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Updated on September 26, 2022

Alcohol Detox: Effects, Timeline & Diet

People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may experience withdrawal when abstaining from alcohol. The discomfort that follows can drive one to relapse. Some symptoms can even be fatal.

Detoxing with proper supervision can prevent a relapse.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin in as little as six hours after the last drink and last up to 72 hours.

Stage 1 (6 to 12 hours):

  • Tremors
  • Headaches
  • Mild anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Upset stomach

Stage 2 (12-24 hours):

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Nightmares
  • Mental fog
  • Vomiting

Stage 3 (48-72 hours):

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Nausea
  • Impaired attention span

In a minority of circumstances, a person at this stage may also experience Delirium tremens (DT). This is a form of temporary psychosis which is potentially fatal.

Possible DT symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Occasional hallucinations
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Fever
  • Sweating

About half of people with AUD experience withdrawal when they stop drinking. Roughly 3 to 5 percent experience severe symptoms like Delirium tremens.3

a 2014 article in the New England Journal of Medicine

Delirium Tremens Risk Factors

Factors that increase a person’s risk for DT include:

  • Being of older age
  • Liver function
  • Previous occurrences of DTs
  • History of seizures during detox
  • Platelet counts
  • Potassium levels
  • Sodium levels
  • Dehydration
  • Brain lesions

Anyone at risk for DTs should detox from alcohol at a properly equipped medical facility.

Medication

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 symptoms such as high blood pressure can be treated with medications specific to that condition.

After the initial symptoms ease, doctors may prescribe medications to curb a person’s desire to drink.

These might include:

  • Antabuse (disulfiram) to reduce alcohol cravings and nausea after consumption of alcohol
  • ReVia (naltrexone) to reduce alcohol cravings and block opioid 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.

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Alcohol Detox Diet

Getting enough fluids and nutrients is crucial to a successful detox.

An alcohol detox diet might include:

Hydrating

Alcohol is dehydrating. Dehydration also enhances the negative symptoms of detox.

Staying hydrated flushes toxins from your system and helps ward off:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Overall feelings of sluggishness and cloudy thinking

It might be difficult to keep food down. Soups and broths provide sustenance without being too heavy and help with hydration.

Nutritional Supplements

Most alcoholics have vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

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. This includes vegetables and fruits, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy fats.

A balanced diet helps reduce cravings and feel your best.

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.

Many detox and treatment programs offer nutritional guidance and help with creating a customized healthy diet. Eating healthy can speed up recovery and make the transition to sobriety easier.

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Resources

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  1. Alcohol and Nutrition - Alcohol Alert No. 22- 1993.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Oct. 2000.
  2. Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol Scale | Study.Com.” Study.Com, 2020.
  3. Schuckit, Marc A. “Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens).” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 371, no. 22, 2014, pp. 2109–2113., https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmra1407298. Rahman A, Paul M. "Delirium Tremens. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL)": StatPearls Publishing, 2021.
  4. Dugdale, David C. “Alcohol Withdrawal: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2021.
  5. Berger, Fred K. “Substance Use Recovery and Diet: Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020.

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