Detoxing is the term commonly used by professionals to refer to the process of removing toxins from the body.
In the case of a habitual user of drugs or alcohol, this process generally results in withdrawal symptoms that occur when the amount of the addictive substance available decreases or stops. Since the brain and body are adjusted to having that substance available, both physical and emotional symptoms can be expected when the supply is cut off.
The detox process can have different symptoms from one substance to another, and people have distinctly individual reactions. Most withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable but not immediately dangerous, while others may be severe and potentially life-threatening. Some people have experienced difficulty breathing, seizures, or coma during detox. This is why it is so important to have the advice of a medical professional before starting the detoxing process. Below we will review the process of detoxification, how it manifests in the body and mind, and provide some strategies for coping with this part of the recovery process.
The Steps to Detoxification
Detox is the initial phase of the recovery process. Detox is usually broken down into three steps: evaluation, stabilization, and preparation. (More information about what to expect during each step is detailed below.)
During each of these steps in the process, patients may also attend support groups or therapy, or receive other complementary treatments. While important, these are not themselves considered to be part of the detox process.
The first step in undertaking detoxification should be receiving an evaluation from a qualified physician. The evaluation step will include a physical exam, blood tests, and psychological assessment. Be sure to alert the medical team to drugs or alcohol that might be in your system during the evaluation.
In addition to assessing the severity of the addiction, the physician will screen for any co-occurring conditions that will affect the treatment plan. The patient’s support network and access to resources should be evaluated to ensure that they have the best chance of long-term success.
After assessing the patient fully, medical professionals will recommend a treatment plan and schedule. The plan may include medication, therapy, inpatient treatment, and other treatment methods mentioned in this article. The goal of this step is to achieve medical stability and get through the worst of the detox symptoms.
With the treatment plan in place, the patient will discontinue the use of the addictive substance. This should be done only under the supervision and support of trained medical professionals. In addition, friends and family may be asked to be involved by providing emotional support and encouragement during this initial detox phase. Stabilization usually lasts one to three weeks.
Finally, as the severity of the detox symptoms decreases, the supervising health professionals will design and customize the follow-up treatment plan. The patient will need to be physically and mentally prepared for the work needed to achieve sobriety. The preparation stage should include methods to avoid relapse, on-going therapeutic treatments, and strategies for long-term recovery.
After detox, a patient may choose to continue in an inpatient rehabilitation program or receive outpatient aftercare. It is essential to continue treatment even after the withdrawal symptoms have ceased to maximize the likelihood of a successful recovery.
Drug and Alcohol Detox Methods
There are several options for how a person goes about detoxing from the addictive substance. There is no single method that is suited to everyone.
The correct choice will depend on several factors, including the type of substance being used, the length of time they have used that substance, and any concurrent mental or physical health issues. Detox methods include:
- At-home cold turkey detox
- Outpatient detox
- Inpatient detox
At-Home Cold Turkey Detox
At-home cold turkey detox refers to a sudden stop to the use of the addictive substance(s). Depending on what the person is addicted to, they will experience more or less severe withdrawal symptoms.
Since they do not have a treatment team, this also means the person has to endure all the symptoms without the assistance of prescription medications. Unfortunately, the chances of relapse are high for people who try to quit without professional help.
Quitting cold turkey is probably the most common way that people try to become sober, especially those who try to quit without assistance. The cold turkey method is far more difficult than medically-assisted detox, and can be dangerous or even fatal depending on the substance.
This method is only suitable for a very limited category of people. They need to be otherwise healthy and not exhibit any signs of a significant physical dependence (or using a substance that does not usually result in physical withdrawal symptoms, such as hallucinogens). Their addiction should be reasonably mild. They should have a strong support network and concrete recovery plans.
Even if you meet all of these conditions, it is still recommended to consult with a physician before undertaking any detox method. We do not recommend at-home detox kits, as they have limited usefulness and do not account for any differences in individual situations.
Outpatient treatment involves the patient living at home but regularly accessing medical professionals and other support services. Many of these programs offer group or individual counseling, medication, and education.
