Cirque Lodge > Blog > All Posts > Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Happen?

Across the United States, millions of people suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Sadly, this figure is set to increase drastically over time. Though simply abstaining from alcohol might sound easy to many people, those suffering from alcohol addictions are often faced with uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms upon doing so. This is known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS).

Whether you are struggling with an alcohol addiction or hoping to support someone, find out more about why alcohol withdrawal happens here.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Though AUD is a common health condition, those who drink alcohol in moderation may not necessarily experience withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal only happens if you are physically dependent on alcohol.

Because alcohol is a depressant, many people will use and abuse it. When consumed, alcohol essentially reduces brain function, lowers inhibitions, and interferes with neurotransmitters. These transmitters act as the body’s messenger, sending signals to different neurons to help you communicate properly.

Related: Alcohol and sleep

Alcohol abuse impacts the way these signals are transferred, eventually causing the central nervous system to adapt to the effects of alcohol. This adjustment can make quitting that much harder, leading to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person. This is because they are generally dependent on the amount of alcohol consumed and the length of time an addiction impairs an individual's life.

Mild symptoms can start six to twenty-four hours after the last drink and can include:

  • Irregular heart rate
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue

More severe side-effects arise twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the last drink and include hallucinations and seizures.

Once you hit the forty-eight to seventy-two-hour mark, severe withdrawal symptoms known as delirium tremens (DTs) may be encountered. Here, symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Increased heart rate
  • Fever and excessive sweating

What Happens When You Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

Quitting alcohol ‘cold turkey’ might sound like the fastest way to overcome addiction, but it’s actually the most dangerous. If you’ve been drinking long-term, cutting back on alcohol will already cause unpleasant symptoms. Quitting ‘cold turkey', however, will only exacerbate these symptoms and could potentially be life-threatening.

Once a tolerance for alcohol is developed, the body will compensate by increasing the levels of chemicals and neurotransmitters released. When you suddenly stop drinking, the body is flooded with these chemicals and signals, leading to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Quitting cold turkey causes an imbalance within the central nervous system, leading to dangerous side effects. Stopping all at once without medical aid increases the chances of experiencing DTs. In extreme cases, you could even experience a seizure or high blood pressure.

What Is a Medical Detox?

The first step to recovery starts with getting professional help. Due to the extreme dangers of quitting alcohol cold turkey, it’s best to withdraw from alcohol under the supervision of medical professionals.

Withdrawing with medical assistance is often referred to as a medical detox. Medical detox is a process that aims to rid the body of all traces of alcohol. A detox essentially paves the way to recovery, ensuring that you’re ready to start therapy.

It’s important to remember that completing a medical detox won’t prevent you from experiencing withdrawal symptoms. However, with medical assistance, the side effects can be managed and treated.

There are typically three stages to a medical detox:

Stage One - Medical Examination

The first step of any medical detox involves a deep dive into your medical history. Experts will gather information on your addiction to help curate a personalized detox plan. This will ensure the detox is catered to your individual needs, minimizing the effect of potential withdrawal symptoms.

Stage Two - Withdrawal

An inevitable stage of any detox, withdrawal happens as soon as your body’s alcohol level is reduced. This can be as soon as six hours after your last drink. Each detox will be different, and, as touched on above, withdrawal symptoms will depend on each individual’s history of addiction. Symptoms can range from mild to severe but will be more easily managed with the help of medical professionals.

Stage Three - Medication

Though you can’t eliminate alcohol withdrawal, you can counteract its adverse side effects with effective medication. This medication is administered before or during the detox to help you deal with the effects of withdrawal.

Two of the most common medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines - Classed as psychoactive drugs, benzodiazepines have sedative and hypnotic effects and are used to treat a range of withdrawal symptoms like seizures, insomnia, and DTs.
  • Naltrexone - Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist. In other words, it is a medication that blocks opioid receptors in the brain. It is commonly used before or during detox to help curb cravings.

To Conclude

Alcohol withdrawal may seem scary, but with professional support, you can make the changes safely. Support groups and a range of medical aid are available to those with AUD, so you don’t have to suffer in silence.

If you or a loved one is suffering from Alcohol Addiction and needs help with Alcohol Withdrawal, contact us at Cirque Lodge for more information.

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