If you have a “cold one with the boys” once in a while, chances are you won’t experience signs of alcohol withdrawal if you suddenly stop drinking.
However, if you’ve been a heavy drinker for a long time, that’s a different story.
If this is you, you have to watch for signs of alcohol withdrawal.
Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal
So…what causes alcohol withdrawal in the first place?
Alcohol is a depressant.
You might be thinking, “Wait…what? Alcohol makes me feel good, not depressed!”
And, you’re right (partly).
This is because alcohol affects the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine is directly tied to our body’s reward system — it motivates us to do certain things.
When your brain releases dopamine, you experience joy, happiness, and increased levels of energy.
(Now you know why kissing your partner feels so good — it’s because of dopamine!)
That’s not all.
Alcohol also affects our gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA for short) receptors.
These guys are responsible for relaxing and calming you by blocking impulses between your nerve cells and the brain.
As you develop an alcohol use disorder, over time, you change your brain’s chemistry.
As your body begins to increase its tolerance to alcohol, your brain becomes more dependent on it to trigger these feel-good neurotransmitters.
The rest of this blog post will help you identify signs of alcohol withdrawal and how to get professional help.
Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline & Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal produces several symptoms.
These symptoms can range from mildly irritating to debilitating (and sometimes even life-threatening!).
The severity of these symptoms depends on several factors and differ from person to person.
The factors include: how often you drink, how much you drink, how long you’ve been drinking, your medical history, your addiction history with other substances, and if you’re taking other drugs at the same time.
Your physiology such as your age, gender, and weight also come into play.
Some withdrawal symptoms can occur as early as two hours after your last drink and usually peak within the first 24 to 48 hours.
The timeline for withdrawal symptoms is:
6 to 12 hours after your last drink:
- Nausea and vomiting
12 to 24 hours after your last drink:
48 hours after your last drink:
- Increased blood pressure
- Excessive sweating (usually with a fever)
- Delirium tremens (can be life-threatening)
What Causes Delirium Tremens?
If you’re a heavy drinker that has been drinking for a while, you are at most risk for experiencing delirium tremens.
Delirium tremens consists of more severe (even fatal) versions of the symptoms you’d experience 48 hours after your last drink.
Although we’re still unsure what causes this, it’s been linked to glutamate released during alcohol withdrawal.
Glutamate is an excitatory neuron.
During withdrawal, your brain releases glutamate to compensate for the increased levels of GABA (remember how alcohol increases GABA activity?).
How do I get treatment — what are my options?
First, you have to stop drinking, either all at once or gradually (this is called tapering).
You have to let your body detoxify naturally.
When you drink, your liver metabolizes ethanol to remove it from your system.
Your liver can process about a drink an hour.
So, if you drink frequently, you’re unable to completely get rid of all the toxins in your body.
When you go “cold turkey” and stop drinking suddenly, it can be dangerous because the withdrawal symptoms are more severe.
Professional medical detox is the best option because your condition can be monitored 24/7.
This makes sure your pain is managed and you’re less likely to experience life-threatening symptoms such as dehydration and delirium tremens.
The Discovery House offers treatment options (both inpatient and outpatient rehab) that can help you deal with both the mental and physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.