Alcohol withdrawal – 7 symptoms that affect even moderate drinkers
In this article I list the 7 most surprisingly common (but little known) symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that are experienced even by moderate drinkers – and how you can relieve them.
I’ll first give an overview of what alcohol withdrawals are and what causes them, followed by the full range of extreme symptoms and what to do if you suffer from them.
Then I’ll show you the 7 most common withdrawal symptoms that even moderate drinkers experience (but rarely realise what is going on) before finally listing 4 remedies to help relieve these symptoms.
What are alcohol withdrawals?
Alcohol withdrawals are the brain and body’s reaction to alcohol leaving the system. The more dependent on alcohol that the body had become, the more severe the withdrawals.
Typically heavy drinkers who are physically dependent on alcohol suffer from alcohol withdrawals, but as we’ll see below, moderate drinkers can also suffer from some of the milder effects after even one night of indulging in an excessive amount of alcohol.
For someone who is physically dependent on alcohol, the effects of alcohol withdrawal can last for anywhere between a couple of weeks and a year. Thankfully this is not the case for moderate drinkers!
Additionally, once the withdrawal period is complete then all physical dependence on alcohol is removed.
As a brain sedative, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to withdraw from. Anyone who is withdrawing from heavy alcohol use should seek a doctors advice (indeed many people attend detox units so they can receive constant monitoring as they withdraw from alcohol).
What causes alcohol withdrawals?
The changes that alcohol produces in the brain after periods of heavy use are the cause of alcohol withdrawals and are what cause it to be so dangerous.
The brain naturally produces a certain level of “feel good” chemical dopamine. Alcohol intake causes the brain to release more dopamine into the system, causing a short term increase in “feeling good”. When alcohol leaves the body these dopamine levels slump down below their normal level causing us to “feel bad” until the brain stabilises the level.
These effects are minor for moderate drinkers drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, and the dopamine level very quickly returns to normal.
However, for those who drink large amounts over a long time period, the brain begins to expect the presence of alcohol in the system and begins to only produce dopamine at normal levels when alcohol is present. This means that no longer does alcohol make the drinker feel good relative to how they felt before drinking – now the drinker needs alcohol just to feel the same as they ever felt before they drank! The “feeling good” high is gone but the drinker still has to deal with the low when alcohol leaves the system and the body does not produce a sufficient level of dopamine.
When alcohol is completely removed from the system of someone who has built up such a dependence, alcohol withdrawal symptoms occur.
What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from minor (insomnia, sweating, shaking) to severe (seizures and delirium tremens, including hallucinations and fever).
We’ll explore more of the mild symptoms below.
Severe symptoms, such as delirium tremens (a period of extreme confusion including hallucinations, severe shakes and sometimes even seizures and death, typically beginning on the third day of alcohol withdrawal and lasting a further 2-3 days), tend to occur in people who have been consuming a large amount of alcohol on a regular basis (e.g. daily) for a long period of time (e.g. over a month).
These severe symptoms are extremely dangerous and medical supervision should be sought at once. For instance, death rates for people experiencing delirium tremens (~5% of those who experience alcohol withdrawals) without medical supervision are as high as 40%, dropping to 1%-4% with supervision!
The milder symptoms of alcohol withdrawals
Up to now we’ve dealt with the severe withdrawal effects of physical dependence on alcohol following prolonged periods of heavy use. Now let’s focus on the withdrawal effects affecting more moderate drinkers.
We’ve seen what causes these mild withdrawal symptoms: a decrease in the brain’s dopamine levels following the increase during alcohol use.
Here are 7 little known withdrawal symptoms that you may be suffering even as a moderate drinker:
1. Feeling anxious or depressed after drinking
Alcohol is a brain sedative and repeated use can lead to changes in brain chemistry that leave users feeling anxious or depressed. As alcohol use continues it is not uncommon for drinkers to suffer from hangovers spanning a number of days accompanied by severe anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Indeed, these feelings of anxiety and depression are a part of the symptoms of physical withdrawal from alcohol.
2. Craving sugar
When our dopamine levels are low it is natural to seek something to raise them again. Like alcohol, sugar can also cause dopamine to be released which is why those suffering alcohol withdrawals often crave something sweet.
3. Feeling irritable and easily angered
Below average dopamine levels cause us to feel irritable, easily angered and quick to lose our temper over little things. Ever wonder why you just do not have the patience to deal with those crying children after drinking alcohol?
4. Having bad dreams and nightmares
If we are in a bad mood when we’re awake it should come as no surprise that our dreams aren’t all happy and bright either. Low dopamine levels impact our brain whether awake or asleep.
5. Experiencing throbbing headaches
Another effect alcohol has on the body is to cause dehydration. If you’ve ever suffered from a headache the day after overindulging in alcohol this was most likely caused by being dehydrated.
6. Suffering from a fever
Usually the body triggers a fever to fight infection, but excessive alcohol use can also cause this response and trigger a fever.
7. Exaggerated negative feelings (such as feeling remorseful or guilty after drinking or “the fear”)
If you have behaved inappropriately when drinking or if there are other negative consequences that may have arisen as a result of your drinking then this excessive drinking can lead to feelings of guilt and remorse.
These feelings are exacerbated by the low level of dopamine in our system which causes us to exaggerate the magnitude of these negative feelings (e.g. even mild anxiety can transform into a high level of fear).
4 methods to help relieve the effects of alcohol withdrawal:
Alcohol induced dehydration causes the body to lose electrolytes (minerals that help maintain the body’s processes). You can replace these electrolytes by consuming plan-based food and plain water, but you can also buy electrolyte enhanced drinks to accelerate the process.
Alcohol induced sleep is poor quality, therefore it is likely that you have tiredness to add to the mix of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Catching a few hours natural sleep can have a profoundly positive effect on mood.
This is an obvious one – but nothing gets rid of that throbbing headache faster than your favourite painkiller.
It’s probably the last thing you’ll feel like doing after a heavy night’s drinking, but exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, therefore eliminating some of the anxiety and negative feelings you may be experiencing.
As we’ve seen, severe alcohol withdrawal is a potentially life-threatening situation and medical advice should be sought at once. However, milder withdrawal symptoms are experienced even by more moderate drinkers. If you regularly experience any of these symptoms then it might be time to examine your drinking behaviour – [check out this article on how to know if you have a drinking problem and this one on how to stop drinking if you do.]