Many cultures have drunk alcohol for centuries. However, If you drink alcohol to excess and suddenly stop, you can expect withdrawal symptoms, which can persist. But how long does it take to detox from alcohol?September 14, 2022 4:58 pm September 14, 2022 4:58 pm
What is alcohol?
Firstly let’s recap on alcohol and what it is. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that has been recreationally consumed in drinks by many cultures for centuries. Chemically speaking alcohol refers to the formula C2H5OH, which scientists call ethanol. Naturally produced ethanol occurs when yeasts ferment sugars to generate energy.
Ethanol is a nutrient and contains around 7 kcal per gram. Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 kcal per gram, while fat contains 9 kcal per gram. However, unlike carbohydrates and fat which can be stored and utilized in time of need, alcohol is not stored and remains in body water until eliminated.(1)
When consumed, alcohol absorbs into the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach and small intestines, and travels to the brain. This process can occur as quickly as 30 seconds or up to 20 minutes. Alcohol has an acute effect on the complex structures of the brain. It blocks chemical signals between brain cells (neurons), leading to immediate symptoms of intoxication. Typically, at low levels, alcohol makes people feel relaxed. However, it can impair coordination and judgement.(2)
What is detoxing?
Detoxing is the removal of toxic substances from the human body. The liver removes toxins from the blood, they then become processed for elimination. Although toxin elimination primarily occurs in the liver it can also occur in the kidneys, lungs, and skin during a body detox.
In the liver, enzymes break down alcohol at a rate of about one standard drink per hour. However, if alcohol is consumed faster than one standard drink per hour, alcohol will remain in the bloodstream.(3)
The liver is resilient and is even capable of regenerating itself. However, a portion of liver cells die each time the liver has to process alcohol. In short, the liver can regenerate cells, but heavy drinking may result in permanent damage to the liver.(4)
Alcohol detoxing is the sudden halting of alcohol intake in individuals, as the body attempts to rid the system of waste products and toxins from excessive, long-term alcohol consumption. In a treatment setting this is usually accompanied by medication, medical observation, and counselling. So how long does it take to detox from alcohol?
How long does it take to detox from alcohol?
The higher a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the more severe the effects of alcohol are and the longer it will take for their body to process all the alcohol they’ve consumed. In terms of BAC, alcohol metabolism is typically at a rate of 0.015 per hour. Therefore, if BAC is 0.07, then it will take about 4.5 hours for the body to process and eliminate the alcohol consumed.(5)
Factors that influence the rate of alcohol metabolism:
- Age. As age increases so does the amount of time alcohol stays in the liver. As a result unprocessed alcohol remains in the bloodstream longer.
- Gender. Females typically have a higher body fat percentage and lower percentage of body water compared to men, therefore females may process alcohol slower.
- Time since last drink. In the case of binge drinking, the liver will have trouble keeping up.
- Medication. Certain medications impact how the body is able to process alcohol e.g antibiotics.
- Weight. A person with a higher body weight may have more water in their body, which may dilute the alcohol in their blood. A person with a lower body mass will generally have less water in their body, and hence more alcohol in their blood.
What are the withdrawal symptoms of a detox from alcohol?
Alcohol suppresses the central nervous system, causing feelings of relaxation. In general, the body works to maintain balance and will signal the brain to produce more receptors that excite or stimulate the central nervous system.(6)
However, when alcohol intake is stopped, not only is alcohol taken away from the original receptors but also from the additional receptors the body produces. As a result, the nervous system is overactive, causing symptoms including:
- Increased heart rate
Excessive, long-term drinkers are more likely to experience negative side effects during detox, some of which can be dangerous. This is because alcohol abuse creates a false homeostasis. Disrupting this balance and restoring the individual to a healthy state is a process that is as essential as it is delicate.(7)
More severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- High body temperature
Withdrawal symptom timeline of a detox from alcohol
Although the human body can metabolize alcohol in a matter of hours, withdrawal symptoms can span over a few days. General guidelines on the 4 stages of alcohol withdrawal timeline include:
- 6-12 hours. The initial symptoms of alcohol detox are mild, but can quickly begin to worsen as time goes on. However, a person with a history of heavy drinking could suffer from seizures.
- 12-24 hours. Symptoms may become increasingly severe. In addition, a tiny percentage of people experience visual and auditory hallucinations at this stage.
- 24-48 hours. In general, symptoms will continue. These symptoms may include headaches and abdominal pain. However, hallucinations and panic attacks can occur during this time as the body rids alcohol from its system.
- 48-72 hours. Different withdrawal symptoms may come and go. 3-5% of people may experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens. A person with this condition can have a very high heart rate, seizures, or a high body temperature.
- 72 + hours. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are commonly at their worst. In rare cases, moderate withdrawal symptoms can last for a month. These include rapid heart rate and illusions.
If a person goes through minor withdrawal, their symptoms usually peak at 10-30 hours and start to decrease after 4-5 days. By the time the first week of detox is completed, many of the withdrawal symptoms will begin to taper off. While some symptoms may persist for a few weeks, most of them are minor and can be treated with medication.(8)
"Although the human body can metabolise alcohol in a matter of hours, withdrawal symptoms can span over a few days."
Alcohol and dehydration
Dehydration takes place when the body loses more fluid than it takes in. When the standard water content of the body is reduced, it upsets the balance of minerals (salts and sugar), which affects bodily functions. What’s more, water makes up over two-thirds of the healthy human body. It lubricates the joints and eyes, aids digestion, flushes out waste and toxins, and keeps the skin healthy.
Alcohol also affects the regulation of body fluids, causing people to urinate more and become dehydrated. Once alcohol is converted in the liver, it begins acting as a diuretic. Alcohol is processed by enzymes in the liver and converted into acetaldehyde. This substance can become toxic in high doses. In order to break this substance down and remove it from the body, the liver turns it into acetate. As a result, alcohol causes the body to remove fluids from the blood through the renal system, which includes the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, at a much quicker rate than other liquids.(9)
In addition, alcohol reduces how much vasopressin the body makes. This is an antidiuretic hormone, which causes the body to hold onto water, typically limiting how much urine the kidneys produce. The action of suppressing this hormone causes further dehydration.(10)
Early signs of dehydration include:
- Feeling thirsty
- Dry mouth
- Dark cultured, strong-smelling urine