They usually start with more intensive visits during the detox period. A patient may spend multiple hours per day in treatment before returning home in the evening. As they move out of detox, the number of sessions decreases as they stabilize in their sobriety.
The treatment team may prescribe some medications to help with the symptoms of detox and will check in with the patient to adjust those medications as needed.
The advantages of outpatient detoxing are that it is more flexible to meet peoples’ schedules and is less expensive than inpatient treatment. However, it is not suitable for people with severe addictions or co-occurring disorders.
Inpatient (residential) treatment offers structured, 24/7 care in a facility designed to provide a safe environment and prompt access to medical attention.
Detoxing in a residential facility can help patients cope with symptoms more easily since they offer intensive programming and closely supervised withdrawal. Since medical professionals are readily available on-site, they can continuously monitor the symptoms and medications during the detox period.
This type of detox is best for those with severe addictions, especially if the substance is associated with dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Since substance abuse often coincides with mental health issues, inpatient treatment usually involves a dual diagnosis treatment plan. This type of plan provides necessary psychological care through counseling and medication at the same time as patients detox. A residential detox program is the recommended treatment method for those who have co-occurring conditions.
For example, many people find it helpful to be on an antidepressant or antipsychotic medication while they stabilize. Since underlying mental health conditions can exacerbate addiction, it is important to talk honestly with your doctor about any issues that might need treatment.
Although it can be hard to commit the time and resources to an inpatient program, patients are more likely to be successful long-term by using this method. Since the staff at these facilities are familiar with all types of withdrawal symptoms, they are well-equipped to provide guidance and strategies. Patients also get the benefit of being around others who are in the same situation.
The Body’s Response to Detoxing
Alcohol and drugs are addictive because they trigger pleasure centers in the brain. As with any pleasurable experience, the person is motivated to repeat the same behavior so that the positive feeling is replicated. However, over time, more and more of the addictive substance is needed to get the same effect.
When a person’s body adjusts to the presence of drugs or alcohol consistently over time, they become dependent on that substance. Dependency is both physiological and psychological. An addicted person may need the substance in their body just to function normally, as they are so entirely adapted to its presence.
When the addictive substance is removed or significantly reduced, the bodily systems experience that as an imbalance. Until the person can adjust and find a state of homeostasis without that substance being present in their body, various physical and mental symptoms can occur.
Symptoms of Detoxing
Some of the most common symptoms of detoxing include:
- Disrupted sleep
- Digestive upset (constipation, diarrhea, gas)
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Weakness, tremors, and/or muscle aches
- Irritability and/or anxiety
- Rapid heart rate
- High blood pressure
How Long Detox Takes
Detoxing from alcohol or drugs entails freeing the body from the addictive substances, while simultaneously managing any withdrawal symptoms. The length of a period of detoxification is determined by how long it takes for the patient to stop having withdrawal symptoms and reach stability.
Detox can take anywhere from a few days to many months. Most people can complete detox within a month. Detoxing is generally the first step in a recovery program, and many people find it helpful to join a detox treatment program during this time.
The length of time a particular person will experience detox symptoms varies, but some of the factors that influence it include:
- The substance being abused
- The person’s physical health
- Frequency of abuse
- The severity of the addiction
- Presence of dual disorders (co-occurring mental health issues)
- Use of multiple substances
Note that detoxing does not in itself address behavioral or psychological problems that are often associated with addiction.
Since it is only the first step in the recovery process, a person should not consider themselves recovered even if they are no longer experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Typically it takes much longer to address the environmental and behavioral changes needed to be successful in long-term recovery.
Ways to Cope During Detox
Below we will provide several suggestions for coping with the symptoms of detoxing. These suggestions address both psychological and physical symptoms, but a doctor should also be able to advise on additional strategies depending on a person’s specific circumstance.
Receive treatment in a medical detox program.
This is our top recommendation since handling the physiological and mental effects of withdrawal alone can be difficult or even life-threatening. Inpatient medical detox programs typically last 3-10 days and allow patients access to support and supervision 24/7 during this initial phase of recovery.
Depending on your situation, there may be medication, emotional support, group therapy, and other valuable services tailored to your specific needs. We will review the benefits of an inpatient rehabilitation program in more detail below.
