April is alcohol awareness month and to do our part, we’re going to look at what people need to know in order to carry out an alcohol detox at home.
An alcohol detox is essentially another term for “weaning off” or “going cold turkey.” More specifically, an alcohol detox is the process by which you manage the withdrawal symptoms in order to go through the stages safely and securely.
It’s very important to have a plan established beforehand in order to have a safe alcohol detox at home, since you will not have immediate access to the resources available at a treatment facility.
It’s worth noting that there is a difference between a home liver detox and an alcohol detox process. Liver detox refers to a much broader range of possible treatments, not all of which are legitimate. Alcohol detox refers specifically to managing the withdrawal process and, biologically speaking, involves more than just the liver itself.
With that out of the way, here are some answers to questions likely to arise as you plan out how to detox from alcohol at home in a safe and effective manner.
When Does the Alcohol Detoxification Process Start?
The amount of time it takes for alcohol detox to begin—in other words, for withdrawal symptoms to kick in—will vary from person to person. Contributing factors are the duration and severity of prior alcohol use, personal metabolism, body weight, and similar traits. Generally speaking, alcohol detox symptoms will begin to appear within six to 12 hours of the last drink. In some individuals, the possible window is much larger and it can take several days for the symptoms to begin even as your body begins to reel.
What Happens During an Alcohol Detox at Home?
Technically speaking, alcohol detox is the name of the overall process you undertake. What is actually happening to your body is withdrawal as your system deals with the abrupt loss of something it has become dependent on even as the last remnants are cast out. Depending on the severity of the dependency and personal biology, the effects of a detox can range anywhere from a severe hangover to seizures and hallucinations.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms normally start appearing about six to twelve hours after drinking stops. It is possible for someone to still have a measurable blood alcohol level even as any of the following symptoms start:
- Hand tremors
- Mild anxiety
- Nausea and vomiting
- Body aches or muscle pains
- Restless leg syndrome
- Hallucinations (“alcoholic hallucinosis”)
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts or feelings of impending doom
Around the 12- to 24-hour mark, some who undergo alcohol withdrawal will experience hallucinations. These can be auditory, visual, or even tactile, and the hallucinations can last for up to 48 hours. In most cases, people who experience hallucinations caused by alcohol withdrawal are aware that what they are seeing or feeling is not real. This is an important distinction.
Seizures can also occur during withdrawal. Most strike between 24 and 48 hours after drinking stops but in rare cases they can appear within two hours. The risk of suffering a seizure goes up if one has undergone an alcohol detox in the past, and increases further with each detox.
Who Suffers from Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?
There are three groups that are more likely than others to have strong withdrawal symptoms:
- Those who have gotten drunk every night for a month or more;
- Those who have stayed drunk for several days in a row; and
- Those who drink small amounts of alcohol throughout the day for a month or more (but not enough to get intoxicated).
The At-Home Alcohol Detox Process
1. Decide Whether to Taper Off or Go Cold Turkey
When trying to do an alcohol detox at home, you need to figure out whether you will be trying to wean yourself off or if you will stop drinking immediately. Regardless of which method you choose, the detox process is going to be harsh so you should keep the following in mind:
- Whether you want a harsher but faster experience (cold turkey), or a slower but less painful one (tapering).
- Personal willpower—be honest with yourself and reflect on which method you would be able to stick to best.
Note: when tapering, it’s important that someone else is in control of your alcohol dosage and the timing of which it is administered. Your decision-making ability is going to become fiercely compromised as withdrawal sets in, so you should ensure that you can’t sabotage yourself out of desperation.
2. Clear Your Schedule
Alcohol detoxification, whether at home or in a clinic, takes time and you are not going to be in good shape to handle your normal work or family duties during this process. Additionally, it can be easier to justify abandoning the detox early if an obligation comes up. Making sure you can fully commit to detox helps keep you on task and focused.
3. Get Support
There are two reasons you should have at least one other person with you as you go through alcohol withdrawal at home. The first is that they can help you manage the symptoms of withdrawal if they become too crippling or even call for medical help if necessary. The second is that having a friend or loved one around offers immense emotional support, encouragement, and accountability.
4. Get Distractions
Dwelling on your withdrawal symptoms will make them seem worse and make the detox process more onerous than it already is. It’s important to find ways to distract yourself. Watch movies, binge on television series, have a hot shower, listen to audio books, play music, go cloud watching, or do whatever else comes to mind.
5. Stay Hydrated
Hydration is important under normal conditions, but during a detox it’s even more essential. Not only will you avoid dehydration headaches, which you definitely don’t need during withdrawal, but staying hydrated can help your body maintain the balance that the detox process is currently throwing off.
6. Remember: it Will Pass
Know that whatever you feel during the detox process is only temporary. It may take a few days or even a week, but there is a definite light at the end of this tunnel.
Recommended Diet for an Alcohol Detox at Home
Staying well-fed is important to making it through the detox process more easily. Since alcohol impairs nutrient absorption, it’s important to try to maintain a balanced, healthy diet during a detox. This means fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and similar goodness should make up your alcohol detox diet, but there are a few more specific dietary choices you can make to help make things go more smoothly.
What to Eat
Water: Staying hydrated is important during detox for two reasons. The first is that alcohol can dry you out, so you will likely already have some form of mild dehydration when you begin the detox. The second is that during the detox process, your body tries to break down not only the remaining alcohol in your system, but other substances that came with it. Anything your liver can’t destroy will be expelled through urine. Maintaining water intake helps speed this up flushing it out. Broth, juice, and popsicles can also be used, especially if it becomes hard to keep solids down.
