In this article, we will review the alcohol detox timeline and discuss ways to reduce the duration and severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. For alcoholics, quitting drinking results in both physical and psychological alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can lead to the resumption of drinking if they are not managed properly.
The duration of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on how much a person was drinking, the duration of alcohol addiction, and what (if any) detox methods or medications are used.
If your goal is to distinguish between mild, moderate, and severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, then you will want to come back to this article after you read my last article on this subject.
Here I will draw upon my own experience to explore the alcohol detox timelines for three different scenarios:
- Quitting cold turkey
- Weaning off of alcohol
- Medication taper and nutrient repair
We will also review the causes of alcohol withdrawal, the brain phenomenon known as kindling, and further resources for reducing the alcohol detox timeline.
- What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
- Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Get Worse Over Time?
Before we review different scenarios for alcohol detox, let’s get a few general points out of the way:
- Most alcoholics who quit drinking suddenly experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms within 24 hours.
- If you have symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal like intense confusion or seizures, you should consult a doctor, who will likely prescribe anti-anxiety drugs that can save your life.
- I beat a VERY severe alcohol addiction and you can do it too! Never get hung up on the gloomy relapse statistics.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, listed from relatively minor to severe, include:
- A general sense of unease
- Increased blood pressure
- Sense of impending doom
- Hypersensitive reflex responses
- High fever
- Full body twitching
- Brain zaps
- Auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations
- Delirium Tremens – confusion/hallucinations that can last up to a week (untreated)
The following chart is a general snapshot (in days) of the alcohol detox timeline for a person who quits cold turkey without medications.
The red, green, and gray areas only apply to severe alcohol withdrawal, while the blue area applies to minor alcohol withdrawal.
The chart above only deals with the physical symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal.
For most alcoholics who quit drinking, life does not return to normal after two weeks without alcohol. There are two other factors that have to be taken into account here:
- Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS): Consists of physical and psychological symptoms – often anxiety, depression, and insomnia – that can last for up to a year after quitting drinking.
- Resolution of Underlying Disorders: A large percentage of alcoholics have untreated anxiety, depression, insomnia or other psychological issues that need to be addressed – often by a combination of nutrient restoration, external support, and the formation of new belief systems. Some people may need therapy or medications.
Regardless of the severity of your alcohol addiction, you have the power to minimize the symptoms in the above chart! The alcohol withdrawal remedies, nutrient repair supplements, and lifestyle changes discussed on this site can help you quit with relative ease and stay quit for good.
Being proactive about your healing process can shorten your alcohol detox timeline!
We will now review three different alcohol detox timeline scenarios. While it’s been more than a few years since I quit drinking for good, I experienced all of these scenarios during the decade in which I oscillated between dry periods and progressively heavier drinking.
Alcohol Detox Timeline #1: Quitting Cold Turkey
This is the longest alcohol detox timeline and unfortunately the most common scenario.
Quitting alcohol cold turkey is a bad idea for reasons that will be fully explained in the sections below. In short, your brain chemicals have become dependent on alcohol for normal functioning, and quitting cold turkey dangerously throws your neurotransmitters out of balance.
If you quit cold turkey, you may start to feel human again within 2 – 14 days, depending on the severity of your addiction.
However, quitting cold turkey increases the likelihood of potentially fatal seizures as well as ongoing psychological disturbances that can last for months.
The rare alcoholic who succeeds in quitting cold turkey is often left feeling shell shocked, which is not helped by the fact that he or she is already conditioned to use alcohol to relieve stress.
Post-acute withdrawal syndrome for the cold-turkey-quitter who does not utilize medications or nutrient repair can last a very long time. I once succeeded in quitting cold turkey for about three weeks, but the untreated anxiety and anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) finally got to me and I eagerly binged after being invited to a party.
As I later realized, I do not suffer from a serious underlying anxiety disorder. The anxiety I felt after quitting drinking cold turkey was entirely a result of PAWS.
Bottom Line: Don’t quit cold turkey unless you experience only mild withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve already succeeded in quitting this way, then kudos to you. Utilize this site to learn how to repair your brain and keep yourself on track!
Alcohol Detox Timeline #2: Weaning Off Of Alcohol
A small percentage of people have been able to wean themselves off of tremendous quantities of alcohol and stay quit for good. Weaning off of alcohol can be effective for avoiding acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and minimizing the “kindling” effect by which repeatedly traumatic withdrawal experiences become worse over time.
