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Can You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey? Know The Risks

Are you considering quitting alcohol cold turkey?

Maybe you’ve realized that drinking has taken its toll on your life, and you’re ready to change.

But before you dive headfirst into quitting abruptly without a plan, it’s important to understand the risks and challenges ahead.

The Impacts of Excessive Drinking on Our Bodies

Let’s start by talking about why this decision is so important. Heavy, chronic drinking takes a toll on our brains and bodies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the consequences of heavy alcohol consumption are far-reaching.

In the short term, you may experience high blood pressure, heart disease, and an increased risk of accidents and injuries due to impaired judgment and coordination. Ever made a questionable decision while drunk?

Sure you have! We all have.

But the consequences of drinking don’t stop when our hangover does.

The long-term consequences of excessive drinking are even more alarming. When we consistently abuse alcohol, it can lead to some serious health issues. 

We’re talking about liver disease, digestive problems, and an increased risk of developing various types of cancer, including breast, mouth, liver, colon, and rectal cancer.

But that’s not all. When we engage in heavy drinking, it also messes with our cognitive functions and memory.

Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to learning and memory problems, including conditions like dementia. Over time, you might notice that you forget things more easily, feel fuzzy brained, and can’t retain information like you used to.

(This is especially bad news if you’re in college.)

All of this negatively impacts our overall quality of life and make it harder for us to function. Great reasons to stop drinking, right?

Definitely! But it’s also important to know what you’re getting into and how to set yourself up for success along the way.

A hand rejects a glass of alcohol
Can you quit drinking alcohol cold turkey?

Is It Safe To Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

It depends. Some people can quit drinking cold turkey safely, while others are at risk for severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can be life-threatening. 

Whether you are at risk depends on your drinking habits, genetic factors, co-occurring disorders, and your overall physical health. Your doctor is the best person who can assess whether you can safely quit drinking cold turkey at home or require a medical detox. 

As tempting as it sounds, quitting cold turkey without consulting a doctor isn’t an ideal choice. 

I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the risks and dangers associated with this approach that you need to consider before diving in.

Here are some critical issues associated with quitting alcohol cold turkey from the American Addiction Center:

  • Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms—Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent and duration of your alcohol use. These symptoms may include anxiety, sweating, nausea, irritability, tremors, and even hallucinations in severe cases.
  • Delirium Tremens (DTs)—For individuals with a long history of heavy alcohol consumption, quitting cold turkey can trigger a severe condition known as delirium tremens. DTs can lead to hallucinations, confusion, seizures, and even life-threatening complications, necessitating immediate medical attention.
  • Increased Risk of Relapse—Abruptly stopping alcohol without proper support or guidance may increase the likelihood of relapse. The intense cravings and the absence of coping mechanisms can make it challenging to maintain sobriety without a comprehensive plan in place.
  • Underlying Mental Health Issues—Alcohol often serves as a coping mechanism for individuals struggling with underlying mental health conditions. Quitting cold turkey without addressing these underlying issues can leave you vulnerable and unprepared to manage your emotions and stress effectively.
  • Medical Complications—In some cases, quitting alcohol suddenly can lead to medical complications, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions. It’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional to ensure you’re making a safe and appropriate decision for your unique circumstances.

All of these risks and complications mean that it’s really important to involve your medical doctor and/or an addiction specialist in your quit plan. 

Quitting alcohol is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Those first 30 days especially can really test you. This is why you need to establish a strong support network via support groups, in-person counseling, and enlisting supportive friends and family before you quit. 

This is in addition to booking an appointment with your doctor to talk about the safest way to stop drinking based on your individual consumption levels and additional risk factors. 

What Happens When You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

We’ll explore what quitting alcohol cold turkey feels like in a minute, but first, let’s discuss the withdrawal process. 

Your experience with quitting cold turkey is going to depend on a number of factors like:

  • How much, how frequently, and how long you’ve been drinking
  • Genetic factors
  • Family history
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • Medical conditions like heart conditions or liver disease

Your individual risk factors will largely impact what you quitting experience actually feels like. With that caveat, here is a general breakdown of your quitting drinking timeline

  • 5-10 hours: Alcohol withdrawal symptoms start. Remember, these include, but are not limited to, anxiety, shakiness, drops or increases in blood pressure, irritability, rapid pulse, and vomiting. Symptoms typically peak between 24-48 hours. 
  • 12-24 hours: Alcohol withdrawal-related headaches and nausea set in (i.e., the hangover). Some people may experience “the shakes” and extreme anxiety. You may also experience low mood, increased cravings, low energy, and sleep disturbances
  • 12-72 hours: This is the danger zone for people who are at high risk of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. During this period, severe symptoms like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and seizures can occur. These are medical emergencies and you should get medical assistance right away.
  • 48 hours: Most people will start to feel better. However, heavy drinkers are still at risk within the first 72 hours of quitting drinking. They may start experiencing Delirium Tremens (DTs). Again, this is a medical emergency, as DTs can lead to stroke or death. 
  • 96 hours: Life-threatening symptoms have passed at this point.
no alcohol beyond this point sign
quitting alcohol cold turkey timeline

What Does Quitting Cold Turkey Feel Like?

