The idea of stopping drinking cold turkey may seem like common sense to battle an alcohol addiction, but quitting in this way is dangerous and even life-threatening. Why is this so, and what should you do instead?
Countless self-help books and seminars teach us that in order to stop a bad habit, we have to make a decision to quit and stay committed. Although this advice may apply to situations such as quitting mindless snacking or ending our disorganization, it may not be very effective for battling addictions.
Why Do Some People Want to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?
When people are motivated to create a new beginning, it seems like quitting alcohol cold turkey may be a good idea. Quitting cold turkey means the sudden stop of alcohol use, without any gradual measures. Many recent studies show the benefits of quitting alcohol, which can entice people to stop abruptly:
- Improving your mental health
- Reducing your risk of liver and cardiovascular problems
- Lowering your chances of developing cancer
After all, you want to start over. Why not wipe out all traces of alcohol from your body? But, the very act of abruptly stopping altogether may actually harm you.
What Happens When You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?
According to an article on Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, quitting drinking abruptly when you’re dependent on alcohol can kill you. Alcohol changes your brain chemistry, especially if you have developed an addiction. This means that when you regularly consume large amounts of alcohol, the function of your brain’s neurotransmitters may change over time. The brain neurotransmitters are responsible for tasks such as
- Transmitting messages for motor movements (walking, hand movements, coordination)
- Sending signals for organ function (heart, liver, lungs, etc.)
- Retrieving memories and facilitating learning
Stopping alcohol immediately can cause a sudden neurotransmitter imbalance that can impair your brain’s functions and its ability to manage other vital organs.
Neurotransmitter malfunctions in the brain can create alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is pain, discomfort, and other problems associated with the body’s dependence on alcohol. When people stop drinking, they may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, these signs and symptoms may even be more than discomfort. They may be fatal.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you stop drinking alcohol cold turkey, here are some potential complications that can occur, ranging from mild to severe:
Mild alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Nausea: You may feel sick to your stomach as the body tries to adjust without alcohol.
- Headache: This is a common occurrence for people who binge drink and may be part of a hangover as the body struggles to return to normal.
- Fatigue: Alcohol is a depressant and your body may experience fatigue as it tries to recuperate and function without alcohol.
Moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Rapid heartbeat: This is a symptom caused by impaired neurotransmitters in the vital organs. A rapid heartbeat may produce discomfort, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or chest pains.
- Flu-like symptoms: Alcohol withdrawal can also feel like you’re coming down with the flu. The symptoms may include a headache, fever, runny nose, muscle pain, and fatigue.
- Diarrhea: Alcohol withdrawal diarrhea is a sign of impaired bowel functioning. It is important to drink fluids when experiencing this symptom because diarrhea can lead to more serious complications, such as dehydration.
- Cravings: This symptom can be difficult to ignore. Not only do you feel discomfort when you’re trying to quit abruptly, but you may also experience the intense need to drink alcohol.
Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Seizures: An alcohol withdrawal seizure can be deadly, because it can also represent brain cell death. When brain cells malfunction or die, they cannot operate vital organs. Additionally, seizures in risky settings can cause fatal accidents.
- Dehydration: When diarrhea is persistent and untreated, the lack of water in the body may cause confusion, seizures, kidney problems, low blood volume, or death.
- Organ failure: More than a rapid or irregular heartbeat, heart failure or other organ malfunctions may occur if people quit drinking cold turkey. In 2017, actor Nelsan Ellis died of heart failure because of sudden alcohol withdrawal.
- Delirium tremens (DT): Delirium tremens or DT is a serious alcohol withdrawal complication for 3-5% of people who quit abruptly. DT can produce shaking, hallucinations, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular collapse. If left untreated, the condition can be fatal.
An article in USA Today states that hundreds of people die each year because of self-attempts to quit alcohol. Without medical supervision, people are likely to experience symptoms when they quit drinking. It is vital to seek professional help when attempting to recover from alcohol addiction to prevent life-threatening complications.
What to Do Instead of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey
One key to recovering from an alcohol addiction safely and effectively is to taper off its use. When accompanied with professional help, you can succeed in quitting alcohol without experiencing the serious complications of withdrawal.
When you seek help with professional rehabilitation services, you will typically undergo a series of detox, treatment, and aftercare procedures. You will be admitted to a facility that will observe your withdrawal symptoms. The facility will provide a comfortable place to stay and employ medical staff who will help you overcome alcohol withdrawal until you’re ready for treatment.
After detox, there are various options available for overcoming an alcohol addiction. Some options include 12-step rehab, non 12-step rehab, faith-based treatment, holistic options, SMART Recovery programs, and fitness plans to help you identify and stop the causes that trigger your drinking. The center may help you develop a plan after your intensive treatment ends. This plan is intended to help you stay on track with your addiction recovery.
Following this process may seem difficult, but it yields results. It helps people avoid serious withdrawal symptoms and improves their chances of a long-lasting recovery.
What Are Other Benefits of Attending Rehab Instead of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey?
You may experience a more comfortable alcohol withdrawal.
Going to rehab doesn’t mean you won’t experience withdrawal altogether. Experts recommend that you seek medical assistance when quitting drinking for safety reasons, but also to ease the effects of alcohol withdrawal.
You may participate in a program custom-tailored to your needs.
The idea to stop drinking cold turkey may seem simple, but the truth is, addiction is a complex disease. It has many layers, both internal and external, that need to be explored and targeted in order to achieve sobriety. Enrolling in a rehab program will help you develop a treatment plan that is well-suited for your unique medical needs and situation.
You will have sources of support.
Battling an addiction is a personal journey, but it is almost impossible to make it alone. Enlisting sources of support, including peers and professionals, may help you create a strong foundation for total recovery.
There’s a Better Way to Quit
When it comes to fighting an alcohol addiction, stopping suddenly is not the way. A gradual, “slow-roasted” approach definitely reaps more benefits rather than going “cold turkey” and experiencing life-threatening symptoms.
Do not risk your life by attempting to give up an addiction on your own. There’s definitely a better way to quit–and that is through seeking professional help.
- ishn.com – Why Going Cold Turkey from Alcohol Can Kill You
- shape.com – What Are the Benefits of Not Drinking Alcohol?
- qbi.uq.edu.au – What Are Neurotransmitters?
- mayoclinic.org – Hangovers: Symptoms & Causes
- washingtonpost.com – Nelsan Ellis Died of Alcohol Withdrawal. Family Hopes His Death Will Be a “Cautionary Tale”
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Delirium Tremens (DT)
- usatoday.com – Quitting Alcohol Can Be Deadly: Hundreds in the US Die Each Year
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.
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