Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Seizures?

by | Apr 20, 2023 | Treatment | 0 comments

Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances, and it is also one of the most harmful. Many of us drink alcohol regularly, and many know or have met someone who has a serious alcohol addiction. A study showed that, in 2019, 25.8 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they engaged in heavy binge drinking. In the same year, the NSDUH estimated that 14.5 million people ages 12 and older had alcohol use disorder (AUD).

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

For a lot of us, alcohol is interwoven within our social lives. Whether having a drink with friends, with co-workers at a social function, or on a date, alcohol is one of the few drugs that is common practice amongst almost everyone. Most of us know people who excessively binge drink regularly. Although the effects of alcohol consumption at any level can be harmful, drinking socially occasionally is not considered AUD. Alcohol use disorder, also known as alcoholism, is defined by a hindered ability to quit or control alcohol use, especially when social, financial, and health consequences are present in one’s life.

Signs of AUD include:

  • Erratic behavior
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Persistent financial troubles
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Straying from family and support systems

The Physiology Of Alcohol

Dissimilar to other commonly abused substances that attach only to receptors in certain cells, alcohol can pass into every cell in your body, as it is water-soluble and fat-soluble. Ethanol, the form of alcohol consumed by humans, causes significant stress and damage to cells. Ethanol is immediately toxic to the body and must be converted into something else once drunk. Upon ingestion, ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde, a substance with even higher toxicity, as well as adenosine triphosphate, a nutrient-empty calorie. Acetaldehyde is a chemical that indiscriminately kills cells, and it is also what causes you to feel drunk by disrupting neural networks in the brain. Andrew Huberman, researcher and professor of neurology and ophthalmology at Stanford University, said, “Being drunk is a poison-induced disruption in the way that your neural circuits work.”

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal is certainly a harrowing element of getting sober, often hindering those who wish to quit alcohol. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) is the set of symptoms that arise when a severe alcoholic suddenly stops drinking or drastically reduces consumption.

The symptoms of AWS can include:

  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • tremors or shakes
  • insomnia
  • fatigue
  • mood changes
  • gastrointestinal disturbances
  • heart palpitations
  • increased blood pressure or heart rate
  • hyperthermia
  • rapid abnormal breathing
  • hallucinations
  • seizures

The Stages of Alcohol Withdrawal

There are 3 stages of alcohol withdrawal that a person is likely to experience, the severity of which is relative to the strength of one’s physical addiction to alcohol.

Stage 1 – Mild

The first stage of alcohol withdrawal — felt for 6 to 12 hours after the last drink — could be compared to a terrible hangover. Symptoms may include:

  • headaches
  • insomnia
  • anxiety
  • hand tremors
  • gastrointestinal irritations
  • heart palpitations

Stage 2 – Moderate

The second stage of alcohol withdrawal persists with the same symptoms as Stage 1 while introducing:

  • increased blood pressure
  • confusion
  • mild hyperthermia
  • rapid or abnormal breathing

Stage 2 could last for up to 24 hours after the last drink.

Stage 3 – Severe

Stage 3 may include the aforementioned symptoms and may additionally exhibit:

  • visual or auditory hallucinations
  • disorientation
  • impaired attention
  • seizures

Stage 3 is also where harmful complications and even fatalities most often arise. This stage generally happens on the third day of detox but can last up to a week if physiological dependence is relatively high.

Why Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Seizures?

Seizures are an extreme and sometimes fatal consequence of alcohol withdrawal that affects roughly 5% of those who endure it. If alcohol use is drastically decreased or stopped, withdrawal seizures may transpire. This is due to the nature of physiological tolerance to alcohol, which increases gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels and inhibits brain activity while lowering glutamate activities — stimulating the nervous system. According to literature, alcohol withdrawal syndrome involves both N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors.