I tried multiple times to quit cold turkey without additional support in the past. (It’s likely why I failed so much). It was just me white-knuckling every second of every day. (Horrible way to do it. High failure rate.)

No two experiences were the same. Sometimes I experienced the pink cloud in the first week and felt great! But then I would get slammed with reality a week or two later and melt under the weight of a depressed mood and intense cravings. 

Other times, I felt horrible and the entire world seemed dull and uninteresting. I later learned there is a term for this – anhedonia. It was a result of an extreme dopamine deficit resulting from the sudden absence of alcohol. 

My brain had become so accustomed to large quantities of alcohol, that it stopped producing dopamine naturally and had even shut down dopamine receptors to account for the flood of dopamine from drinking. The brain likes balance, after all. 

So when I suddenly quit, my mood and mental health swung hard in the opposite direction. It was terrible, and I needed to work closely with a mental health professional and go on medication to manage my depression and anxiety symptoms. 

This is all just to say that when you quit drinking, you need to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure your success rate. Quitting alcohol cold turkey on your own can be a recipe for disaster, but with the proper supports and medical supervision in place, it can be the start of the rest of your life. 

So What’s the Alternative to Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey?

Some people decide that quitting cold turkey isn’t the right fit for them. If that’s you, you might consider a tapering approach. 

Tapering off alcohol gradually decreases your consumption over time. This method allows your body to adjust more gradually, minimizing the risks and challenges of quitting abruptly. 

It’s also extremely challenging to do. That’s due, in large part, to the way alcohol impacts our brains and judgment. Sober “you” might have all the intentions in the world to limit yourself to a few drinks as part of your tapering program. 

But once you’ve had a couple drinks, you may find you’re too impaired to make a good decision and slip back into heavy drinking. 

In that case, your tapering program may be best supported via medication like The Sinclair Method and under the supervision of an addiction specialist or counselor. 

Tips for Tapering Off Alcohol (With A Caveat)

Here are some recommendations to consider based on an article by The Freedom Center:

  • Get Professional Help—Contact a healthcare professional or addiction specialist who can provide personalized guidance and support. They can help you create a tapering plan tailored to your needs and circumstances.
  • Set Clear Goals—Establish clear and achievable goals for reducing your alcohol intake. Start by identifying the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption you want to reach and gradually work towards those goals.
  • Track Your Progress—Keep a record of your alcohol consumption to monitor your progress. This can help you stay accountable and motivated as you gradually decrease your intake.
  • Create a Supportive Environment—Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or support groups who understand and respect your decision to reduce alcohol consumption. Their encouragement and understanding can make a significant difference in your journey.
  • Adopt Healthy Coping Mechanisms—Find alternative ways to cope with stress, emotions, and triggers that may have previously led you to drink. Engage in exercise, meditation, hobbies, or therapy to develop healthier coping strategies. As for exercise, in particular, know that it helps you refocus your attention away from withdrawal symptoms and cravings. By engaging in physical activity, you can maintain focus on something other than the challenges related to your recovery.
  • Avoid Triggers—This is a big one. Triggers can cause you to relapse, big time. So take some time to figure out what those triggers are, and remove them from your life. This might mean steering clear of certain friends and family members who aren’t along for the sober ride. And be mindful of big holidays and celebrations where others unaware of your path to sobriety may inadvertently put you in challenging situations.
  • Consider Professional Treatment—If tapering off alcohol proves challenging or if you have a history of severe alcohol dependence, professional treatment programs, such as outpatient or inpatient rehab, may be beneficial. These programs provide comprehensive support and guidance throughout your recovery journey.

What if I can’t taper off alcohol? (The Caveat)

If you try to taper off alcohol and you can’t do it, don’t beat yourself up. I couldn’t do it either. I certainly tried, but it was akin to trying to moderate drinking and my brain was not set up that way. 

If this is you, it’s time to book an appointment with your doctor.

They can do a proper assessment of your drinking habits to determine whether you’re safe to quit cold turkey or require a medically supervised detox. 

I know that last part sounds a little scary, but it is for your safety. Remember those alcohol withdrawal risks? Quitting cold turkey can be extremely dangerous for some chronic drinkers. 

Let a medical professional evaluate you to determine your risk level and then you can start creating your quit plan from there. 

Finding Your Way to a Sober You 

Embarking on the journey to quit alcohol is a courageous decision. So, embrace it for what it is—a big deal and one you should approach with care and consideration.

Whether you decide to venture ahead and quit cold turkey or explore alternative methods like tapering off, the key is to find an approach that suits you best and get the support you need to be successful.

Remember, you’re not alone on this journey.

Seek support from professionals, loved ones, or support groups who can provide guidance and encouragement. If you’re looking for a place to start or just want to talk to people who know what you’re going through, consider joining our Soberish private Facebook Group.

Take the AUDIT

The Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test is an assessment that medical professionals use to determine your risk of alcohol dependence.

It is not an official diagnosis or a substitute for medical advice. This is for informational purposes only, but you can take your results with your to your doctor’s appointment to discuss next steps.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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