Adding Drugs To Alcohol Consumption
How your body suffers when you mix drugs with alcohol, and what happens when you try to detox from one or both.
Approximately 7% of adults (16.6 million in the world) suffer from alcohol use disorders, including alcoholism. Although drinking is a sociocultural norm rooted in traditions around the world, its effects on the body and brain differ widely among individuals. When people drink to excess, either as a heavy daily drinker or in periodic bursts, called binges, they are engaging in alcohol abuse.
Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol is a substance that has a depressant effect on the body’s central nervous system (CNS). It primarily affects the neurotransmitter GABA, a messenger in the brain that inhibits the activity of approximately 40% of the other neurotransmitters. Most significantly, the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for much of one’s sense of well-being and pleasure, is inhibited during intoxication.
Alcohol intoxication is experienced as social disinhibition, euphoria, poor judgement, slurred speech, uncoordinated gait, memory impairment, nausea and vomiting, confusion and disorientation, and depressed respiration and heart rate. While the depressing of much of the brain’s activity during intoxication may be pleasant, when the effects of intoxication end, neurotransmitter activity surges, creating feelings of anxiety, hypertension, tremulousness and symptoms of insomnia, sweating, and racing heart rate.
Dangers of Mixing Alcohol and Drugs
Alcohol abuse includes all behaviors aimed at enhancing or manipulating the effects of alcohol. One particularly dangerous high-risk behavior with this goal is the mixing of alcohol with other substances, such as illicit drugs or prescription medications.
Alcohol & Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are a category of prescription medications used to treat anxiety disorders. Some of the most common benzodiazepines include Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. These medications have anxiolytic effects that mimic the effects of alcohol. When combined, the two substances increase the effects of each other. There is an increased risk for respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, seizures, coma, and possible death when alcohol is mixed with benzodiazepines. Behaviorally, the combination of these substances significantly impairs one’s judgment, coordination, concentration, and memory, all of which increase the potential for automobile accidents and the risk of rape (particularly for women). Psychologically, the combination of benzodiazepines and alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of depression, irritability, aggression, and anxiety. Withdrawal from this combination is especially painful due to the rebound effects of each. Benzodiazepines, while effective at minimizing anxiety symptoms, often have a “rebound” effect that follows its therapeutic use; this effect is experienced as severe anxiety, often reported to be more distressing than the anxiety felt prior to treatment. Alcohol withdrawal also creates rebound anxiety and irritability from the overproduction of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which was inhibited during intoxication.
Alcohol and Amphetamines
Amphetamine drugs include illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and ecstasy and prescription medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin. In contrast with the cumulative effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol, the combination of amphetamines and alcohol has a mediating effect on each other, followed by significantly exacerbated withdrawal experiences. Amphetamines, which increase the actions of the central nervous system, inhibit the effects of alcohol, misleading users into underestimating their level of alcohol intoxication. For example, amphetamine increases one’s alertness and ability to concentrate, both of which would be impaired by the effects of alcohol, providing the user with a more accurate measurement of intoxication. The most dangerous side effect of this combination is the risk for alcohol poisoning due to the decreased effect of alcohol. In addition, amphetamines cause increased and abnormal heart rates and rhythm, while alcohol depresses that same function; together, these substances exhaust the functions of the heart muscles, increasing the risk for arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.
Alcohol and Opiates
Opiate substances include the illicit drug heroin and narcotic pain relievers, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet. Alcohol increases the effects of opiates, which act on the dopamine system in the brain, creating feelings of well-being, decreasing pain, and depressing the function of the central nervous system. Typically, people who abuse opiates use alcohol to enhance the effects of “weak” opiates, allowing a lower dose of opiates without reducing their effects. Upon entering the brain, powerful opiates such as heroin and OxyContin cause the dopamine system to overproduce dopamine, leading in a “rush” or state of euphoria; its effects are greater than the inhibitory effect of alcohol. Alcohol’s depressant effect on the central nervous system combines with the depressant effects of the opiate, significantly increasing the risk for cardiac and/or respiratory arrest, coma, seizure, and death
Almost every medication carries a warning label against consuming alcohol during medication use. Alcohol consumption should be avoided or significantly limited when using psychotropic, over-the-counter, (such as Benadryl, Tylenol PM, and many cough/cold medications) and other prescription medications. The mixture of alcohol and medications causes significant damage to the vital organs of the body, particularly the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and heart. Research has shown that repeated interactions between many prescription and over-the-counter medications with alcohol can lead to internal bleeding and/or heart and breathing problems.
What is the alcohol detox process like?
Alcohol detox begins with cessation of alcohol use. Withdrawal symptoms present, on average, 24-36 hours after the last use. Symptoms of withdrawal include sweating, anxiety, hand tremors, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, fever, fatigue, hypertension, heart palpitations and irregular breathing.
Drinkers who engage in binge drinking may experience these withdrawal symptoms frequently, for 24-48 hours after an episode of binge drinking. Heavy drinkers or those who regularly drink more than 4-5 drinks daily, may experience withdrawal symptoms less frequently, but with increased severity, including risk of seizures and development of a syndrome known as delirium tremens. Delirium tremens is characterized by hallucinations, heart arrhythmia, abnormal muscular movements, agitation and aggression, and high risk of seizures.
Alcohol withdrawal is complicated by severe electrolyte imbalances; the severity of this imbalance increases the likelihood of developing delirium tremens. The withdrawal process lasts approximately 72 hours; complications such as polysubstance abuse (such as mixing with the drugs mentioned above) or severe alcoholism may result in longer withdrawal periods.
Steps for alcohol detoxification
- Initial Assessment The first step for safe alcohol detox is an initial assessment of overall physical health, drinking behaviors, psychiatric assessment, and support evaluation. The information gathered in the initial assessments allows a treatment plan to be tailored to fit your specific needs. Most people can safely detox from alcohol in an outpatient basis.
- Treatment Plan Development Each client is assigned a treatment team who collaborate and develop a treatment plan that fits your individual needs.
- Group and Individual Counseling During the first few days of alcohol detox, people experience a wide range of emotions, especially guilt, shame, and anxiety. We provide group and individual counseling to help clear out negativity and begin the healing process in the mind and spirit. All of our treatment programs integrate group and individual counseling sessions, including family, relationship, and trauma counseling.
- Nutritional and supplemental support for healthy detox. The physical process of detoxing is often exacerbated by the condition of the body from substance abuse, which is often in a state of dehydration, immune system deficiency, and other nutritional deficits. During detox, we provide nutritional meals, dietary supplements, and any necessary medications to ease withdrawal and replenish the body’s natural defenses. We also offer nontraditional modalities, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture to help remove toxins, negativity, and rejuvenate the spirit.
- Continuing Care At AKUA, we prepare your body, mind, and spirit for the next step in your recovery process. We help you arrange for continued care beyond detox, care that will help you maintain sobriety and minimize future risks of relapse.