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  • People struggling with alcohol may choose to progressively taper off alcohol rather than quit abruptly.
  • Tapering will normally create less severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms but will spread them out over a prolonged period.
  • Consult with a doctor to ensure that tapering off of alcohol is safe for your specific situation and that your plan for tapering is safe. Tapering from alcohol incorrectly can be fatal in some severe situations.

When an individual has developed a substance use disorder or dependence on alcohol, stopping its use outright can seem virtually impossible. On top of this, quitting immediately — or ‘cold turkey’ as many users and professionals call it — can be dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms are generally uncomfortable to deal with, but they can be fatal. To avoid or reduce the impact of the withdrawal symptoms, people struggling with alcohol may choose to progressively taper off alcohol rather than quit abruptly.

Tapering or Weaning Off Alcohol

Deciding to quit drinking and following through isn’t just about willpower. Many other factors go into play with these difficult and trying scenarios. Tolerance, dependence, social habits, setting, the biology of the individual and more must all be considered.

What Is an Alcohol Taper?

Tapering off alcohol is a self-treatment strategy that has shown to be effective for some individuals. The caveat to tapering is the same: what may work and be safe for one person may not be safe for everyone. Because it can be hazardous, it is always best to seek out professional care to craft a strategy customized to individual needs. Some treatment practices will include a benzodiazepine regimen to replace the body’s alcohol needs.

Who Can Benefit From Tapering Their Alcohol Intake

Anyone wanting to stop using alcohol may benefit from tapering if they first consult with their doctor to ensure they are tapering safely. Tapering is a more cost-effective method of stopping alcohol use, especially for those who do not have healthcare insurance or the resources needed to get a professional detox. People who have successfully tapered from alcohol before may be especially likely to benefit from this strategy.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range in severity depending on how extensive the misuse behavior was. The alcohol withdrawal symptom delirium tremens (DTs) is estimated to kill up to 5% of those attempting to quit suddenly after chronic usage. This is a staggering number considering that many other drugs do not even have the possibility of lethal withdrawals. For this reason, experts advise that alcohol cessation be monitored safely with steady effort between oneself and a physician.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are often categorized as mild, medium or severe. Each comes with its own associated challenges and risks. Such withdrawal side effects include:

  • Mild Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: The lowest level of alcohol withdrawal includes symptoms that are mostly uncomfortable. Profuse sweating, shaking, headaches and insomnia may appear after only a half-day without alcohol.
  • Intermediate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Up to two days after cutting back completely, users with more serious use disorders may exhibit similar but more intense effects. Additionally, hallucinations are reported to accompany some moderate withdrawals.
  • Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Users who display severe symptoms are in the greatest need of medical intervention. Fever, tremors, confusion and seizures are all likely outcomes. Heavy withdrawal can also lead to death.

In a recent study by The Recovery Village surveying recovering alcohol users, heavier alcohol use led to more reported withdrawal symptoms than average. Heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for hallucinations during detox. Compared to others who detoxed, heavy drinkers were:

  • 90% more likely to experience Delirium Tremens (a potentially fatal complication)
  • 45% more likely to experience seizures
  • 95% more likely to experience rapid heart rate
  • 147% more likely to experience hand tremors
  • 69% more likely to experience sweating
  • 65% more likely to experience nausea or vomiting
  • 35% more likely to experience irritability

Why Alcohol Withdrawal Occurs

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when neurotransmitters that combat the effects of alcohol on the nervous system suddenly have nothing to counteract them. Essentially, when an individual drinks, the brain amplifies certain activities to counterbalance the depressive effect alcohol has on it. When that numbing sensation disappears entirely, the brain is left dangerously overstimulated. Insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia — the opposite effects of alcohol — are the expected results. Thus, a user will likely seek out alcohol again to rid themselves of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Can Tapering Your Alcohol Intake Reduce Withdrawal Symptoms?

Tapering gradually lowers the amount of alcohol that you use over time. This lessens the severity of withdrawal symptoms, as there is not an abrupt or dramatic change. Tapering will normally create less severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms but will spread them out over a prolonged period. Essentially, tapering provides less intense withdrawal symptoms but over a longer amount of time.

