms can start showing about two hours after the last drink [7].  

Generally, the timeline for the detox process is as follows: 

First 6 to 12 hours  

The mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal begin to show up. However, they worsen as time goes on.  

Next 12 to 48 hours  

This is the time when symptoms peak. You'll get more uncomfortable as you experience symptoms such as insomnia, rapid heartbeat, changes in blood pressure, fever, sweating, and tremors.  

The severity of the symptoms varies from one person to another. In cases of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, delirium tremens is likely to surface within the first 48 hours after your last drink.

It involves symptoms such as hallucinations, severe shaking, high blood pressure among other symptoms. Delirium tremens can be life threatening.  

Day three to seven  

At this stage, the alcohol withdrawal symptoms improve. Still, there are people who may experience prolonged symptoms. Different withdrawal symptoms come and go. Also, a severe addict will experience delirium tremens at this stage.  

After one week  

Withdrawal symptoms begin to taper off after one week. You may experience some symptoms for a few weeks, but most of them are minor and can be managed using medication.  

Some people may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome after one week. These are symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, low-energy, or delayed reflexes. The symptoms may persist from several months to a year.  

Alcohol Detox timeline  

The most uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms tend to peak at around 10 to 30 hours after you stop drinking. The symptoms start to lessen by 40 to 50 hours. Delirium tremens is common when the symptoms peak.  

This condition is associated with other complications, and that's why it’s important to seek alcohol detox in a treatment centre [8].  

If you are unsure about the severity of your addiction or whether you need to go for addiction treatment in a treatment facility, you can begin by taking the alcohol abuse self-test [9].  

Alternatively, you can reach out to your GP, treatment provider, or certified addiction professional. Most treatment centres have a counsellor on call to provide medical advice about detoxification.

Most people are apprehensive about detox because of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.  

However, there are many alcohol withdrawal treatment programmes designed to make the process less painful. 

Detoxification at a treatment facility provides you with: 

a). 24/7 medical supervision 

b).Medication to reduce alcohol cravings and other symptoms.  

c). Peer support 

d). A safe and structured environment 

e). Family support 

f). Counselling 

g).Continued, long-term care (aftercare).

There are two types of treatment programmes. You can either safely detox in an outpatient rehab or an inpatient facility.

What's important first is for you or your loved one to seek medical professional assessment. The healthcare professional will come up with a comprehensive treatment plan suitable for you. 

Overall, it's up to you to decide whether you want to detox from home or at a treatment facility safely. What's important is that you go for detox.  

Typically, the detoxification process can last about 7 to 10 days. Once you complete detox, a medical professional will advise you to proceed with post-detox services. 

These services are: 

  • 12 steps facilitation (such as the AA) 
  • Therapies (individual, group, family therapies etc.) 
  • Support in mutual groups such as Smart recovery 
  • Online virtual support meetings. 

How does alcohol affect the brain? 

Alcohol intake affects the brain's function in several ways. First, alcohol, or ethanol, is a depressant. When you take it, it depresses the central nervous system leading to slurred speech and impaired body movements.  

When people take alcohol, they feel happy because alcohol-induced dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that's responsible for the pleasurable feeling one gets.  

This neurotransmitter is released in the brain's pathway leading to feelings of joy and pleasure. Alcohol intake also increases the level of another neurotransmitter known as serotonin.  

This neurotransmitter affects one's mood thereby making you happy for a short time. In the long-run, alcohol lowers serotonin levels thereby triggering mental symptoms such as depression [10].  

The brain is a complex web of billions of neurons. This can be loosely categorized as inhibitory or excitatory neurons. The excitatory neurons stimulate the other neurons to respond and transmit electrical messages.  

Alternatively, the inhibitory neurons suppress the responsiveness of other neurons and prevent excessive firing. A balance between the two neurotransmitters is essential for the brain to perform efficiently.  

But when one becomes a frequent drinker, the reaction of the GAMA neurotransmitter to alcohol causes an imbalance in the inhibitory and exhibitory neurons.

What happens is the inhibitory functions increase whereas the exhibitory functions decrease.  

Alcohol has a stimulant and sedative effect on us. This sedating effect has to do with its interaction with the GAMA neurotransmitters. GAMA is also targeted by aesthetic drugs.

Alcohol also inhibits the glutamate system which is an important excitatory part of the brain. The GAMA activation and glutamate inhibition lowers the brain's performance.  

Due to its depressive nature, excessive alcohol in the blood leads to life threatening symptoms such as respiratory failure and can even lead to death.  

