Currently, roughly 1 in 8 Americans in the United States struggles with an alcohol use disorder, which is sadly unsurprising, given the wide availability of the substance and the general social acceptance toward regular alcohol use.
Quitting any addictive substance can be extremely difficult, but quitting alcohol is often especially so. Many people fail to successfully quit drinking at least once before managing to attain sobriety.
One of the main reasons that alcohol has such a high relapse rate is that, like the majority of central nervous system depressants, it has some of the most uncomfortable and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be more than enough to drive people back to drinking to find relief.
This is why, for many drinkers who have previously relapsed after facing a particularly severe alcohol withdrawal experience, the more effective option may be to try tapering off alcohol safely instead of attempting to abruptly quit all at once.
Slowly lowering the amount you drink through alcohol tapering can act as a form of harm reduction while also weaning your body off of its dependence on alcohol at a pace that it can handle without triggering some of the more dangerous symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Avoiding the Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Many other drugs, including ones people will typically associate with their fatal effects, like heroin, do not have nearly the same potential for the possibility of a lethal withdrawal compared to alcohol. This is mostly due to what is known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome , which includes symptoms such as seizures and Delirium tremens.
Delirium tremens is a symptom of alcohol withdrawal that is actually many different symptoms under one label, including hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, and intense disorientation, which can all result in psychosis. It can take between two to four days for the symptoms of delirium tremens to fully manifest, and at least another three days for them to run their course.
The typical warning signs that someone is going to experience Delirium tremens include tremors, an extremely elevated heart rate, and a drastic increase in body temperature. This is because Delirium tremens is caused by hyperactivity in the nervous system, which is now without the depressant effects of alcohol and is instead going into overdrive.
This nervous system’s intense hyperactivity is also what can cause someone in withdrawal to experience grand mal seizures, which are characterized by significantly impaired movement, uncontrollable convulsions, and occasionally temporary amnesia as well.
Fortunately, deaths resulting from alcohol withdrawal are a rare occurrence. Between about five to 20 percent of people who undergo alcohol detox will experience these symptoms, and within that group, roughly 1 in 20 dies from them, usually due to complications from attempting to detox without any medical supervision.
Still, even if someone’s alcohol withdrawal experience does not include seizures of Delirium tremens, the more common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal still make for an overwhelmingly unpleasant experience.
Some of these symptoms include:
- Excessive Sweating
- High blood pressure
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
When someone with an addiction to alcohol has to deal with the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, they will often find themselves overcome with the extreme discomfort and difficulty involved, especially if they are trying to quit cold turkey all at once.
This is why many people dependent on alcohol will choose to taper down their usage rather than stop drinking altogether. Someone will slowly diminish the amount they drink with the intention of avoiding the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal completely and will hopefully be able to avoid a relapse as well.
Can You Taper off of Alcohol?
For many other drugs, tapering is actually a standard treatment during medical detox. For people who depend on opioids, benzodiazepines, or antidepressants, it is typical to slowly reduce someone’s dosage as opposed to immediately cutting them off completely.
While this is done to avoid disrupting the body’s system as much as possible, as illustrated by the withdrawal symptoms above, it is also to alleviate discomfort and cravings to make the prospect of quitting easier, day by day and dosage by dosage.
This is also the same logic that is applied to quitting cigarettes, as many longtime smokers will find themselves unable to stop smoking cold turkey and will instead wean themselves off of nicotine through the use of nicotine patches, gum, or vaping.
The short answer is that yes, you can taper down your alcohol usage in the same way as people taper off of other addictive substances, although it may be easier for some than others, depending on the severity of their addiction. For example, someone who has been drinking three beers a day will generally have an easier and shorter overall time tapering off of alcohol than someone who has been drinking double that amount per day.
Still, even if you are starting at a comparatively smaller level of regular alcohol abuse, tapering is a very slow process that requires a good deal of patience and willpower, which is why many people may actually opt not to taper and instead do a full detox and endure the withdrawal symptoms to get sober quicker and start from there.
Does Alcohol Tapering Work?
Alcohol tapering is definitely possible, but the question of whether or not it works is not quite as straightforward. In the same way that everyone person is unique and their experience with addiction is going to be unique, the most effective method of recovery is also going to vary from person to person.
For some, alcohol tapering might not be the answer. While it can work as a means of harm-reduction, for those with severe dependencies, they may be able to handle cutting down on the number of drinks they have for a short time, but not as a permanent measure, and will soon return to drinking at their previous level.
For someone who has become dependent on alcohol to the point where they find themselves unable to function and complete daily tasks without it, just the act of tapering on its own can bring on the withdrawal symptoms that they are trying to avoid.
If that is, in fact, the case, and they are going to experience the symptoms of withdrawal anyway, then it might be more helpful for them to undergo a more streamlined and straightforward detox process. This should, of course, still be done under the care and supervision of a medical professional at a treatment center specializing in medical detoxification.
However, for someone who has an alcohol use disorder that is not as protracted or severe or is otherwise overwhelmed at the prospect of attempting to quit drinking altogether, alcohol tapering may be the most effective option.