B Vitamins: Alcohol affects B vitamin absorption, so you are likely deficient in thiamin, folic acid, or vitamin B12. Thiamin can be found in eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and fortified breads or cereals. Folic acid comes from fruits and leafy greens, while B12 is in meat, eggs, and milk.
Minerals: Like the B vitamins, you may have certain mineral deficiencies brought on by alcohol use; specifically calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Dairy and leafy greens are good for calcium while whole grains, fruits, and nuts contain magnesium. Iron is found in things like meat, beans, and raisins while zinc can be obtained from beef and almonds.
What to Avoid
Fried or heavy foods: Since your stomach may not take withdrawal very well, it’s important to go easy on it when possible. During an alcohol detox, try to abstain from fried or overly heavy or fatty foods. It may be possible to eat spicy food, but that will vary from person to person.
Coffee: One common trait among recovering alcoholics is that many have traded an alcohol addiction for a caffeine one. Although nowhere near as dangerous, getting hooked on caffeine comes with its own issues and it’s best avoided if possible. Therefore, it’s advisable to avoid high-caffeine drinks during an alcohol detox.
Supplements: There are no true options for a natural alcohol detox at home besides a well-rounded diet. While vitamin supplements can and should be taken if advised by a doctor, you should not take a supplement on your own initiative unless you absolutely can’t get the nutrient from a dietary source.
Recommended Exercises during an Alcohol Detox at Home
Once you get into the throes of withdrawal, exercise may be the last thing you want to do. However, getting in some physical activity can help promote endorphin release, improve circulation, help combat the withdrawal insomnia, and provide a psychological boost in the form of increased control over your well-being. There are no specific exercises to be used during a detox, but you should focus on easier activities such as walking or light biking.
Alcohol Detox: How Long Does an Alcohol Detox Take?
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal tend to peak around the 24–72 period, but the actual detox itself can take several days to a week to fully finish. This duration only applies to the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that the detox is meant to address. Even after completing a detox, further support or treatment will be needed to ensure proper recovery and to minimize the risk of a relapse.
Dangers of an Alcohol Detox at Home
A true detox is an unpleasant process and withdrawal can become serious and potentially life-threatening. The most dangerous result of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens, also known as the DTs. This is an intense psychotic condition that should be treated as a medical emergency. The DTs only occur in a small percentage of withdrawal cases and usually in those who abruptly stop heavy drinking, but it has occurred in other instances as well. Delirium tremens is represented by a cascade of different symptoms such as:
- Disorientation, confusion, and intense anxiety;
- Profuse sweating and high body temperature;
- Low-grade fever;
- High blood pressure;
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat;
- Tonic-clonic type seizures (unconsciousness and violent shaking; also called grand mal seizures);
- High anxiety and/or agitation;
- Severe tremors; and
- Intense hallucinations that cannot be separated from reality.
The hallucinations caused by the DTs are primarily visual in nature and those suffering them don’t realize what they’re seeing isn’t real. This is the main way to differentiate delirium tremens hallucinations from those present in the more “normal” alcoholic hallucinosis.
Delirium tremens is most likely to occur within the first 72 hours after giving up alcohol, but it can still occur up to 10 days after stopping, although the likelihood is much lower.
When undergoing a home detox, it’s vitally important that you have someone with you who can recognize the symptoms of delirium tremens and call for medical help if they appear.
What Happens After an Alcohol Detox at Home?
As mentioned above, detox is just the first step in the recovery process. It’s highly recommended that you enter into a rehabilitation program or seek some other form of professional aid as a way to maintain your gains and avoid relapses. The good news is that withdrawal is one of the hardest parts to manage and your prospects of maintaining sobriety go up dramatically once it’s finished.
Tips for a Successful Alcohol Detox at Home
- For your own safety, resist the urge to self-medicate using sedatives or similar substances.
- The craving for alcohol can become more intense than you expect, especially when the withdrawal symptoms hit their peak. Plan ahead for what to do if your willpower starts to wane.
- Stock up on food and other supplies beforehand.
- Consult your doctor before undergoing a detox. They will be more familiar with your medical history and personal health situation, and can offer specific advice that takes these factors into account.
- Avoid associates who may encourage you to drink during the detox process. This may require staying with a friend or family member rather than detoxing in your own home.
- Before you begin, write a letter to yourself that clearly outlines your reasons for doing the detox. Look back on this letter when things get tough during withdrawal in order to reaffirm your commitment and refresh your motivation.
- Make sure you are not left alone during the first 72 hours of detox. This is the period when withdrawal symptoms are at their most severe and the risk of needing outside intervention (supportive or medical) is highest.
A home alcohol detox is not recommended when an appropriate rehab program is available. Being able to undergo withdrawal under medical supervision and with therapeutic support is always better than trying to do so on your own. However, not everyone has access to such programs or is able to afford them. As part of alcohol awareness month, it’s only appropriate that those who might otherwise slip through the cracks get some of the advice they need to carry out a home detox successfully.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Self Detox Best Practices,” Alcohol Rehab web site; http://alcoholrehab.com/drug-addiction/self-detox-best-practice/, last accessed March 29, 2016.
Corleone, J., “Recommended Diet for Alcohol Withdrawal,” Livestrong web site, last updated June 11, 2015; http://www.livestrong.com/article/410113-recommended-diet-for-alcohol-withdrawal/, last accessed March 29, 2016.
“Alcohol Detox at Home: 6 Steps to Kicking the Addiction,” Mighty Ambitions web site; http://mightyambitions.com/alcohol-detox-at-home/, last accessed March 29, 2016.
“Alcohol Withdrawal,” Web MD web site, last reviewed February 16, 2015; http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/alcohol-withdrawal-symptoms-treatments?page=2#1, last accessed March 29, 2016.