Chronic and long-term use of alcohol results in an opposite reaction to the brain. This is because long-term alcohol use compels the brain to adapt to having alcohol in the system.  

The brain attempts to restore the equilibrium by decreasing GABA inhibitory and increasing the glutamate excitatory function to compensate for the effect of alcohol.

When this happens, the person will have to take more alcohol than usual to achieve that excitatory effect. This is what leads to over drinking and eventually addiction.  

Alcohol is a small molecule. As such, it can easily penetrate any cell barrier and reach different cells. Alcohol can affect different parts of the brain.

Prolonged drinking eventually leads to problems with memory and cognition [11]. Alcohol also leads to neuro-cognitive deficits, neuro-degradation, and neuronal injury.  

When a person attempts to suddenly stop drinking, the brain goes into a shock. That's when the person experiences the ill feeling known as withdrawal symptoms.  

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How do you cleanse your liver? 

The best way to cleanse the liver is to stop drinking. The liver breaks down the alcohol a person intake.

But what remains behind is more harmful to the liver and can lead to diseases such as: 

  • Fatty liver 
  • Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) 
  • Liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) 
  • Acute hepatitis 
  • Liver failure and death 

The liver is a vital organ with over 500 functions. The best way to cleanse it is to avoid taking in toxins such as alcohol.  

Alcohol abuse leads to long-term damage and impairment of the liver. The alcohol damages the liver by initially accumulating fat in the liver. This is referred to as alcohol liver disease.

The fat build-up leads to alcoholic hepatitis, inflammation, or irritation of the liver. That inflammation eventually results in liver cirrhosis. 

The fat accumulation that takes place initially is reversible. However, liver cirrhosis is not. The long-term effects of the scarring can be fatal. 

Aside from quitting alcohol, it would be best if you did the following: 

Take lots of water. 

Hydration is the best way to help the body get rid of toxins. Water helps purify the liver. 

Exercise 

Two ways exercise helps the liver. First, it helps the body sweat, promotes blood circulations, and quickens breathing. All these actions help the body get rid of toxins, thereby helping to reduce the workload on the liver. 

Regular exercise improves the immune system and lowers the risk of liver cancer. 

Be careful of medications. 

Be cautious of over-the-counter medications. For instance, non-prescription relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen, naproxen, and others can significantly damage the liver. Such medications plus alcohol increase the risk of liver damage. 

Make healthy lifestyle changes. 

A healthy lifestyle means being more active, avoiding alcohol or drug abuse, and maintaining a healthy weight. 

Adopt a healthy diet 

Foods such as cruciferous vegetables, olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, garlic, leafy greens, fruits, berries, and so on help cleanse your liver. On that note, you should avoid processed foods, sugars, and saturated fats. 

Avoid letting other toxins into the body. 

Avoid other toxins from entering your body. This includes other substance abuse such as cigarettes or prescription drugs.

You should also put on a mask when handling spray paints, aerosol sprays, and other forms of sprayed chemicals. Be aware of the toxic substances in your environment and avoid them. 

Conclusion 

Alcohol detox is an essential part of the treatment process. With detox, the person helps the body get rid of the toxins.

Anyone in need of detox can pursue treatment options such as outpatient or inpatient treatment. As you decide on what to go for, you should consult a medical professional. 

You can detox in a medical facility. One advantage of this is that you get constant medical supervision.

Most people, however, go for detox at a rehab facility. Alcohol detox at a rehab facility provides you with the chance to interact with others who are going through treatment. 

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal vary from mild to severe. Once you get professional treatment advice from a treatment provider, you'll be able to decide whether to go for detox from home or at a facility. 

 If you've tried to stop on your own before and failed, or if you suffer from severe addiction, then it would be best to seek detox at a treatment centre. 

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome affects each person differently. Since alcohol affects the brain and the nervous system, anyone who tries to quit drinking ends up experiencing withdrawal symptoms. 

The symptoms range from mild to severe depending on the duration of alcohol use. Severe withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening if not handled under medical supervision. 

Detoxification paves the way to a sober life. Suppose this is what you want for yourself or a loved one.

In that case, you can search for a treatment provider near you at the national institute on alcohol abuse and alcoholism (NIAAA) alcohol treatment navigator [12].  

Alcohol addiction organizations such as UK Rehab and UK addiction treatment centres can help you identify approved treatment providers. 

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

Last Updated: October 27, 2021

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.