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The Different Challenges of Quitting Alcohol Versus Drugs

The Different Challenges of Quitting Alcohol Versus Drugs

Someone who abuses alcohol with benzodiazepines is at increased risk of fatal poisoning

Drug and alcohol dependence often go hand in hand. Alcoholics are much more likely than the general population to use drugs, and people with drug dependence are much more likely to drink alcohol1. In that regard, people need unique help to recover from addiction if they hope to stay clean.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, more and more patients are seeking treatment for addictions to multiple drugs, not just one. It is now more common for people who need addiction help to engage multi-pronged treatment; their care should start with detox and then address the many issues they have that encourage drug abuse. In fact, in 1988, about 26% of people admitted to rehab reported abusing multiple substances, including alcohol; by 1996, that number grew to 50%. As the trend continues to grow, people need unique help to recover from drug or alcohol addiction.

The most commonly combined substances of abuse are cocaine and alcohol. In 1996, about 30% of people who sought treatment cited both substances as their drugs of choice, while 12% of them added heroin to the mix and seven percent of them combined heroin and cocaine regularly. In most cases, alcohol was one of the primary substances of abuse when two or more addictions were present. In short, alcohol and drugs are often dual vices for people.

There is a difference between alcohol and other drugs when it comes to recovery. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who go through detox may experience many of the same withdrawal symptoms, such as depression, irritability, sweats, chills, pain and muscle cramps. The average time it takes to complete detox for either alcohol or drugs is three to five days. In extreme cases of alcohol abuse, detox can take as long as two to three weeks to complete, which is why professional help is so vital for people to succeed.

Patients who are addicted to both alcohol and drugs are likely to have more severe problems than people without combined disorders. In short, such people meet more criteria for each disorder, and they are more likely to have psychiatric disorders, such as personality, mood and anxiety disorders. They are more likely to attempt suicide and to suffer health problems. Also, people who abuse both alcohol and drugs are also at risk for dangerous interactions between the substances. For example, someone who abuses alcohol with prescribed or illegal benzodiazepines is at increased risk of fatal poisoning.

Characteristics of Alcohol Abuse and Recovery

Alcohol works by increasing the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, which is linked to relaxation and depression of the nervous system. Alcohol also decreases glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter; in response, one’s executive functioning slows. To a certain extent, alcohol also increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. For that reason, alcohol detox is usually done without the aid of any doctor prescribed medications to avoid dangerous interactions.

Many factors can exacerbate alcohol detox and how long it lasts. Various factors play important roles in withdrawal, such as the time span you abused alcohol, the amount you typically drank, your tolerance, whether you have an addiction, how quickly you withdraw and other individual factors. For those reasons, while it can be difficult to wait a full three months for rehab to end, most people will notice significant improvement during this time. By waiting 90 days, you give your nervous system time to adapt to sobriety, and you will probably also recognize improvements in your recovery than the first couple weeks of withdrawal. Keep in mind that protracted withdrawal symptoms can last up to a year.

Characteristics of Drug Abuse and Recovery

Drugs tap into the brain’s communication system and interfere with the way neurons normally send, receive and process information. Some drugs (such as marijuana and heroin) activate neurons because their chemical structure resembles that of a natural neurotransmitter. This similarity in structure “fools” receptors and allows the drugs to activate these cells. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they do not activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being transmitted through the network2.

Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters, and they can also prevent the normal recycling of these chemicals. This amplifies the message from each neuron, which ultimately disrupts communication channels. In response, chronic drug abuse disrupts the way the brain reacts to drugs. Just as continued abuse may lead to tolerance or the need for higher drug dosages to produce the same effects, it may also lead to addiction, which can drive people to take drugs compulsively. Drug addiction erodes self-control and the ability to make sound decisions, which produces intense cravings for drugs.

People who detox from opiates are likely to encounter methadone while they try to recover. Methadone is a wildly popular opiate that mirrors real opiates without creating euphoric effects. In that regard, the drug helps people detox with few, if any, withdrawal symptoms.

While treatment is difficult, according to 11 independent studies, our Dual Diagnosis treatment is one of the best ways to get clean. We treat the whole person – mind, body and spirit. Furthermore, our admissions coordinators will answer your questions and alleviate your concerns if you call our 24 hour, toll-free helpline now. Furthermore, while our  treatment is highly effective, our staff also commands that personal touch you need in a care provider. By seeking our help, you have made the right choice, so call us now for instant, professional support.


1 “Alcohol and Other Drugs”, National Institute on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism, , (July 2008).

2 “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction”, National Institute on Drug Abuse, , (Last updated July 2014)