Alcohol detoxification is the abrupt cessation of alcohol intake in persons with alcohol addiction. Detox marks the starting point of addiction treatment. The sudden cessation of alcohol consumption puts the body into a whole new predicament. In this post, we are going to discuss what alcohol detox does to your body, what to expect, and much more. Scroll down to get informed.
How Alcohol Addiction Affects The Body
Before we dive into the effects of alcohol detox on the body, it’s important to address the impact of alcohol use and alcoholism on our health. A paper from the Alcohol Research and Health reports that alcohol is a necessary underlying cause for more than 30 conditions and a contributing factor for many more.
The most important disease conditions whose underlying cause is alcohol consumption include alcohol use disorders, alcoholic liver disease, and alcohol-induced pancreatitis. Disease and injury conditions for which alcohol intake is a contributing factor include, but are not limited to:
- Infectious diseases
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neuropsychiatric disease
- Unintentional and intentional injuries
- Liver and pancreas disease
Alcohol Research: Current Reviews published a study that explained that alcohol misuse was the fifth-leading risk factor for premature death and disability worldwide. You see, alcohol can permeate virtually all tissues in the body. Excessive and chronic intake of alcohol can, thereby, result in significant alterations in organ function and lead to multisystemic pathophysiological consequences.
For example, gut mucosa is particularly susceptible to alcohol-induced injury, and alcohol consumption can lead to a loss of intestinal barrier integrity. As a result, bacteria and toxins reach the bloodstream. Heavy and chronic intake of alcohol can, therefore, produce chronic and sustained activation of immune responses and lead to exhaustion and dysfunction of the immune system.
Alcohol use and alcoholism can also impair heart health and elevate both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as the above-mentioned study shows. In fact, many heavy and chronic alcohol drinkers tend to have hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure. Binge drinking is associated with stroke, myocardial infarction, atrial fibrillation, among other cardiovascular problems.
Additionally, alcohol use can also harm your lungs. Chronic and binge-like alcohol administration may impair epithelial barrier function, suppress immunity, disrupt bacterial clearance, and even decrease outcomes of pulmonary injuries and diseases.
Even further, drinking alcohol significantly affects your brain, as well. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and it can impair the way your brain looks and works. These disruptions may change mood and behavior and make it harder to move with coordination and think clearly.
Speaking of brain changes, it’s useful to mention that evidence shows drinking heavy amounts of alcohol over a long period of time can reduce brain volume. The more you drink on a regular basis, the lower the brain volume.
As seen above, consequences of alcohol consumption are numerous, and complications worsen the more you drink. Alcohol addiction is a serious problem but manageable with a proper treatment approach at the inpatient alcohol rehab center for men in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Alcohol Detox: Neurochemical Mechanism of Action
Cessation of alcohol consumption induces a wide range of changes in the body, which is why a wide range of withdrawal symptoms occur. For decades scientists have tried to explain mechanisms of action that happen in the body during alcohol detox. Although research on this subject has improved, there’s still a lot we need to learn about the impact of alcohol detox.
What evidence shows is that the brain is in a balanced state before alcohol exposure. When a person consumes alcohol, its acute effect is to unbalance the neurochemical equilibrium of the brain. Upon continuous or chronic alcohol exposure, the brain institutes an opposing adaptation to balance the effect of alcohol and restore neurochemical balance.
In other words, the brain becomes tolerant of alcohol. But at this point, your brain is also in a state of dependence.
When exposure to alcohol ceases, such as during alcohol detox, the new neuroadaptation occurs and disrupts the former balance of the brain’s neurochemistry. The new adaptation induces a functional effect on the brain, which constitutes withdrawal syndrome. That explains why you experience withdrawal symptoms during alcohol detox.
Basically, the cause of both alcohol tolerance and withdrawal symptoms is the same, being changes in neurochemical response. However, multiple mechanisms may play a role in alcohol dependence and detox.
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that produces both euphoria and behavioral excitation at low concentrations due to increased glutamate binding to N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter in the brain and CNS; it is involved in every major excitatory brain function, while NMDA is similar to glutamate.
At higher concentrations, alcohol leads to acute intoxication through potentiation of the gamma-aminobutyric-acid (GABA) effects. As you’re probably aware, GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain. Chronic alcohol use causes the development of tolerance and physical dependence.
