When it comes to cases of chronic alcoholism, detoxing isn't just a matter of quitting cold turkey. Long-term drinking recovery, though it can be done at home, may be far safer with professional help. Substance abuse alters the body's functions, and sudden changes can actually endanger the life of the loved one you're trying to save. Review this information on the detoxification process and the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and then decide if maybe a treatment program might be better for all family members involved.
When Is Drinking Alcohol Considered Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is distinct, clinically speaking, from moderate or even regular drinking. Some of the earliest warning signs of alcohol dependency include having an emotional attachment to drinking and craving it even when there's no outside prompt, such as a party, a celebratory event that calls for champagne, or a nice anniversary dinner where a bottle of wine is shared.
Emotional dependency to alcohol can lead to a physical dependency. Addiction occurs when the physical and behavioral signs of alcoholism arise (shaking hands or isolating from family and commitments) and when the person cannot independently control his or her drinking.
The Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Let's say you want to stop drinking after an alcohol-heavy season, such as spring break or the holidays. You might feel a mild version of the detox process. Side effects like mood swings, body aches, and even some slight tremors usually cause overwhelming worry—a non-addict might even decide to stop drinking for their New Year's resolution, and be successful at it.
The same is not always true for alcohol addicts, or dipsomaniacs as they used to be called in the 1800s, the Greek dipso- for "thirst" and -mania for "madness," referring to those with a "morbid craving for alcohol." Now known as alcohol use disorder or AUD, the symptoms of alcohol detox are still the same, and severe withdrawal can be life-threatening. For those who are trying to dry out after years of heavy drinking, they are at risk of all of these symptoms, from mild to serious:
- Delirium tremens (also known as "the D.T.s")
Keep in mind that the most severe symptoms involve recovery from damage done to the central nervous system, which is why in some cases a treatment center is the best option if it's possible. Not only can inpatient treatment ensure there are medical professionals there to monitor high blood pressure and distribute appropriate amounts of withdrawal medications, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is combined for a reason: there may be underlying mental health issues that alcohol abuse has either hidden from knowledge or been used to "treat" (conditions like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder). Other drugs and addictions may be at play as well.
Delirium tremens is the most severe form of withdrawal, and can encompass many of the above-listed symptoms and overwhelm the body to the point of cardiovascular collapse. It may not start the first day either: these symptoms could arise anywhere between 2 and 5 days after the addict's last drink, as the body begins to process all the alcohol and then comes to find out there's no more incoming.
Delirium tremens affects less than 5% of recovering alcoholics, so while it's not an inevitable occurrence, it's nevertheless still important to be aware of the risk in case your loved one is in that 5% and in need of professional substance abuse treatment to monitor their blood pressure and heart rate in a fully equipped treatment facility.
How to Detox from Alcohol
Not everyone will have the resources for professional help when it comes to quitting alcohol, and while there are programs available to help, like the peer-counseling at Alcoholics Anonymous, keep in mind the AA's Serenity Prayer, which asks for "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” You or your loved one may be able to detox from alcohol at home, but if you can't, it's important to have the wisdom to know the difference.
That being said, here is how to detox from alcohol.
1. Taper Off
Quitting cold turkey means suddenly taking away a substance the body has learned to rely on, basically pulling the rug out from under oneself. A change like that means the body has to adapt all at once, and it may cause or exacerbate symptoms of withdrawal that needn't have been felt with a careful tapering off of alcohol consumption.
While tapering can help slowly notch down physical alcohol dependence, an addict's emotional attachment to alcohol and to drinking may get in the way. If you're doing this on your own, you may backslide, and if you're helping a family member, they may just be cheating and sneaking extra booze when you're not looking. This is why a rehab center can be so valuable in cases of alcohol addiction, so that not only are the physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms met with medical supervision, but no interpersonal relationships are irreparably damaged in the process.
Long-term alcohol use means alcohol is the new normal for the addict's body. Imagine how you feel when you try to quit sugar or caffeine, and know that it is much harder to quit drinking because alcohol is a much stronger drug.
2. Know Your Limits
To taper off, you must first start by being honest about how much alcohol you or your loved one drinks each day. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines 1 drink as either:
- 1 bottle of beer: 12 ounces at 5% alcohol content
- 1 glass of wine: 5 ounces at 12% alcohol content
- 1 mixed drink: 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40% alcohol content
These numbers may not directly correlate with each brand of alcohol product, but they are a guideline to provide a rough estimation of just how many drinks are being consumed each day. Beer is most recommended for tapering off, as it tends to have a lower alcohol percent by volume than wine or spirits do.
3. Take Your Time
Tapering should involve:
- Taking between 3 and 7 days to ween down, depending on how much the person is accustomed to drinking
- Temporarily increasing alcohol consumption if withdrawal symptoms arise
- Seeking professional addiction treatment by way of a detox program if you're unable to stop drinking at home
At-Home Detox Tips
For the milder symptoms of alcohol detox, it is possible to treat them at home. Some tips to keep in mind include:
- Water: Alcohol is a diuretic, and long-term alcoholics have probably been in a case of mild dehydration for a very long time. Staying hydrated can help reduce mental confusion, irritability, and fatigue.
- Electrolyte drinks: With dehydration comes a loss of certain minerals like electrolytes. Having some sports drinks with electrolytes like potassium, sodium, and calcium will help the recoverer feel better faster.
- Healthy diet: Alcohol is full of sugar, and many people in rehab discover that they have a maddening sugar craving when they quit drinking. However, trading booze for sugar won't help anyone feel better at the end of the day, so try to concentrate on a diet that contains the proper amount of protein, carbs (also sugars), fats, minerals, and vitamins.
- Hygiene: No, a hot shower won't help you "sweat out" the alcohol dependency faster, and in fact, it could cause a dangerous change in your body temperature. However, a warm shower or bath can help relax your wrung-out muscles, distract you from the discomforts of withdrawal, and leave you feeling refreshed and more like yourself again.
- Meditation and calming techniques: Controlled breathing techniques can help normalize your blood pressure and heart rate, while meditation can help clear and focus your mind. While you may not experience the severe symptom of hallucinations, many recovering addicts have overwhelmingly intense dreams as the higher parts of their brain come back online.
You Can Do This
Whether you're attempting to detox with or without help, engage in as much self-care as possible: stock up on your favorite movies, cuddle up in blankets if you feel a chill, and slap on a cool, damp cloth if you feel too warm. Try to avoid taking medications as much as possible so you don't overtax your detox organs (the liver and kidneys), and if you're at all worried that withdrawal symptoms are getting too severe, seek help from a trusted medical professional. As bad as it feels, people have detoxed before and you can do it too, just do it safely, and be well.