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What’s Happening to Your Body During Withdrawal?

The outward symptoms of withdrawal are apparent. While different drugs have different withdrawal symptoms, some symptoms are common for many drugs. These symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, shaking, sweating, headaches, and nausea.

What’s actually happening inside your body to cause these symptoms is less obvious and depends on what drug you are trying to get out of your system. Every drug works a little differently, and that’s why every drug feels different–although similar kinds of drugs, opioids, for example, have similar effects and similar withdrawal symptoms.

Generally speaking, when you go into withdrawal, what you feel is the sudden chemical imbalance in your brain. Your brain has gradually adapted to the presence of the drug and changed its production of neurotransmitters to balance the effects of the drug. Your brain may even change its structure as certain thinking patterns become strongly reinforced. That is, the drug not only produces a sudden chemical shift, which you experience as pleasure, but the pleasure reinforces the behavior patterns that will lead you to repeat the experience.

The chemical part of this equation is mainly responsible for the discomfort you feel in detox as your brain frantically tries to rebalance its chemistry. You will have to deal with the altered behavior patterns later in treatment if you want to stay in recovery.

For an example of how this adaptation and unbalancing works, let’s look at alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol primarily affects two neurotransmitters in the brain, GABA and glutamate. Neurotransmitter function is complicated, but basically GABA and glutamate have opposite functions–GABA calms you down and glutamate winds you up.

When you drink, alcohol enhances the effect of GABA. That is, the normal amount of GABA in your brain makes you feel abnormally calm. When you drink regularly, your brain starts to catch on that you don’t need as much GABA to feel normal, so it gradually produces less of it. Eventually you reach a new equilibrium–assuming your drinking levels off at some point–at which you feel normal with a certain amount of GABA and a certain amount of alcohol.

Conversely, alcohol blocks the action of glutamate, which means the normal amount of glutamate is not enough to keep you alert. You may have noticed this effect when you drink. To compensate, your brain produces more and more glutamate until it balances the blocking effect of the alcohol. Again, the longer you drink regularly, the more your brain adjusts.

When you stop drinking, you suddenly find your brain has too little GABA and too much glutamate. Not only is the neurotransmitter that calms you down too low, but the neurotransmitter that winds you up is too high. Drinking regularly determines how thoroughly your brain has rebalanced and drinking heavily determines the degree of the imbalance.

This is why anxiety, irritability, and elevated heart rate are all common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Your brain lacks the resources to make you feel calm. Medications alleviate symptoms by temporarily restoring that balance, giving your brain time to readjust.

The Serenity Recovery Center at Encino Medical Hospital is offering your loved ones a new way to begin their journey of recovery. Excellent clinical care, medical management, and the highest levels of comfort are our priority at Serenity. Call us today for information: 866.294.9401