The new year is well underway and many have committed to a “Dry January” or the practice of abstaining from alcohol during the first month of the year. Dry January has gained popularity in recent years as a way to reset one’s relationship with alcohol after the holidays. Most people who abstain from alcohol for the month will not develop alcohol withdrawal syndrome, but people who drink regularly and are physiologically dependent on alcohol (meaning they experience tolerance to its effects and physical withdrawal symptoms in the absence of it) are at risk.
Alcohol withdrawal is a clinical syndrome that may occur when a person who has been drinking regularly (so daily or near daily) for an extended period of time suddenly decreases their alcohol consumption or stops drinking entirely. Over time, the brain compensates for the depressive effects of alcohol by functioning in a kind of hyperactive state and when someone stops drinking suddenly the brain remains in that state which causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
The longer someone has been drinking regularly and the larger the amount they drink (for women more than 3 standard drinks on any day or 7 drinks per week and for men more than 4 drinks on any day or 14 drinks per week) the higher their chances of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome are. Older age and underlying medical conditions like seizure disorder, eating disorders, liver and heart disease, can also increase the risk.
The timeline for developing alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary greatly depending on how much, how often and for how long a person has been drinking, as well as their underlying medical condition. Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome like tremors, anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations and headaches typically occur 6 to 12 hours after a person’s last drink. Whereas moderate and severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include more concerning changes like seizures or delirium tremens (aka the DTs) which consist of disorientation, auditory and visual hallucinations and/or physical agitation may occur anywhere from 12 – 72 hours after someone’s last drink and those symptoms can be life-threatening.
Dry January can be an excellent opportunity to practice abstinence sampling, by taking a step back from drinking to really observe the intensity of one’s urges to drink and the potential benefits of sobriety. However, many people don’t realize that alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be medically dangerous. Thus, talking openly to your doctor about your history of alcohol use is an important part of coping ahead for abstaining from use during Dry January. Your doctor may recommend completing a short-term detox in a monitored setting and/or other resources that may support a safe and effective dry January and beyond.