You may be wondering why someone trying to get clean of one type of drug (alcohol) would take another type of drug (benzos) during detoxification.
The answer is that when a person with an alcohol abuse problem goes into withdrawal, he will likely experience some negative symptoms as part of the experience.
Alcohol Abuse in the U.S.
Alcohol abuse disorder (AUD) has been referred to as “an untreated epidemic” in the United States. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism, 16 million people in the US live with AUD, a medical term that refers to problem drinking. It covers people with mild, moderate, and severe alcohol abuse issues (which were once referred to as “alcoholism”).
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?
If you have ever heard that alcohol is a depressant, this expression is only partly referring to someone experiencing a low mood after consuming quite a few drinks. It’s also talking about the physical effects of alcohol on the body.
Alcohol consumption slows down brain activity. It changes the way nerves send messages back and forth. For someone who is drinking alcohol regularly, his central nervous system adjusts to having alcohol present a significant amount of the time. The body has to work diligently to keep the brain more alert and to keep the nerves sending messages efficiently.
When someone stops drinking, the brain and the body don’t have the same level of alcohol that they have been dealing with for months or even years. They stay in this elevated state, leading to withdrawal symptoms.
Mild-to-Moderate Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
The exact symptoms that someone in alcohol withdrawal will experience vary from person to person. Withdrawal symptoms can start within six hours of the last alcoholic drink. They often start while the person still has a significant amount of alcohol in his system.
Symptoms that fall into the mild-to-moderate range include the following:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Rapid heart rate
Researchers aren’t certain why some people experience more severe symptoms than others; however, they feel genetics may play a part. Studies have also shown that volunteers who have been drinking alcohol over long periods of time who stopped drinking experienced more severe withdrawal symptoms than volunteers who drank alcohol for shorter periods.
Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
In a small minority of cases, a client experiencing alcohol withdrawal will experience complications.
Hallucinations may occur within 12-24 hours after the last alcoholic drink. If a person in alcohol withdrawal experiences hallucinations, they usually stop within 24-48 hours following the last drink.
Seizures are another symptom that may occur 12-48 hours after the last alcoholic drink is consumed. If alcohol-withdrawal seizures are left untreated, the client’s condition may deteriorate into delirium tremens (DT), a potentially life-threatening condition. Symptoms of DT include high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Hyperventilation (breathing at an extremely high rate) can also occur, resulting in a marked decrease in blood flowing to the brain.
How Benzos Help Alcohol Detoxification
A person with a long-standing history of alcohol abuse or who has been drinking heavily will probably need to undergo alcohol detoxification (detox) under medical supervision. During the process, the client’s condition will be monitored frequently for signs of complications of alcohol withdrawal.
Clients may be given benzos (benzodiazepines) to slow down the agitation in the nerves their bodies and brain are experiencing during withdrawal. These medications also cause drowsiness.
Benzos may work for clients in alcohol withdrawal by increasing the effects of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical messenger. The nervous system uses these molecules to transmit messages either between neurons or from neurons to muscles.
A client undergoing a medically-supervised alcohol detoxification may be given medications other than benzos, depending on whether he has other medical conditions. Every effort will be made to keep him comfortable while his body rids itself of the influence of alcohol. Once he is sober, the next phase of treatment can start, which usually includes individual and group counseling, along with a healthy diet and physical activities.
Great Oaks Recovery offers a full continuum of care for individuals with alcohol use disorders, personalized to fit individual needs. We are committed to helping clients build the foundation for a sober future.