The term “detoxification” was introduced in an early twentieth-century theory on autotoxins by George E. Pettey that has since been discredited. The word, however, has stuck around, coming to refer to the process of removing toxins from the body. In this case, toxins may include drugs, alcohol, and even unhealthy food substances.
What is Detoxification?
Detoxification is a medical process that involves removing drugs and/or alcohol from the body. In some cases, medication may be given during the detoxification process to ease symptoms of withdrawal. Often, medically managed detoxification is done in the case of opioid, benzodiazepines, nicotine, barbiturates, sedatives, and alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms may include mood or emotional disturbances, such as depression, agitation, anxiety, inability to focus, and even hallucinations. Withdrawal also has physical manifestations, which vary in severity according to the type of addiction and the level of dependence. Physical symptoms may include sweating, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, seizures, runny nose, nausea, tremors, headaches, cramping, fatigue, poor appetite, muscle pain, insomnia, and in extreme cases, even heart attack, stroke, or death. Nearly all accredited residential drug treatment programs involve a detoxification program supervised by a trained physician.
Alcohol detoxification involves bringing an alcoholic’s biochemical and biological system back to normal, following a continuous period of alcohol consumption. This process may last up to one week and begins between six and 24 hours after the last drink is consumed. Continuous alcohol consumption causes fundamental changes in the brain’s chemical system. Neurotransmitter receptors are down-regulated, leading to a different chemical composition in the brain’s synapses. As a result, when alcohol is no longer present in the brain, withdrawal symptoms appear. In the case of alcohol detoxification, symptoms may include insomnia, nausea or vomiting, hallucinations, anxiety, seizures, and psychomotor agitation.
In the same way that consuming alcohol continuously over a long period of time causes the brain’s structure and chemical composition to change, such is the case with drugs. When someone is addiction to a particular substance, he or she becomes dependent on it in order to operate “normally.” Removing the drug from the brain causes a number of different drug-specific withdrawal symptoms to appear. These painful physical and psychological symptoms make it difficult for drug-addicted individuals to overcome an addiction alone. A number of non-addictive medical substances may be used to help ease symptoms of withdrawal over time.
Just because an individual is drug- or alcohol-free, doesn’t mean that he or she is no longer suffering from an addiction. In fact, detoxification is only a small first step towards long-term sobriety. Clearing the body of drugs and alcohol does not address the social, behavioral, and psychological factors of addiction that must be overcome on the path to recovery. As a result, in a rehabilitation facility, detoxification is only the first step of treatment and it lasts for a period of days. The rest of the individual’s time in the rehabilitation facility is spent on therapeutic activities designed to address the aspects of addiction listed above.