When the consequences of heavy drinking start to take their toll, quitting alcohol cold turkey can seem like the best and most important thing to do. In reality, however, for someone who’s become physically dependent on alcohol, quitting cold turkey can be incredibly dangerous. In fact, absent the proper medical supervision and support, total abstinence can sometimes prove fatal.
Alcoholism Changes Your Body
Sadly, many people have a hard time recognizing alcoholism for the complex disease that it is. Most believe that they have total control over their ability to stop and that detoxing from alcohol is purely a matter of will. For people who drink regularly, a number of neurological changes are constantly occurring as the body and brain struggle to protect themselves from alcohol’s damaging effects.
These changes impact how their bodies respond to alcohol. More importantly, they affect how their bodies respond without it. Far more than just physically and psychologically uncomfortable, going cold turkey entails a number of serious and potentially deadly health risks.
When people drink, the body responds by releasing a special neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as a “feel good” chemical given that it floods the body with a sense of relaxation and euphoria.
This over-activation of dopamine makes people feel better than they normally would if receiving smaller dopamine releases as the result of intense workouts or incredibly satisfying meals. Not only does dopamine make people feel better, but this same neurotransmitter also has a number of important, everyday functions. It plays a major role in:
- Sending messages between nerve cells
- Motor control
- Mental focus
Constantly over-activating this neurotransmitter by drinking heavily eventually causes it to misfire. It also conditions people to seek out more of this “feel good” reward by consuming more alcohol. As physical tolerance is built, larger amounts of alcohol are invariably needed to achieve the same state of euphoria once supplied. Worse still, ongoing changes within the brain’s chemistry can make it hard for heavy drinkers to feel happy or euphoric at all unless they’re already intoxicated or actively drinking.
It’s also important to note that dopamine isn’t the only neurotransmitter or “feel good” chemical affected by alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking additionally affects serotonin levels, and many other inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters. Just as each of these chemicals impacts how a person feels, they also hold roles in helping the brain and body function in specific ways.
Thus, when drinking is stopped outright, not only do alcoholics feel bad, but their bodies enter a severe state of distress. This is what causes the intense withdrawal symptoms that many recovering alcoholics experience. It is also responsible for the dangerous development of withdrawal delirium or delirium tremens (DTs).
Dangers of Alcohol Withdrawal
Despite high levels of both accessibility and social acceptance, alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances that people can detox from on their own. The longer that a person has been a heavy drinker, and the more alcohol that this individual has consumed; the worse the neurological and physiological effects of sudden and complete abstinence will be. Not only will heavy drinkers experience intense cravings for a drink, but they can also develop:
- Nausea and loss of appetite
- Excessive sweating
- Heart palpitations
Many of these and other early withdrawal symptoms can begin manifesting within just six to eight hours of a person’s last drink. Although these symptoms will likely peak within just 48 hours, many heavy drinkers can enter into a far more intense stage of withdrawal before this happens.
Known as delirium tremens, this is the stage of withdrawal during which the body is most impacted by the neurological and neurochemical changes that have occurred. Fine motor coordination and cognitive abilities greatly decline. Moreover, significant fluctuations can occur across all vital signs. Recovering alcoholics who enter into delirium tremens or get “the DTs” while quitting alcohol cold turkey can suffer:
- Rapid changes in their heart rates
- Elevated blood pressure or blood pressure that drops dangerously low
- Spikes in their blood sugar levels
Mitigating Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal with Treatment
This is why it is always best for those who’ve become dependent upon alcohol to seek medically assisted detox rather than attempting to go it alone. With help, early withdrawal symptoms can be mitigated and minimized, and delirium tremens can often be avoided entirely.
With medically assisted treatment, people are given medication and other forms of support for helping their bodies maintain balanced and normal functioning until the production and release of neurotransmitters is effectively regulated by their brains. When the neurological damage and neurochemical changes that have been caused by excess alcohol use are extreme, these medications can even be continued throughout the progressive stages of ongoing addiction treatment.
Patients in medically assisted detox programs additionally receive around-the-clock monitoring. Whenever significant changes are noted in their vital signs, rapid interventions are made to prevent serious and potentially permanent physical injuries. Detoxing with support is always both easier and safer.
Another important thing to understand about the dangers of alcohol withdrawal is that chemical detox is only the first step. After the challenging physical symptoms of initial withdrawal have abated, post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) set in. PAWS affects how people feel emotionally, and they are a direct reflection of neurotransmitter burnout, and the body’s inability to chemically promote mood balance.
When going cold turkey at home, those who are able to successfully make their way through the first two to three days of their self-managed detoxes are often sidelined by the psychological and emotional difficulties that follow. For this reason, seeking professional detox services is also one of the best things that recovering addicts can do to keep themselves on track.
If you’re tired of being a heavy drinker and want to stop using alcohol in a safe, comfortable way, we can help. Call 833-991-2955 today to learn more about our addiction recovery programs, and the medical detox support we provide.