If you’ve developed a dependence on drugs or alcohol, the first step of addiction treatment will be detoxification, but what is detox? Detox ends the physical dependence on a substance so that brain function can begin to return to normal and you can focus on getting the treatment you need to help you recover from the addiction.
You’ve probably heard a detox horror story or two, but the truth is, detox doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Here, we ask what is detox, how professional detox improves comfort and safety, and what to expect during detox.
What Is Detox?
Understanding what occurs in the brain during detox can help you know what to expect during the detox process.
Drugs and alcohol are psychoactive substances, which means that they affect your mental state by changing the chemical function of the brain. Brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, affected by drugs and alcohol include dopamine, serotonin, GABA, glutamate and norepinephrine.
Different drugs produce different effects on neurotransmitters. For example, alcohol, which is a depressant, increases the activity of GABA, which is responsible for feelings of calm and well-being, and decreases the activity of glutamate, which is responsible for feelings of excitability.
The brain doesn’t take kindly to these changes at first, and it tries to normalize by altering its chemical function. In the case of chronic alcohol abuse, the brain decreases the activity of GABA and increases the activity of glutamate in an attempt to compensate for the changes produced by alcohol.
As the brain compensates, tolerance develops. Tolerance means that you need increasingly larger doses of drugs or alcohol to get the desired effects. As you increase the dosage, the brain continues to compensate, but at some point, it may reach a tipping point where it begins to operate more “normally” when drugs are present. The brain begins to need the drug to function properly. This is dependence.
During detox, the drug is withheld so that all traces can leave the body and normal brain function can rebound. Neurotransmitters that were suppressed now flood the brain, and those that were increased are now reduced again. This resurgence of normal brain activity causes the onset of physical withdrawal symptoms, which vary depending on the drug and the neurotransmitters involved.
Unsupported Detox vs. Medical Detox
Many people who try to detox on their own turn back to drugs or alcohol very quickly simply to end the discomfort of the withdrawal symptoms. But it’s not just your comfort that’s at stake during unsupported detox. Serious medical complications can occur suddenly during withdrawal, putting your health and safety at risk. It’s never a good idea to detox on your own.
Professional detox is supervised by medical and mental health professionals who administer medication as needed to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and address potentially dangerous conditions. High-quality detox centers offer comfortable, relaxing facilities that promote healing and well-being. They provide healthy food and emotional and psychological support to ensure the highest possible level of safety and comfort during detox.
Read part two of this four-part series, Withdrawal Symptoms Associated With Detox, or download the entire series as a fully illustrated eBook, What to Expect During Detox.