Abrupt cessation of alcohol use after a long period of heavy drinking can cause alcohol withdrawal seizures, which can lead to a range of severe complications such as brain damage, heart attacks, strokes, and, in extreme cases, death. If a person has an alcohol withdrawal seizure, they may develop Delirium Tremens (DTs), which is a severe and dangerous condition. GABA and glutamate neurotransmitters, as well as fluctuating blood glucose and elevated norepinephrine levels, are the key factors in alcohol withdrawal seizures.

How To Ease Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal can be the most significant reason long-time alcoholics may choose not to quit drinking. As discussed, the effects of alcohol withdrawal are daunting, to say the least. However, such symptoms can be minimized via lifestyle changes and medication-assisted treatment. Ways one can brace for alcohol withdrawal syndrome in their lifestyle include:

Taper-off alcohol slowly

  • In order to avoid some of the physiological consequences of immediate alcohol withdrawal, it is recommended to reduce your alcohol consumption slowly and considerately. This is known as tapering off.

Remove alcohol from your home

  • Removing alcohol from your home, of course, will make it far easier to avoid drinking. It is a common misconception that alcoholics drink exclusively to numb or because of negative emotions. Often, we drink in times and places of comfort. Removing alcohol from your living space can serve as a catalyst for an alcohol-free life.

Remove alcohol from your lifestyle

  • Alcohol consumption is typically a frequent norm in the life of an alcoholic, more so than in the lives of those who do not fall victim to AUD. An alcoholic in recovery would do well to avoid people, places, activities, and events that lead them to drink alcohol.

Take time off work or school

  • It may be far too arduous for one to attend schooling or work while also enduring the discomfort of alcohol withdrawal. If possible, one may need to take some time off work or school or even socializing if it is too taxing.

Resort to family and/or friends

  • Family and friends are there to help us in times of need, so that we may do the same for them when we are able. During the alcohol withdrawal stages, it may behoove a patient to be in contact with family members and close friends. This can be a support system for you and provide motivation to bear the withdrawal symptoms — to live a long healthy life with your loved ones.

Seek professional aid

  • There is a range of potential treatment options and professional support systems available to those struggling with alcohol use disorder. These can include intervention methods, behavioral therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication-assisted treatment plans. Often, more than one variety of therapy will be recommended for those with alcohol use disorder.

Medication-Assisted Treatment For AUD

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) refers to the adjunctive use of various medicines and therapies to treat a range of substance use disorders. MAT involves taking pharmacological medications to curb the withdrawal discomfort that occurs upon quitting a substance. MAT can be used for alcohol, as well as nicotine, opioids and opiates, and methamphetamines. This type of treatment typically takes place as a specialized treatment to monitor patients and aid recovery. However, it is also common for MAT to be used in primary care practices, meaning it doesn’t have to take place at a specialized facility. The FDA has approved 4 drugs for opioid addiction recovery, 3 drugs for tobacco addiction, and 3 drugs for alcohol addiction. The drugs that are used for MAT purposes are drastically less addictive than their counterpart substances. With that being said, MAT medications can present side effects and become addictive over time. It is imperative to have a trained professional prescribing, monitoring, and advising you during treatment.

A medication-assisted treatment approach for alcohol use disorder (AUD) combines medications, counseling, and behavioral therapies. Some medications used to treat alcoholism ease the withdrawal process, while others remove the intoxicating effects of alcohol consumption — providing an incentive to quit drinking because of the harsh symptoms of mixed consumption. Common types of MAT medications used for alcohol addiction include Naltrexone, Vivitrol, Disulfiram, and Campral (acamprosate). These medications are FDA-approved and work to relieve withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings that cause chemical imbalances in the body. Additionally, MAT programs often suggest one-on-one therapy and support groups to give patients the best chance of success.

We Can Help You

Many people avoid detoxing and therefore sobriety because they are afraid of the uncomfortable and harsh alcohol withdrawal symptoms. No doubt, many heavy alcohol drinkers have heard or read of such harrowing tales. Patients at rehab clinics like ours can undergo medication-assisted treatment to alleviate such symptoms. This, along with appropriate counseling procedures, can help an alcoholic become sober and turn their life around. Please contact us if you or a loved one is addicted to alcohol. We can assist you.