What Happens to the Brain and Body During Detox
The first critical step in the recovery process involves the process of eliminating the substance, and related chemicals and toxins, from the body. Unfortunately, anticipating the detox and withdrawal process can be so anxiety provoking that it can deter someone from ever pursuing treatment. However, oftentimes information is empowering, so by learning about what happens to the brain and body during detox it can help prepare the person mentally for the road ahead.
Detox is a complex neurological process, during which the body and brain will react unfavorably to the sudden absence of the substance it has grown accustomed to. Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol is characterized by significant physical and psychological discomfort as the body and its systems attempt to adjust and stabilize. The best way to enter into treatment is with a warrior’s attitude, that detox is something to gut out and overcome in order to begin the journey to recovery.
What Happens to the Brain and Body During Detox
Using psychoactive substances for a prolonged period of time will have a profound effect on the body and the brain. These substances modify the way the brain functions and can cause serious damage to physical health. When preparing to undergo the detox and withdrawal phase of treatment, it helps to understand what happens to the brain and body during detox and withdrawal.
What Happens to the Brain? When engaged in active addiction, the brain makes adaptations in response to the effects of the substance. As it adapts it becomes dependent on the drug or alcohol to provide dopamine as the brain stops producing it. When the substance is withheld, there will be a sharp reduction in the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. During alcohol withdrawal, the brain produces a surplus of glutamate. All of these chemical changes create uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms as the brain attempts to normalize. Examples of withdrawal symptoms related to the brain include:
- Mental confusion
- Mood swings
What Happens to the Body? As the body purges the substance from its system it, too, will begin to show signs of distress. Body systems will be in chaos during the detox process as the body attempts to stabilize. Examples of physical withdrawal symptoms might include:
- Excessive shaking
- Hand tremors
- Excessive tearing
- Runny nose
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle and joint pain
- Increased heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
What is a Medical Detox
During the medical detox process the individual’s vital signs will be closely monitored and recorded. The unpleasant withdrawal symptoms will be mediated somewhat through medications that are provided by the detox professionals. These include medications to help control such symptoms as nausea and vomiting, headache, and fever. Benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan are used for alleviating the symptoms of anxiety, to help prevent seizures, and to assist with insomnia.
For some individuals, medication assisted treatment (MAT) can be prescribed during the latter days of the detox process, depending on the substance of abuse and how many days of sobriety are required before the medication can be introduced. These drugs, such as naltrexone, Suboxone, buprenorphine, or methadone, can help relieve detox symptoms and block drug or alcohol cravings, reducing the risk of relapse.
Emotional support is also provided during a medical detox. This is essential, as the difficulty of going through the withdrawal symptoms can lead some to just give up on detox altogether in order to stop the suffering. The detox support team can help keep the person motivated and forward-looking in order to safely transition them from detox to the addiction treatment program.
What to Expect During Detox
The detox and withdrawal experience varies significantly depending on the following factors:
- The substance of abuse, as each has a unique set of withdrawal symptoms
- The length of history of the substance abuse and consumption level
- General health status and age
- If a co-occurring mental health disorder is present
During medical detox, the individual will experience distinct stages of the detox and withdrawal process. Withdrawal symptoms commence within hours of the last dose or drink, and usually peak on days 2-3 before beginning to subside. Most detoxifications are completed within one week. In the case of a benzodiazepine detox, however, the required tapering process may take two or more weeks to avoid serious withdrawal complications.
Alcohol detox. Alcohol detox is considered high risk (as is benzodiazepine detox). This is due to the fairly rare occurrence of the delirium tremens, which can be life threatening. Alcohol detox symptoms and timeline will vary depending on the severity of the alcohol use disorder (AUD):
For milder AUD the withdrawal process follows this timeline:
- Withdrawal symptoms begin about 6 hours after discontinuing alcohol use
- Symptoms likely to occur include sweating, upset stomach and possible vomiting, shakiness, anxiety, increased heart rate, and headache
- Symptoms peak between 12-24 hours
- Withdrawal lasts 24-72 hours
- Minor withdrawal means there are no serious cognitive or psychotic symptoms, and no seizures
For moderate to severe AUD the withdrawal process follows this timeline:
- Withdrawal symptoms begin 2-8 hours after discontinuing alcohol use
- Symptoms likely to occur include all the above plus elevated blood pressure, mental confusion, elevated body temperature, insomnia, irritability, disorientation, anxiety, hallucinations, memory problems, tremors, paranoid thinking.
- The DTs may develop on days 2-4 and would constitute a medical emergency requiring hospitalization. The symptoms include severe disorientation, agitation, hallucinations, and potentially seizures.
- Withdrawal will last about one week. If the DTs develop, symptoms can persist for two weeks.
Opiate detox. Opiate detox follows a fairly predictable pattern with the first withdrawal symptoms appearing between 6-12 hours after the last dose of heroin or opioids. Generally, symptoms will peak between 24-48 hours and then gradually subside. In most cases an opiate detox is completed in 5-7 days, however long-lasting withdrawal effects can linger, known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Opiate withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Teary eyes
- Muscle and joint pain
- Intense drug cravings
Transitioning to Treatment Following Detox
Detox alone will not change addictive behaviors. Some may successfully complete detox and feel great, believing they can safely manage their behaviors on their own. In nearly all instances this quickly results in relapse. In fact, dangerous overdoses can occur when an individual has reached a period of sobriety and then relapses, using their pre-detox dosing or drinking levels. The body simply cannot manage that toxicity after a period of sobriety and fatal consequences can result.
Addictive behaviors that have developed over time must be methodically changed through a comprehensive treatment program. Treatment will consist of a variety of therapeutic interventions that work together to help individuals end addictive behaviors and learn to build a new sober lifestyle.
LifeSync Malibu Provides Medically Supervised Detox Services
LifeSync Malibu Healing Center is an upscale drug and alcohol addiction treatment provider serving the greater Los Angeles region. LifeSync Malibu is committed to providing the most up to date addiction recovery protocols within a nurturing and respectful environment. For any questions about what happens to the brain and body during detox, please reach out to the team today at (866) 491-4426.