If you’re a heavy drinker and you’ve ever tried to take a break from alcohol, you probably felt like your body was actively fighting your choice. When going through alcohol detox, heart palpitations, body shakes, anxiety, and headaches are just a few of the problems one might face.
Alcohol withdrawal describes the various mental and physical effects that people experience when abstaining from alcohol after a long period of heavy use. When we stop drinking, our bodies need time to get used to the absence of alcohol. This comes with a host of issues, which can range from mild to severe.
These problems develop because alcohol acts as a depressant, limiting neurotransmission activity in the brain. Consequently, the brain is far less active than it would be under normal circumstances. When someone drinks frequently or heavily, the brain compensates by releasing a larger amount of stimulating chemicals. This state of overproduction becomes the brain’s normal state. When you suddenly stop drinking, the brain takes a while to return to a healthy level of chemical production, meaning the brain is overstimulated in the meantime.
How Alcohol Withdrawal Feels
For some people, alcohol withdrawal comes with both psychological and physical symptoms. Additionally, the severity of these problems varies from person to person, depending on a range of factors. How long a person has been drinking, as well as the frequency and quantity, generally play the largest role. Other contributing qualities include age, history of withdrawal, underlying conditions, and genetic differences.
Mild symptoms can begin just a few hours after the last drink, becoming more severe with time. The earliest symptoms develop within hours of the last drink and include anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, tremores, nausea, and vomiting. The next several days typically involve high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and confusion. If symptoms continue after this stage, they dramatically escalate in severity. In late-stage alcohol withdrawal, heart attacks, fever, agitation, seizures, and even hallucinations are possible. Sometimes, these are part of a life-threatening type of alcohol withdrawal known as “delirium tremens.””
Beyond these symptoms, there are also emotional aspects to consider. Certain individuals feel shame about their behavior while under the influence, while others might feel angry at the events that led them to where they are now. Depression and anxiety often occur alongside addiction, withdrawal, and even recovery. Withdrawal from any substance is often a deeply personal process that goes beyond how the body feels. For many people, emotional and behavioral changes are often harder to manage than physical ones.
Despite all this, some people are uniquely resilient to alcohol withdrawal. They might experience minor symptoms or have none at all. Thanks to modern findings, some experts attribute this to genetic differences between humans. They even believe that they can identify the neurons responsible for alcohol withdrawal and target them to treat a massive range of substance addiction issues.
Genetics and Alcohol Withdrawal
Scientists at Scripps Research have made significant advancements in understanding the underlying genetic factors at play in alcohol withdrawal. Older research efforts discovered that a signaling molecule called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) had links to alcohol withdrawal. Researchers found that by blocking CRF in alcohol-addicted mice and rats, the animals drank less.
Many other animal studies have found that CRF levels increase during alcohol withdrawal. Scientists have also learned that CRF levels spike in response to other psychological stressors as well. Experts hope that by targeting CRF itself or the neurons responsible for producing these molecules, they will be able to treat a range of issues, including addiction.
Unfortunately, that’s where the problem lies. Originally, scientists thought that neurons in the brain’s central nucleus of the amygdala were responsible for producing CRF. However, a 2022 study showed that these neurons had nothing to do with alcohol dependence or withdrawal. After activating these neurons and increasing CRF levels or blocking them to drop CRF levels, researchers didn’t find any behavioral changes in mice with alcohol dependence.
Essentially, this means that CRF is entering this section of the brain from somewhere else, so scientists have to track down which of the many CRF-producing neurons are responsible for alcohol addiction. Plus, CRF neurons are very different between species and it could take some time to recognize them in humans. Still, many experts are optimistic about the future of CRF research and addiction treatment.
The Value of Finding CRF Neurons
People may wonder what purpose there is in finding the CRF neurons. Sobriety is hard. Even years after becoming sober, relapses happen. Uncovering the neurons responsible for alcohol addiction isn’t just about making it easier to treat withdrawal and its related symptoms. By targeting these neurons, experts could dramatically reduce a person’s desire to drink alcohol and limit the chance of relapse.
Beyond this, there are links between CRF, other addictions, and psychological stressors. Developing this area of science could open up treatment for a truly wide range of other conditions and issues.
What We Can Do Now
Unfortunately, there’s no telling when the research on CRF will bear fruit. People struggling with addiction and withdrawal symptoms need help now. It is not easy to try and handle alcohol withdrawal alone. And, depending on the severity of the addiction, going it alone can be dangerous.
The supervision of medical experts who specialize in managing withdrawals can make the entire process safer, easier, and less intimidating. Medications can address many symptoms, including pain, nausea, insomnia, and hallucinations.
Beyond this, the body loses a significant amount of fluids during withdrawal, due to extreme sweating and vomiting, among other symptoms. Without professional care, dehydration is typical and can lead to worse symptoms and slower recovery. Medical professionals can provide proper fluid intake to avoid this complication.
In cases of extreme withdrawal, seizures and tremors can cause brain and organ damage. Only a medical facility can prepare for and prevent this from happening.
Alcohol withdrawal isn’t just about the physical issues, however. The road to sobriety also requires addressing the various factors that led to addiction, as well as their lasting effects. Mental health professionals who intimately understand this process can help you navigate it with all of the support you need. Reach out to us today for more information on our alcohol treatment programs and how we can help you attain a healthy life.