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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.