How to Taper off Alcohol

  1. Consult with a doctor to ensure that tapering off of alcohol is safe for your specific situation and that your plan for tapering is safe. Tapering from alcohol incorrectly can be fatal in some severe situations.
  2. As the name implies, tapering requires incremental change. It all begins by reducing the number of drinks in a sitting, a day, a week, or whichever time frame works best. Tapering off alcohol is often a one-drink-at-a-time progression. Mixed drinks can be made with greater proportions of the mixer-to-alcohol content or replaced with non-alcoholic drinks to mimic the act of alcohol consumption. If nothing else, drink alternatives like water between drinks because hydration is essential for detox.
  3. The specific type of alcohol needs to be considered. Hard liquors, for example, contain higher alcohol-by-volume measures than other beverages. When attempting to taper off alcohol, it is recommended that an individual should substitute these stronger options for wine or beer — or at least hard liquor with a smaller proof.
  4. One must always remember the importance of his or her environment. Users should avoid places where recreational or binge drinking is likely to occur, such as clubs, sporting events, parties and more. This comes down to personal discretion — nobody knows the people and places that create potentially negative consequences like the individual in question. This, of course, is easier said than done if drinking has become the crux of one’s social or romantic relationships. Experts advise surrounding oneself with positive influences whenever possible.

Related Topic: Home remedies for alcohol withdrawal

Choosing to Wean Yourself off Alcohol

Choosing to taper off alcohol is an admirable decision and a step in the right direction. It is also one that should not be taken lightly. As with many self-detox methods, the risks and rewards go hand in hand when attempting to overcome an alcohol substance use disorder. But, with a little prior knowledge on how to taper off alcohol, adequate planning and professional consultation from a healthcare provider, it can certainly be done.

Once you’ve decided to use tapering off alcohol as a harm-reducing approach towards recovery, the first step is to make a plan. The definition of success may vary from person to person. Statistically speaking, the more effort put into initial preparation, the better chance the tactic will ultimately be successful:

  • Write down goals.
  • Keep track in a journal or on a calendar.
  • Reward milestones with newly formed, helpful habits.
  • Get an accountability partner to keep you on track.

But, perhaps most importantly, understand that setbacks happen and that progress takes time or may look different than imagined. It is all part of the process, and no one’s process is the same.

Challenges of Cutting Down Your Alcohol Intake

Cutting down your alcohol intake may not be as easy as it sounds. People who want to reduce their alcohol consumption often do not realize how much of their social and daily routines alcohol has become. Tapering alcohol may be uncomfortable, and there may be subconscious triggers that stimulate the desire to drink alcohol. Stress is a common trigger that makes it hard to modify your alcohol intake. Finding a different, more healthy way to unload stress may go a long way in helping someone to succeed in cutting back their alcohol use.

People who have alcohol use disorder that goes undiagnosed may have an especially difficult time cutting back on their alcohol consumption. In many cases, people with a moderate to severe alcohol use disorder may be advised to undergo medical detox, where they slowly rid the body of alcohol under medical supervision rather than a taper. If you’re struggling to stick to a taper or do not trust yourself to moderate your alcohol use, having strict supervision and support can help you meet your recovery goals.

Relapse Prevention Strategies

Relapse is, unfortunately, an important consideration when cutting back on your alcohol use. In a recent survey by The Recovery Village, 71% of recovering alcohol users reported relapsing, 32% in their first year of recovery. The participants were asked what relapse prevention strategies people found most effective. The research showed:

  • 49% used exercise for relapse prevention
  • 37% avoided triggering activities, people and places
  • 35% pointed to lifestyle changes they’d made
  • 34% used an aftercare treatment plan, including regular therapy appointments
  • 35% used 12-step programs or other support groups
  • 29% took medication to curb their dependence
  • 23% took to journaling
  • 25% cited their religion or spirituality as a factor

Stopping alcohol use is the first step of the recovery journey, but staying sober for longer and longer periods is the goal. Getting professional treatment and long-term support are two of the most valuable strategies for avoiding relapse.

Searching for Help

There are many resources available for people who want to cut back on their alcohol use. In a recent survey of people wanting to cut back on their alcohol use:

  • 22% would use professional substance use treatment (rehab)
  • 17% would use a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, etc.
  • 25% would work with their doctor or psychiatrist

Research has shown that professional help improves your ability to overcome an addiction to alcohol or cut back if you have found it difficult. The most common research technique among those surveyed is an internet search (61%), followed by asking a doctor or medical professional (55%). Talking to your doctor can be a great place to start. If you’re relying on internet searches to find potential treatment centers, make sure to ask these ten questions to find a licensed facility that can meet your needs.

You can also get help by reaching out to a professional rehab facility directly, like The Recovery Village. We can leverage our resources and team to help you reduce and eventually end your alcohol use. Contact us today to get started.

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