If you are able to wean off of alcohol, you may begin to feel a bit better as soon as your taper hits a few drinks per day or zero.
Unfortunately, most people who wean off of alcohol eventually fall back into a pattern of heavy drinking. This happens for two reasons:
- Most people who wean off of alcohol do not repair their biochemistry, and cannot figure out why they feel so down and lackluster even months after quitting drinking
- Most people who wean off of alcohol do not replace their implicit belief in the necessity or desirability of drinking alcohol with new, empowering beliefs about their ability to feel good without alcohol
Both of these points are a mouthful, but if you understand them, you’re lightyears ahead of the average alcohol dependent person who wants to quit.
About a year before I quit drinking, I weaned myself down from over a fifth of hard alcohol per day to 2 glasses of wine per night. This process took a few weeks. I was starting a new job and wanted to be mentally sharp.
It took an enormous amount of willpower to gradually deny myself the full-body relief that came with consuming a bottle of vodka. I maintained the 2 glasses of wine habit for a few weeks, and then got invited to a party, where I drank an entire handle of tequila.
The day after the party, I found myself heading back to the liquor store to recover from my terrifying withdrawal symptoms. I noticed that my alcohol withdrawal symptoms were much worse than ever before.
Bottom Line: Weaning yourself off of alcohol is better than quitting cold turkey, but it is difficult to sustain in the absence of nutrient repair and a massive change in your belief system regarding alcohol.
Alcohol Detox Timeline #3: Benzodiazepine Taper & Nutrient Repair
When I finally quit drinking, I was prescribed a tapered dose of a benzodiazepine called Ativan for about 10 days. I did not feel much while I was on Ativan, which surprised me because I’d endured many horrific detox episodes.
A benzodiazepine taper can eliminate the effects of acute alcohol withdrawal, but many people resume drinking because of post-acute withdrawal symptoms that set in after the taper ends.
Technically, my alcohol detox timeline lasted 10 days after I quit drinking. But I had not been educated about the incredible benefits of nutrient repair during my detox.
As a result, I struggled with severe alcohol cravings for many months after I quit drinking. My only weapon against these cravings was exercise, which worked wonders but isn’t a panacea in the absence of supplements that repair the brain.
When I wasn’t in the gym, I battled bouts of intense anxiety, depression, and insomnia. I was offered prescription drugs by several doctors and turned all of them down except for a brief course of naltrexone. This drug can help people quit drinking, but it did not do anything except dull my pleasure receptors, since I did not continue to drink.
Over the course of the next year, I carefully experimented with supplements and recorded the ones that worked. I made it my mission to learn everything I could about relieving alcohol withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal naturally.
All of my symptoms of post-acute withdrawal disappeared as I gradually discovered the supplements and lifestyle changes that I write about on this site.
Because everyone is biochemically different, the process of nutrient repair is a harmless (but sometimes frustrating) process of trial and error. Simply put, supplements often affect people differently. But don’t give up!!
Bottom Line: Quitting alcohol with the help of a medication taper is the best way to shorten the alcohol detox timeline. If you have severe withdrawal symptoms like I did, then you will need medications to detox.
If you cannot obtain medications for whatever reason, you should know that some people have been able to use supplements like phenibut or kratom at home to alleviate mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms as well as post-acute withdrawal syndrome.
Further Considerations For Reducing The Alcohol Detox Timeline
So, what can you take from the facts and anecdotes above? I think there are four primary lessons:
- Don’t quit cold turkey
- Proactively repair your system
- Clean up your diet
- Move your body and stimulate your mind!
One of the best ways to cut down on or quit drinking is to use Calm Support, which integrates a number of nutrients that I write about on this site. You may find that you need higher doses of some of the ingredients – but using a supplement like Calm Support is a great way to begin the process of nutrient repair.
In case you still think that vitamins simply pass through your system (as I once thought), consider this article on Vice. It’s written by a non-alcoholic who partook in Vitamin B3 infusion therapy and noticed impressive results. The use of niacin for alcohol cravings is a promising area of research, and you can read more about it in my article on niacin.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the science behind the alcohol detox timeline and the brain phenomenon known as kindling, we will review these subjects below.
What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?
Alcohol is a depressant that mimics GABA, which is the primary “inhibitory” or calming neurotransmitter in our brains. The alcoholic brain decreases its long-term GABA production because it has learned to rely on alcohol for the same effect.