Dependence may result from compensatory functional changes due to the down-regulation of GABA receptors and elevated expression of NMDA receptors. At the same time, the production of glutamate increases in order to maintain homeostasis in CNS, evidence shows.
When you stop drinking alcohol abruptly, such as the case with alcohol detox, various changes occur, and one of them is glutamate-mediated CNS excitation leading to autonomic overactivity and neuropsychiatric complications such as seizures and delirium.
Dopamine is yet another neurotransmitter involved in an alcohol withdrawal syndrome. When a person drinks alcohol, elevated dopamine positively affects the reward system and thereby maintains abuse. Don’t forget that dopamine is the main component of the brain’s reward system and one of the most crucial neurotransmitters.
In alcohol detox, elevated dopamine levels contribute to clinical manifestations of hallucinations and autonomic hyperarousal.
A study from the Pharmacological Reports found that polymorphisms in the dopamine receptor two gene influence both alcohol use disorder and clinical manifestation of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. As a reminder, genetic polymorphism refers to multiple forms of a single gene.
How These Changes Affect The Body?
When you stop drinking alcohol, the brain needs to adapt, the levels of neurotransmitters change, and these effects have an impact on your body. This area requires more research, though. However, changes in neurochemistry are considered the primary culprit behind withdrawal symptoms a patient experiences during detox.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as fear or worry that can be mild or severe. The level can change as a reaction to situations perceived as dangerous; stressful anxiety is a common problem. Many patients experience anxiety during alcohol detox as one of the most prevalent symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
A study from the Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research reports that early phase withdrawal (1-14 days after the last drink) is a period when withdrawal symptoms are the most severe. Higher glutamate levels were reported in alcohol-dependent patients one to 10 days of abstinence compared to healthy controls.
In confirmation of this claim, Neuropsychopharmacology published a study which confirmed that up-regulation of glutamatergic excitatory neurotransmission is responsible for the acute withdrawal symptoms and strong cravings that patients experience at this time.
This could explain the incidence of many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, including anxiety. In fact, a study from the Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior explained that glutamatergic neurotransmission could be involved in the biological mechanisms underlying stress response and anxiety-related disorders.
Moreover, Neuroscience Letters published a paper that found that stress or trauma-activated glutamate circuits lead to glutamate spillover and trigger pro-inflammatory processes and excitotoxicity. There is a relatively narrow window between the brain’s adaptive neuroplastic response to stress and the potentially excitotoxic impact of glutamate.
Upon surpassing this “safe” threshold, a cascade of neural indices ensues and alters both structural and functional glutamatergic connectivity. In other words, it triggers the body’s stress, or fight-or-flight response.
Keep in mind that sudden cessation of alcohol intake is a shock or stress to your body, and it activates cascades of events we explained above. In other words, glutamate plays a major role in stress response and anxiety, which could explain why people experience this symptom during detox. However, more research on the direct impact of detox on glutamate and anxiety is necessary.
It’s also worth mentioning a study from the Acta Pharmalogica Sinica, which showed that after withdrawal from alcohol, the down-regulation of GABA receptors contributes to many symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Abstinence from alcohol reverses the inhibition of the NMDA receptor, which also produces many withdrawal symptoms.
During this time, other mechanisms are also activated, including dysfunctional dopaminergic transmission, which is responsible for hallucinations.
The same study also found that down-regulation of GABA receptors could be behind anxiety and seizures often associated with withdrawal. Moreover, during periods of withdrawal, a significant decrease in dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters is strongly associated with depression, anxiety, and dysphoria (generalized dissatisfaction or feelings of incongruency with life and loss of interest).
Although headache is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and occurs in the early stages of detox, studies on this specific topic are lacking. However, the Journal of Headache and Pain published a study that reported that anomalies of GABA and glutamate turnover might play a role in the pathogenesis of migraine headaches.
Moreover, a study from the Neurotherapeutics journal explains that elevated levels of glutamate are observed in patients with migraines. This could be due to the fact that some glutamate receptors are found on pain-modulating structures of the brain.
Even though these studies are not specifically about alcohol detox and headache, they do portray the mechanisms behind this symptom in men and women who undergo alcohol detox as glutamate levels go up, the expression of receptors increases, including those on pain-modulating areas, which could propel the incidence of headaches.