Benefits of a Medical Detox Program
The number one method recommended for coping with symptoms of detoxing is to join a high-quality detox program. It is difficult and dangerous to try to detox on your own. There are many significant benefits to joining a drug or alcohol detox program, including:
- Customized treatment plans. With individual evaluations, a treatment plan will be designed for each patient’s specific needs.
- Psychiatric and psychological care. It is very common for people with drug or alcohol addiction to experience mental health issues as well. The program you choose should be equipped to treat disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar in addition to the symptoms stemming from the detox itself. Most will offer both individual and group counseling as part of the treatment plan.
- Pharmacological support. The patient’s medications can be adjusted as needed throughout the detox to address any additional symptoms that may occur. The supervising physician can quickly identify undesirable side effects and prescribe alternative treatments as needed.
- Long-term planning. After the detox period is over, the patient will work with the recovery team to design a plan for on-going treatment. Recommendations may include 12 step programs or other support groups, sober living homes, in- or outpatient treatment, and individual or family therapy.
- Educational programming. Patients in detox programs can learn the particulars of how addiction works and the effect of drugs and alcohol on the human body. Some programs will also teach skills classes that address self-sufficiency to help the patient transition smoothly after the treatment program. These may be social or professional skills, such as stress management, conflict resolution, or career planning.
- Nutritional and physical fitness support. A treatment center may employ nutritionists, exercise therapists, or similar professionals to advise patients on how to regain physical health. They can recommend a diet designed to supplement any deficiencies resulting from the addiction and create exercise regimens that suit the individual’s fitness level and any risk factors.
Get support from a therapist or support group.
During early recovery, it is vital to have people you can talk to about your experience without judgment or personal investment in your situation. A support group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous provides a structured approach where you can find others who have gone through the same struggles. They can help with perspective, access to resources, and strategies for success.
Likewise, a therapist who specializes in addiction therapy can provide you with a space to discuss your substance use and recovery freely. They should be able to provide you with methods to discuss with your family, coping mechanisms during your detox, and ways to address the underlying behavioral issues behind the addiction.
Family therapy may also be helpful during this time if any unhealthy dynamics are present.
Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
The ways that you care for your body during the initial phases of recovery can affect how likely you are to be successful. By eating a healthy, balanced diet with vital nutrients and vitamins, you will speed the recovery of function in the brain and body.
High-protein foods contain the amino acids necessary for the production of the hormone dopamine, which triggers pleasure in our brains. That is why diets high in protein can help to reduce cravings for the dopamine hit of the addictive substance. Dopamine also helps you feel more alert during the day, counteracting the sluggish feeling that overwhelms some people during detox.
You may also find it useful to take vitamin supplements to complement your healthy diet. Some addictive substances can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food, meaning that many people in recovery have vitamin deficiencies.
Be sure to drink plenty of water while you are detoxing. Water plays an essential role in flushing the unwanted substances out of your organs. As they are expelled in urine, it is important to continue replacing lost fluids to avoid dehydration. Diarrhea and vomiting, two of the main symptoms of detoxing, also lead to fluid loss. Some people like to flavor their water with fruits or vegetables (try cucumber, lemon, or strawberry) to keep from getting bored with drinking plain water all the time.
Minimize the number of caffeinated and sugary drinks you consume, since these are less hydrating than water and can contribute to disrupted sleep patterns. Proper hydration also helps with some of the other common symptoms of detoxing, such as headache and digestive upset.
Appropriate exercise supports recovery by causing your brain to release endorphins. Like dopamine, endorphins are considered one of the “feel-good” hormones that help regulate mood and relieve stress. Endorphins also act as a natural pain reliever, so exercising can help with headaches and muscle aches that sometimes accompany detox.
Exercise also helps with maintaining healthy sleep patterns, which benefits those experiencing insomnia as a detox symptom. Scheduled exercise can provide valuable structure to the day, and provide a needed distraction from cravings.
People who exercise regularly tend to have higher self-esteem and less stress than those who do not, and exercise is overall correlated with better mental health. Although exercise is an excellent option to distract from discomfort or cravings, it should be done in moderation. During this time, your body is already working hard to detox, so you should not overexert yourself with excessive exercise.
