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The decision to stop drinking alcohol when you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is powerful. An alcohol detox followed by complete abstinence from the substance helps prevent relapse.
Unfortunately, as someone addicted to alcohol, the consequences of abstaining are unpleasant, at least temporarily. The discomfort of the detox period that follows after a person stops drinking alcohol can drive him or her to return to drinking. Learning how to detox from alcohol safely, and doing so with proper supervision, can prevent a relapse.
Alcohol Detox Timeline
The period after a heavy drinker stops consuming alcohol and begins to detox includes intense withdrawal symptoms. The detox causes alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), which can be fatal. Symptoms of AWS develop in as little as six hours and last up to 72 hours.
Symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal might include:
- Tremors, headaches, mild anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations, sweating, and upset stomach within the first 6 to 12 hours
- Visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations within the first 12 to 24 hours
- Seizures within the first 24 to 48 hours
Delirium tremens (DTs), which include visual hallucinations, agitation, confusion, high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, fever, and sweating tend to occur within the first 48 to 72 hours.
According to a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, about half of people with AUD experience withdrawal when they stop drinking. Approximately 3 to 5 percent of them experience severe symptoms.
Several factors affect the intensity of detox and increase a person’s risk for DTs. These include:
- Liver function
- Previous occurrences of DTs
- History of seizures during detox
- Platelet counts
- Potassium levels
- Sodium levels
- Age at time of alcohol detox
- Brain lesions
- Use of other drugs
- Types of Alcohol Detox
Anyone at risk for DTs should detox from alcohol at a properly equipped medical facility. There are different approaches to the detox process. Treatment is determined based on a person’s overall health and experience with alcohol.
Some people require no immediate medical attention and simply need to stop consuming alcohol. Although treatment is needed, their withdrawal symptoms are fairly mild and their bodies have not developed a severe addiction to alcohol.
Medication becomes necessary when a person has moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms. Examples of withdrawal medications include:
- Benzodiazepines to reduce the risk of seizures
- Neuroleptic medications to depress the nervous system to prevent seizures and agitation
- Nutritional support (supplemental vitamins, etc.) to reduce withdrawal symptoms and correct nutritional deficiencies
Additional withdrawal symptoms, such as high blood pressure, might be treated with other medications specific to that condition.
After the initial withdrawal symptoms ease, doctors sometimes prescribe medications to curb a person’s desire to drink alcohol. These might include:
- Antabuse (disulfiram) to reduce alcohol cravings and nausea after consumption of alcohol
- ReVia (naltrexone) to reduce alcohol cravings and block opioid (feel-good) receptors in the body
- Topamax (topiramate) to potentially reduce alcohol consumption and extend periods of abstinence
Medicinal therapies are most beneficial when used in combination with support groups and counseling.
Alcohol Detox Diet
It might seem as though eating is the least of your worries when you are detoxing from alcohol, but the truth is nutrients affect the success of detox. Doctors even prescribe nutritional supplements to make the process easier.
You’ll also feel more motivated to eat as your withdrawal symptoms subside. It’s important to make smart choices that will aid in your effort to remain abstinent from alcohol. For instance, an alcohol detox diet might include:
Alcohol is dehydrating. Dehydration also enhances the negative symptoms of detox. Staying hydrated flushes toxins from your system and helps ward off:
- Loss of appetite
- Anxiety and depression
- Overall feelings of sluggishness and cloudy thinking
In addition to drinking water and juices, a detox diet can also include broths and soups. It might be difficult to keep down food, especially in the first 24 to 72 hours after you stop drinking. Soups and broths provide sustenance without being too heavy and help with hydration.
Most alcoholics have vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Not eating a healthy diet and not being able to absorb nutrients because of alcohol consumption causes nutrition deficits. Doctors often recommend those going through alcohol detox consume nutritional supplements such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Eat a Balanced Diet
As your appetite returns, it’s important to eat a balanced diet. Sugar cravings can be a problem during alcohol detox because of the high sugar content in alcohol. Once you stop drinking, your body craves the sugar you are no longer consuming. A balanced diet with high amounts of vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats help reduce your cravings and help you feel your best.
Many detox and treatment programs offer nutritional guidance and help with creating a customized healthy diet. Eating healthy and taking care of yourself can speed up recovery and make it easier to transition to sobriety.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction
- Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days, however they may be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of an inpatient program you will live on site in a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Many of these treatment programs will assist you with an aftercare program afterwards.
- Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) — PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Partial hospitalization programs provide comparable services to inpatient programs. These may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that in a partial hospitalization program, you return home and sleep at your house. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. PHPs are ideal for new patients, as well as patients who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.
- Outpatient Programs — Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They are best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety and have responsibilities at work, home, or school. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success. They may also be a part of aftercare programs once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.
- Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) — Certain patients will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detoxification and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.
- Support Groups — Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be a first step towards sobriety or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.