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How To Detox From Alcohol When Moderation Is Tough

There’s a fine line between healthy drinking and misuse.

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Woman's hand pushing a door closed that's spilling out with alcohol bottles and beverages
Margeaux Walter
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From happy hours to Sunday brunches, the temptation to drink is everywhere. But there’s a fine line between healthy drinking and alcohol misuse, and for many, moderation becomes a challenge. By the time one decides to cut back on their drinking, it may not be so easy to do so. This is because the body can become physically dependent on drinking, needing alcohol just to get through your daily routine.

When moderation turns into physical dependence, a process of detoxification is required and quitting cold turkey is no longer a safe or comfortable option. Detoxification is the process of ridding the body of alcohol; withdrawal is the body’s painful reaction to a sudden stop of consumption. The process is not only physically painful but can be unsafe and even life-threatening. Dr. Paul Daidone, medical director at True Self Recovery, shares that “when the nervous system has become accustomed to large amounts of alcohol, stopping it suddenly places a great strain on the body and brain.” And that’s when withdrawal starts. “Symptoms can range from mild to severe, including anxiety, insomnia, tremors, shaking, confusion, nausea or vomiting, irritability and sweating. Delirium tremens, a life-threatening condition characterized by disorientation, delirium and hallucination, can even occur in those who attempt to detox from alcohol without medical help.”

For these reasons, safe and effective detoxification most often requires medical supervision. It is not rehab, although, for many, it is a necessary first step before an alcohol rehabilitation stay. Read on to learn more about the process of alcohol detox and how to discern whether you or a loved one might need it.

How Much is Too Much?

There is no one-size-fits-all number to answer this question; everyone processes alcohol differently. “Three factors affect the severity of alcohol withdrawal,” says Dr. Joseph R. Volpicelli, executive director at the Institute of Addiction Medicine. "The amount of alcohol consumed in one sitting, the frequency of binges and the duration of heavy drinking.” The higher these numbers (or occurrences) are, the higher your chances are of experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Pay attention to your body — withdrawal symptoms usually start between six and 12 hours after your last drink. If you feel shaky, agitated and restless, this could be the start of alcohol withdrawal.

Can I Detox from Home?

Alcohol detox requires medical supervision and should not be attempted alone. Dr. Daidone says, “Those who have only been drinking a short time or are physically healthy may be able to quit and manage their withdrawal symptoms at home, but [should not do so] without a doctor's supervision.” If you are a heavy drinker, have experienced withdrawal symptoms in the past, or experience shaking or nausea after you stop drinking, you should seek medical help immediately. Call an ambulance or check into an emergency room and let the medical professionals take it from there.

How Does a Medical Facility Detox?

Checking into a detox facility for the first time can feel scary, but it really isn’t. “Patients can expect to be treated with compassion and care throughout the entire process,” says Dr. Daidone. You may or may not have a roommate, your vital signs will be checked regularly throughout your stay, and you will feel like you are in the hospital for any other medical condition. Most offer visiting hours, optional AA meetings, and televisions in common areas. You will be given medication that will ease the symptoms of your withdrawal and help you sleep. The entire process takes anywhere from three to five days on average. Dr. Daidone adds that “lifestyle changes are also encouraged during treatment at the facility, to equip patients with tools to maintain sobriety in the long term.”

What if I’m Worried about a Loved One?

If you are concerned that a loved one needs detox, you can offer support and love, but you cannot force the alcoholic or addict to get help. Remember that you didn’t cause this, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it, not with love (the tough or the soft kind), the right words or the world’s best boundaries. If you want to help, you can research and share information about detox facilities, offer financial support, and, according to Dr. Daidone, “learn to listen. Addiction is frowned upon in many social circles, so it can be difficult for those struggling to open up about their problems.” Al-anon is a great resource for anyone who loves an alcoholic or addict; it teaches how to love with detachment, support with healthy boundaries, and stay in the moment. You can attend Al-anon meetings online or in person, or simply read the literature on your own to get an introduction to the program.

Have any of you tried to cut back on drinking? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health