Detox. It’s such a common phenomenon in our culture, it no longer has a surname. We don’t need the ‘-ification’ part. An abbreviated moniker will suffice.
So what is detox?
Generally speaking, detoxification is the removal of toxic substances from living organisms, which, of course, includes the human body. In humans, detox is biologically facilitated by the liver, the body’s unique flushing system. Detox is necessary when humans ingest substances that are poisonous or detrimental to the body’s digestive, metabolic, endocrinal and lymphatic systems.
There are myriad practices and products by which to rid the body of food and environmental toxins—juice-only diets, supplements, colonics, etc.—but when it comes to detox for addictive substances, drugs and alcohol, a more clinical approach is necessary.
The type of detox you need depends on many factors: the type of addiction you have, how long you’ve been using, how much you are using, the existence of other addictions or mental health issues, current living conditions, as well as the person’s commitment to sobriety.
- Alcohol detox is the process by which an alcoholic’s system is brought back to a normal homeostasis after years of toxicity. Withdrawal from long-term alcohol addiction without medical supervision can cause severe health problems and can be fatal. After detoxification, other treatments must be undergone to fully deal with the underlying addiction that caused the alcohol use.
- Drug detox, an early step in long-term rehabilitative treatment, is a process designed to reduce or relieve withdrawal symptoms while helping an addicted individual adjust to living without drug use. The approach often depends on the location of treatment, but most detox programs provide medications to minimize cravings and withdrawal symptoms, along with counseling and therapy to help with the consequences of withdrawal.
People unfamiliar with addiction and substance abuse often think that if a person wants to quit, he or she can quit. Just do it, cold turkey. You just stop drinking, snorting, smoking or shooting what you’re drinking, snorting, smoking or shooting. But truthfully, it’s almost always a losing proposition. When your brain is chemically altered due to months or even years of substance abuse, “just quitting” isn’t an option. Withdrawal symptoms begin in a matter of hours of the last use, some serious and potentially fatal. Alcoholics experience nausea, heavy shaking and tremors, irritability and other more dangerous withdrawal symptoms. People addicted to opiates experience bone pain, vomiting, sweating and even more serious side effects.
Recovery is a process, not an event. And detox is one of the first big steps in the process.
Natural detox, the process of attempting to wean oneself off of an addictive substance or to quit abruptly, is extremely difficult. It’s not safe, and it’s usually not enough to achieve lasting recovery. The severity of withdrawal symptoms will depend on the drug of choice, how long one has been dependent and the amount of the drug typically consumed, so it is never wise to attempt natural detox without knowledgeable supervision and an appropriate environment. Most natural detox attempts in a home environment fail, but with medical supervision, your chances of detoxing naturally, without medication, are much greater.
Medically Supervised Detox
The safest, most successful detox option is known as medically supervised detox. Inpatient or outpatient, this is when, under the direct supervision and care of a licensed physician, your detox process is made more manageable by medications that minimize drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Supported by years of research, medications like methadone, Suboxone and buprenorphine increase the short-term detox (roughly three to 10 days) and longer-term success of detox, rehabilitation and recovery.
These medical detox drugs are heavily regulated by the government and require patients to adhere to strict regulations in order to continue on the drug(s). With medical detox, you can continue to go to work or school and still get the treatment you need at a local rehab center.
Medicated detox is distinctive from medical detox in that the patient’s detox process is supported only with non-addictive, comfort-based medications like ibuprofen, insomnia or nausea medications.
Outpatient vs. Inpatient
Outpatient medically supervised detox is generally reserved for more long-term treatment plans such as methadone maintenance and Suboxone treatment for opiate addiction. These patients typically live at home or a sober living facility, checking in with their physicians or rehab case managers regularly as they are weaned off the medications helping them beat their addictions.
During the detox process, inpatient drug rehabilitation centers provide round-the-clock supervision, limiting contact with family and friends, allowing the patient to focus on his or her treatment. The medical team creates a plan to treat the entire patient — body, mind, and spirit — providing dietary recommendations, nutritional supplements, pain relievers, hydration and non-addictive medication to address physical or emotional needs. Once inpatient detox is complete and withdrawal symptoms are over, the patient is free to go home or on to additional rehabilitative care.
Detox Alone Is Not Enough
Perhaps the chief benefit of detox — both supervised natural and medically supervised — is that people struggling with some addictions can be completely toxin-free within a few days to a couple weeks. But eliminating the drug from one’s system is only the beginning. Returning to the same environment, the same relationships, the same life you had before detox, without taking the next step toward sobriety within a credible rehab or treatment program, will only lead to relapse. Detox alone is not enough, but it’s the best and arguably the only first step on the road to rehabilitation and recovery.