Hopefully, in the future, we will have the opportunity to see studies that examine mechanisms underlying headache in alcohol detox patients.
Effects On The Heart
Alcohol detox is the first, and for most people, the biggest challenge on the road to successful recovery from alcohol addiction. During this phase, various symptoms can occur. Alcohol detox can affect your brain, mood, and even your heart.
Annals of Emergency Medicine published a study that found that alcohol withdrawal can involve changes in blood pressure. Scientists observed 95 patients undergoing early alcohol withdrawal for five days in a non-hospital facility. Results showed that patients under 30 years old developed a significant increase in systolic blood pressure on the second abstinent day.
On the fourth day of alcohol abstinence, systolic blood pressure decreased 10mm/Hg on average.
With increasing age, a progressively smaller rise in systolic pressure was observed. It’s useful to mention that, in this study, a history of hypertension, delirium tremens, seizures, initial pulse, race, and gender wasn’t a predictor of changes in blood pressure. During this time, diastolic blood pressure was unaffected.
As mentioned above in the post, alcohol consumption can increase high blood pressure. The Journal of Hypertension featured research that aimed to find out what happens with hypertensive patients during alcohol dependence treatment. The study included 14 hypertensive heavy alcohol consumers who agreed to take part in a hospital withdrawal program for 30 days.
These participants were compared to eight hypertensive heavy drinkers who didn’t participate in the program and 11 people with normal blood pressure.
The findings of this research are interesting as they show that by the third day after withdrawal, blood pressure significantly decreased. In 13 out of 14 subjects, blood pressure was normalized by the end of the study.
Alcohol withdrawal significantly lowered levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and aldosterone (steroid hormone). Based on the results, scientists concluded that hypertension is rapidly reversible in the majority of heavy drinkers after the withdrawal of alcohol consumption. In these patients, high blood pressure is linked to the elevated release of endothelial factors that increase blood pressure.
In other words, alcohol withdrawal may help men and women with hypertension and normalize values of blood pressure. This is particularly important if we bear in mind that heavy alcohol consumption is associated with high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases and events such as heart attack and stroke.
Severe heart-related complications during alcohol detox are rare but possible. Journal of Medical Case Reports published a paper about a 52-year-old heavy-alcohol-using man who developed electrocardiogram changes suggestive of the acute coronary events during alcohol withdrawal.
On the day of admission to the hospital, a patient did not show abnormalities of ischemic heart disease. However, an ECG on the fourth day demonstrated abnormalities that continued through the sixth day as well.
The patient was then treated for acute coronary ischemia (reduced blood flow in the coronary circulation through the coronary arteries, linked to heart disease and heart attack). The patient achieved full recovery and was released from the hospital on day 10. Scientists explain that although heart abnormalities could be coincidental events, growing evidence supports that alcohol withdrawal can induce coronary problems.
This is not the only study that points to heart problems during alcohol detox. A case from Poland reports about a 23-year-old woman addicted to alcohol and affected by depression. She developed a dysfunction of the heart’s left ventricle after alcohol withdrawal. Although her condition improved during three weeks of hospitalization, ECG outcomes weren’t normal at discharge.
Also, the Cardiology journal published a case report about a 36-year-old patient who experienced acute myocardial infarction during withdrawal from alcohol. Initially, the patient had normal-appearing coronary arteries but still experienced acute myocardial infarction during withdrawal and delirium tremens.
Despite the rare prevalence of heart-related complications during alcohol withdrawal, medical supervision is crucial, which is why it’s better to get necessary help at the best medical detox program for alcoholics in North Texas.
Alcohol Detox Affects The Body in Many Ways
Effects of alcohol detox on the body are numerous, ranging from anxiety to high blood pressure, headache, delirium tremens, and other problems. During detox, you may experience insomnia, upset stomach, confusion, abnormal breathing, impaired attention, among other changes. Keep mind that these changes usually reverse after detox, once the body adapts to the new state where it doesn’t have alcohol in the system.
This post focused on the effects of alcohol detox on the body. Alcohol detox is the starting point that leads to recovery from alcohol addiction. As a person abruptly ceases alcohol intake, the body goes through an array of changes whose root is in altered neurochemistry.
Since levels of neurotransmitters are in imbalance, various symptoms occur, and they range in intensity from mild to severe.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.