Plan some distractions.
The symptoms of detoxing can be uncomfortable, and boredom can be a trigger for some people to abuse substances. Be sure to think ahead and have plenty of activities available to you that will take your mind off your situation.
Schedule social activities with friends or family who are supportive of your recovery, or prepare a few books or movies that interest you. If you know there is a particular time of day or situation that triggers cravings, you can schedule something else that will keep your mind focused elsewhere during that time.
Most abusers of drugs and alcohol have people in their lives who encourage or enable that abuse. Some people find that most of their social lives are built around using their preferred substance. Friends or family who are not supportive of your recovery, or who are actively against it, should be avoided, especially during the detox period.
Seek out people who are sober themselves, or who are willing to abstain while they spend time with you. It could be easy to slip into bad habits when you are with people who are associated with your addiction. Instead, nurture the healthy relationships in your life, and prioritize those who have your best interests in mind.
Maintain good sleep hygiene.
Sleep is incredibly important at all times, and even more so when you are going through detox. Insomnia often plagues people in early recovery and can lead to higher chances of relapse.
Following guidelines for good sleep hygiene will provide you with the proper environment and mindset to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. People who do not get enough sleep can become irritable and anxious during the day, and are not as productive as those who are well-rested.
Depending on your particular situation, there may be medications that are appropriate to shorten the detox process and help prevent relapse. Consult with a doctor who is an addiction specialist, as they are in the best position to prescribe the appropriate pharmaceutical treatment plan.
Your doctor might also recommend medications for sleeplessness, pain relief, and other detox symptoms. (Medication is discussed more thoroughly in the Drug and Alcohol Detox Methods section below.)
Meditation and relaxation techniques.
Various methods that calm and relax can be helpful when enduring the symptoms of detox. They also help with disordered sleep. Slowing down thoughts, regulating breathing, and meditation are all shown to lower anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions. Massage and acupuncture may also help with relaxation and overall wellness.
Since stress can be a significant factor that leads to cravings, we recommend you try to reduce stressors in your life as much as possible during detox. Although your responsibilities and problems will not go away, it is essential during this time to focus on your recovery. Mindfulness can help with keeping perspective on the things that cause you the most anxiety.
Keep a journal.
Research proves that people who keep a journal have overall better mental health, reduced stress and depression, and even better physical health. The time when you are experiencing the symptoms of detox may be one of the most difficult in your life. By writing honestly about your thoughts and feelings, you can relieve the stress of trying to repress them and act “normal.” You can unburden yourself without hurting anyone’s feelings or causing them to worry.
Depending on how you use your journal, it can be an excellent place to track your recovery journey. You might use it to set goals, track symptoms and progress, and recognize thought patterns over time. You could use the notes from your journal to guide therapeutic discussions or to organize your thoughts in preparation for difficult conversations.
For many recovering substance abusers, detoxification is the most challenging step. Cravings, mood swings, and physical discomfort can make you question if you really want to quit. Your body and mind send you signals that you should relieve the pain and cognitive dissonance you are experiencing, and that drugs or alcohol will provide that relief.
Addiction is insidious, and it takes a great deal of willpower to ignore the symptoms that are indicating that you should consume the addictive substance. Remember that detoxing is just one step in a long process of recovery.
Remember that addiction is a chronic condition, and almost everyone experiences relapse at least once. It can feel impossible to cope when you are going through detox, but you can get support from others who have gone through the process and come out better for it on the other side.
Whether that be from a support group, a doctor or counselor, or another trusted person close to you, outside support makes it much easier to endure the symptoms of detox. This process, along with recovery, is well worth the effort.
Treatment is Within Reach at Steps Recovery Center
Note that recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Not everyone will be able to detox the first time they attempt it successfully. Many people find that it takes several attempts before they can achieve lasting sobriety. At Steps Recovery Center, we understand that the road to sobriety is not easy, which is why we are here to help you or a loved one struggling with addiction. We have locations in Salt Lake and Utah counties in Utah. Reach out to us today with any questions you may have.