Overcoming an alcohol use disorder (addiction to alcohol) necessitates not only supportive guidance and sustained, devoted effort to positively change one’s behaviors and attitudes, but also the elimination of one’s physical dependence. In other words, to develop and maintain recovery from alcohol dependency, one must physically detox, as well as psychologically detox.
The psychological part of the recovery equation may be significantly easier and less challenging to accomplish if one has begun the process of recovery via entry into a medical detox. Let’s explore one primary component of this “formula” for recovery: the use of benzodiazepines to help make the detox from alcohol process smoother and safer
For starters, many people who have long-term recovery from alcohol abuse have declared one of the biggest obstacles to their getting sober was ‘withdrawal’ — that is, the prospect of having to deal with any number of the withdrawal symptoms commonly associated with stopping drinking after sustained regular use: anxiety, shakiness, sweating, vomiting, rapid heart rate, confusion, seizures, hallucinations, and in severe cases, delirium tremens (DTs). Given withdrawal symptoms such as these can be incredibly painful and even fatal, it’s no wonder statistics indicate the majority of people who have an alcohol use disorder do not seek treatment. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of the estimated 15 million adults with an alcohol use disorder, less than 7% get the necessary treatment for them to recover.
This severe gap is all the more disheartening, since those working in the field of treating addiction have a wide variety of resources to help people with an alcohol dependency get through the initial detox. Among the most commonly prescribed to support one going through alcohol withdrawal are a class of medicines known as benzodiazepines (aka “benzos”).
Benzodiazepines act to depress the central nervous system, slowing down brain activity and nerve impulses throughout the body by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. They also significantly reduce the brain’s output of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine and dopamine.
According to research, these neurotransmitters are necessary for coordination, alertness, memory, muscle tone, heart rate, blood pressure and emotional responses. By impairing these particular neurotransmitters, the use of benzodiazepines can put a person in a relaxed state, even causing drowsiness or sleepiness.
Benzodiazepines can help decrease a person’s alcohol withdrawal symptoms in a number of ways. Since drinking alcohol impacts the way the brain functions, it affects powerful changes throughout the nervous system and the body. Over time with increased usage, it essentially rewires the brain and nervous system, and the damaging effects become more severe the longer alcohol abuse continues.
Eventually, a person’s brain becomes dependent upon alcohol to function — this is why people experience withdrawal when they suddenly quit drinking. The rapid cessation of alcohol intake throws the brain into disarray, causing withdrawal symptoms that can be mild, severe (even deadly) or anything in between.
Since alcohol withdrawal can be extremely painful with a wide range of unpleasant effects, benzodiazepines are often used during medical detox to treat these symptoms, both smoothing out and helping to stabilize the person’s process of alcohol detoxification. However, it should be emphasized that benzodiazepines should only be taken under medical supervision and prescribed by a licensed medical professional, ideally in a treatment center setting. This is especially true given benzodiazepines themselves can be addictive and carry a number of side effects that may be harmful if the drugs are misused.
However, even with the potential risks involved, the medically supervised use of benzodiazepines offers a wide variety of options and benefits to meet the needs of those seeking detox from alcohol dependency. When used properly, benzodiazepines can assist in the elimination of withdrawal symptoms, one of the biggest challenges facing those who seek freedom from alcohol addiction and a new life of sobriety and recovery.