To make matters worse, alcohol suppresses glutamate, which is an “excitatory” neurotransmitter. Glutamate has the opposite effect as GABA, making our brains hyperactive and our experience of the world hypersensitive.
When an alcoholic stops drinking suddenly, two important things happen:
- Glutamate rebounds to high levels within 3-8 hours
- GABA does not return to normal levels (this can take weeks)
Many of the symptoms above are caused by a lack of GABA and an excess of glutamate.
Alcoholism is a complex condition, and many other biochemical processes are involved in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. But in case you’ve been suspecting that you’re doomed or you’re losing your mind, it can be very helpful to be aware of the GABA/glutamate mechanism.
The following graphic may help you to grasp a fuller picture of the biochemistry involved:
Alcoholism is not a sinister curse; it is a biochemical disorder that can be conquered.
Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Get Worse Over Time?
Kindling is a phenomenon of brain chemistry for alcoholics. It basically means that episodes of withdrawal tend to get worse over time.
Due to kindling, I’ve experienced nearly every symptom of alcohol withdrawal listed in the first section, at one time or another.
In high school, I had a few scattered hangovers. These progressed to mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms when my tolerance increased in college. By the time I finished college, I experienced moderate symptoms if I went a few days without drinking.
In my mid-twenties, I could not take a week off of drinking without suffering some gray area between moderate and severe withdrawal symptoms. I had to call in sick to work whenever I wanted a “dry period” to begin. Eventually, my symptoms got so severe that I was left with no option but to get help.
The worsening of symptoms from episode to episode baffled me. Why couldn’t I go back to having simple hangovers or mild withdrawal symptoms?
The answer is that I had progressively greased the pathways of alcohol withdrawal in my own brain. With each alternating period of drinking, withdrawal, and dry time, my brain’s compensatory manipulation of GABA and glutamate became more exacerbated.
Moreover, scientists have found that each alcohol withdrawal experience permanently alters specific processes within our brains. (It is not necessary to understand these processes to grasp the concept of kindling.)
Studies in primates have found that animals with past withdrawal episodes suffered from more extreme symptoms in later episodes, even when they were given less alcohol than they had consumed in the past. (source)
Yet the average heavy drinker doesn’t decrease the amount of alcohol consumed over time. It’s no secret that alcoholics build a frighteningly high tolerance for alcohol. This fact also adds to the severity of future withdrawal episodes.
So, why do alcoholics tend to escalate their drinking over time? One reason they drink more is because more alcohol is needed to fill in for GABA, which becomes ever more scarce in their brains. Additionally, more alcohol is needed to suppress glutamate, which as mentioned before, causes feelings of stress that set in a few hours after drinking sessions end.
And so the alcoholic begins drinking more during each session and waiting less time in between sessions. Alcohol withdrawal episodes can go from “mild” to “severe” within the span of a few months. There are a few other reasons that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can get worse over time:
- Longer duration of drinking causes more brain and organ damage (detox becomes more physically difficult)
- Psychological dependence increases along with physical dependence (quitting alcohol becomes more mentally difficult)
It’s not uncommon for an alcoholic who swore never to drink in the morning to reluctantly begin taking a shot or two to ease withdrawal symptoms before work. It seems like a blur in retrospect, but luckily after reaching this point, I decided that it was time to let go of my pride and get help.
I hope that you’ve taken useful information from this guide to the alcohol detox timeline. There is no way to pinpoint exactly how long your alcohol withdrawal symptoms will last, but the information presented can help you shorten your symptoms and maybe even change your life!
I want to finish up this piece with three of my favorite Tony Robbins quotes, which I think are relevant for anyone who is struggling during alcohol detox:
- “You feel what you focus on.” While you repair your system, don’t focus on the absence of alcohol in your life – focus ONLY on empowering and exciting dreams and alternatives to drinking.
- “Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.” Focusing on scary things like “relapse” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Write down your new life plan – and your goals for this week.
- “Emotion is created by motion.” If you feel horrendous, go for a jog – fix your posture – take deep breaths – take a cold shower – hold a plank for as long as you can – DO things that change your mental state in the moment and add up to a brilliant transformation over time.
If you have any questions or comments about the alcohol detox timeline or how long alcohol withdrawal lasts, please leave them in the comment box below.