18.5 million Americans have a substance use disorder. Nearly 80% of us use alcohol. And, more than 1 in 10 of us occasionally use recreational drugs. Yet, most of us never seek out help. In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that in 2019, just 1.2 million people of the 7.5 million people needing substance use treatment ever sought it out. At the same time, those of us who don’t go often aren’t planning to continue use. Instead, we try to quit, often on our own. While that’s not well documented for many drugs – it is well-documented for nicotine. In fact, most people try to quit at least 35 times on their own, yet only 6% succeed.
Detoxing at home is not only poorly effective but can also be dangerous. That’s even more true when adding on detox products. Because many are unregulated supplements or, worse, unregulated drugs, they can be dangerous in their own right.
The Severe Side Effects of Withdrawal
While most people imagine getting clean or sober as a simple process of going cold turkey and sweating it out for a few days, it can be much more. In fact, some of the most commonly abused drugs in the United States can be deadly during withdrawal. Benzodiazepines, for example, can cause severe seizures and cardiac stress.
Even alcohol, the most used intoxicant in the United States, can cause similar withdrawal symptoms. In most cases, withdrawal puts you at risk of dehydration, infections, and sometimes psychosis that can cause a danger to yourself and others around you. Delirium tremens, an extended alcohol withdrawal with grand mal seizures, is so common that 5% of people who attempt to detox at home experience it.
Of course, some drugs are relatively safe to withdraw from at home. For example, cocaine and most opioids cause nothing worse than strong cold and flu symptoms. Your largest risks will be dehydration and malnutrition (both of which can kill you or cause lasting harm) and choking on vomit. Because most people can navigate these safely, you might be able to safely navigate withdrawal without medical monitoring. However, it’s not recommended, because complications still happen.
Rebound Syndrome & Emotional Stress
Many people withdrawing from a substance experience a significant amount of stress. For those taking treatment for anxiety, depression, or PTSD, that can trigger rebound syndrome. Here, the original mental health problems you started taking a drug to resolve can get worse.
But instances of high anxiety, panic, and even paranoia aren’t endemic to individuals taking medication for mental health problems. High anxiety and even psychotic paranoia are common in many types of withdrawal. It’s especially so for benzodiazepines and methamphetamine, but opioid and even marijuana users will experience it too. Getting psychological support during the withdrawal process can be crucial to doing so safely.
These emotional side-effects can sound easy to dismiss, but they aren’t. For example, benzodiazepines and alcohol interact with the GABA receptors. This influences the brain and the central nervous system, eventually changing the shape of the brain. Long-term users are more prone to making impulsive decisions, less able to resist sudden urges, more prone to tics, and significantly unprepared to deal with lows in dopamine and serotonin. Opioids also result in a mental crash, where users can feel depressed and anxious for months after starting withdrawal. Going through this without support can be devastating to your long-term mental health.
Detoxing On Your Own Doesn’t Really Work
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that just 6% of people trying to quit in a year quit. The average smoker trying to quit eventually makes 35+ attempts before succeeded. While nicotine can be easier to justify because it’s “harmless” and socially accepted, it’s by far not the most addictive drug. Coping with cravings, mental health problems, anxiety, and withdrawal symptoms on your own is intensely difficult. Most importantly, you’ll be doing so in the same environment that led to substance abuse in the first place. That can be critical if you’re accustomed to using when you get home, if you still go by places to buy drugs or alcohol, or you otherwise are still surrounded by drugs and alcohol. That can be detrimental to your success.
While some individuals can power through this and succeed, they are the rarity. Most of us need significant change, including changes to behavior, habits, and lifestyle. That’s incredibly difficult to recognize and build on your own. That’s also why professional treatment integrates behavioral therapy, exercise, and good nutrition to help you recognize underlying problems, resolve negative reinforcing behaviors, and build new, positive ones.
Drug Detox Products Can Cause More Harm than Good
Most (not all) states allow over-the-counter “drug detox” medications. In most cases, these are relatively unregulated nutritional supplements. In other cases, drug detox products are nothing more laxatives and diuretics. That’s fine if your goal is to pass food more quickly because it’s gone bad – but it only exacerbates issues related to dehydration during withdrawal. “Drug Detox Kits” also vary considerably in ingredients. For example, one herbal supplement reviewed contains burdock root, dandelion, cayenne pepper, creatine monohydrate, green tee, guarana, milk thistle, and turmeric. Others are nothing more than paracetamol with additives. These ingredients can be harmless. Some can cause extra stress on your heart and liver.
In most cases, best-case-scenario, drug detox products contain acetaminophen and get you to drink liquids. Worst-case scenario, they contain harmful additives that can worsen dehydration, cause heart arrythmias, and cause vomiting.
Finally, in the instance that you’re attempting to use a prescription medication for an off-label use, you probably shouldn’t be. Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan are commonly sold to help with withdrawal, but without medical supervision, this can be incredibly dangerous. In addition, these drugs are also addictive. It’s difficult to withdraw from one drug with another that still causes a high. At best, you’ll be working through the physical withdrawal symptoms more easily.
Seeking Out Detox
Detox is the process of medically monitoring and controlling withdrawal to improve safety, reduce side-effects, and sometimes, to speed up the process. Depending on the substance, it might involve taking up a tapering schedule to cut down before quitting. This can greatly reduce your symptoms. However, even tapering on your own can be significantly difficult. Afterwards, clinical detox involves monitoring and sometimes medication. For example, you may receive a Medication Assisted Treatment program to help you through detox – especially if your addiction is severe. However, that heavily depends on clinic, substance, and your own health.
Of course, getting help is more than just detox. Treatment includes behavioral therapy, counseling, clinical support, and a host of mental and physical health programs designed to build you back up, so you can actually recover.