For one thing, it creates tangible goals for the person tapering to reach, helping to build their confidence in themselves and the belief that they can eventually stop drinking completely.
It also can reduce the risk of relapse by not trying to attempt too much too soon, failing, and then going back to regularly using alcohol to cope with the feelings of failure.
Why Is Alcohol Withdrawal Dangerous?
Alcohol is one of the most commonly used recreational substances in the United States. It’s essentially a legal recreational drug. It’s so common that more than 80% of people have had alcohol at least once in their lives. But is alcohol more dangerous than other drugs when it comes to dependence and withdrawal? Why is an alcohol tapering schedule necessary?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Central nervous system depressants are a class of drugs that includes several prescription medications like benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sedative-hypnotics. Depressants are so-called because they depress activity in the central nervous system. In other words, they slow down chemical communication in the brain and body. This is what causes many of the positive and negative effects of drinking, and it causes the effects of prescription depressants.
Alcohol works by increasing the potency of a neutral chemical in the brain called GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid. GABA is a neurotransmitter responsible for your brain’s rest and digest response, which helps to facilitate sleep, relaxation, and anxiety release. Alcohol influences this process by making GABA more powerful. However, your body is adaptable, and after a period of regular, heavy drinking, your nervous system will adapt to the presence of alcohol.
You may have fewer GABA receptors, and your body may become better at processing alcohol. Your brain may also produce fewer of its own depressing chemicals like GABA and more excitatory chemicals.
This whole process happens over time. It may take several weeks or months. However, when you quit drinking abruptly, your body’s chemical balance will be thrown off suddenly, leading to uncomfortable side effects. You will have an imbalance of excitatory and inhibitory chemicals in your nervous system. This is why many of the alcohol withdrawal symptoms seem to be related to overstimulation, like shaky hands, racing thoughts, and insomnia.
Overstimulation in your nervous system can affect important unconscious functions like your heart rate, blood pressure, and electrical impulses. This is why you can experience seizures and heart failure during alcohol withdrawal.
Does Everyone That Drinks Need an Alcohol Withdrawal Taper?
If alcohol withdrawal is so dangerous, is tapering off alcohol necessary for everyone who drinks? If you’ve been drinking consistently for a long time, it’s a good idea to consider the safest way to stop when it’s time to cut back. However, weaning off alcohol isn’t always necessary for people who want to cut back or stop drinking. The most significant factor is whether or not you’ve become chemically dependent.
For instance, many people binge drink on the weekend without drinking during the week. They may have a mild-to-moderate substance use problem without being chemically dependent. Still, they may need to consider cutting back for other physical, mental, and social health reasons.
Dependence is often accompanied by tolerance, which is when it takes more and more alcohol for you to achieve the same effects that you experienced when you first started. Another sign that you might need to taper is morning alcohol cravings.
Cravings or discomfort at odd times, like the morning or the middle of the workday, may mean that your body is dependent on alcohol. Needing to drink in the morning is a telltale sign for multiple reasons. It’s not a time typically associated with social drinking. If you’re dependent, the morning is also the time when alcohol’s effects will start to wear off after drinking the night before.
You should also consider an alcohol withdrawal taper if you’ve ever gone through withdrawal from alcohol, or any other depressant, in the past. Alcohol withdrawal can cause something called kindling to occur in your brain. Kindling refers to lasting physical changes in the brain that cause each subsequent withdrawal period to be worse. Someone who has gone through alcohol withdrawal several times is more likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms than someone going through it for the first time.
How To Taper Safely off Alcohol
There are several methods of alcohol tapering, and if you choose to taper off of alcohol, it is important to take the time to set up both a method and tapering schedule that will best work for you so that you will be able to stick with it. As previously stated, some people can become frustrated with how long an alcohol tapering schedule can take and will try to place unreasonable limits on their consumption, setting themselves up to fail.
Just as what is a useful method for one person may not be for another, what is a safe method for someone may not be for someone else. This is why it is essential to determine your method of tapering and your tapering schedule with the supervision of a medical professional experienced in an alcohol addiction recovery treatment.
Some things to keep in mind when creating your tapering strategy include figuring out the timeframe for your alcohol tapering, like deciding whether you will be reducing the number of drinks you have in one sitting, one day, or one week.
There is also the matter of the specific type of alcohol in question. For example, if someone primarily abuses a hard liquor like tequila, instead of reducing the amount of tequila they drink, it can sometimes be more useful to substitute wine or beer instead, working your way down to weaker alcoholic drinks.
Whichever method you choose, what is most important is to commit to your alcohol tapering schedule, so you can be sure that you have avoided the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal as much as possible.
Start Your Journey To a Sober Tomorrow
If you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, it can feel like being trapped in a tunnel with no way out. But there is always hope, and with the help of Delphi Behavioral Health Group, you can get connected to the professional treatment, resources, and support you need to find the light at the end of the addiction tunnel. Our admissions specialists will help you find the facility and treatment program best suited to the recovery needs of you or your loved one. Our knowledgeable and compassionate team is available 24/7 to help get you or someone you care about into treatment and answer any questions or concerns you might have.