Pros and Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Tapering Off Alcohol (Pros, Cons & How To Wean Off Safely)

Pros and Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

When individuals decide to reduce drinking and get sober, two different options are available:

  • Tapering 
  • Quitting suddenly

While quitting suddenly (or quitting cold turkey) is self-explanatory, tapering may raise some doubts. 

Tapering is an approach focused on diminishing the intensity of withdrawal symptoms by reducing the intake of a substance little by little. It is a strategy that, in combination with other treatments, healthcare professionals prescribe for individuals who live with an opioid use disorder.

In this case, however, when individuals say they are tapering off alcohol, they’re referring to drinking less and less alcohol over time to avoid symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal. 

Tapering may be a suitable option for individuals who have the following characteristics:

  • Consume alcohol on a moderate basis 
  • Are worried about drinking habits and wish to cut down
  • Count on a healthy emotional support system, such as friends or family, throughout this process

According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, moderate alcohol consumption is one standard drink (14 grams of pure alcohol) per day for women and 1 to 2 standard drinks for men. 

However, it is important to remember that any concerns about drinking alcohol should be discussed with a medical professional. Tapering is not recommended for individuals who abuse alcohol, have developed a physical dependency, or live with an alcohol use disorder. These individuals face a higher risk of relapse, overdose, and serious health consequences. 

Is it Better to Taper Off Alcohol or Quit “Cold Turkey?”

If individuals moderately consume alcohol, tapering off alcohol may be a good option to help build long-lasting, improved drinking habits.  

Different tapering possibilities exist, such as:

  • Combining weaker drinks with less alcohol content
  • Drinking a glass of water after each alcoholic beverage 
  • Consuming a less preferred alcoholic drink 
  • Gradually cutting down the overall number of drinks 

Interestingly, individuals who decide to taper off alcohol should take environmental cues, the clinking of ice cubes or social parties, into account.

These cues may act as stimuli (triggers) to drink due to repeated associations with alcohol consumption.

If individuals build awareness of such stimuli, they may be more ly to find an alternative scenario that helps them stave off an alcoholic drink. 

Individuals who would to taper off alcohol may also want to consider mental health therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. This behavioral health treatment may help explore the reasons for certain drinking habits and reinforce positive changes in behavior and decision-making processes. 

In any case, if such habits raise concerns, it is always best to speak with a healthcare provider. Each individual has unique needs, and tapering off may not be an adequate solution to reduce or stop drinking. 

For individuals who suffer from alcohol abuse or have developed an alcohol use disorder, neither quitting cold turkey nor tapering alone is advisable. Alcohol addiction is cyclical.

Without proper medical supervision and prescribed medication during the withdrawal process, symptoms may become too intense.

Individuals may then relapse, drink excessively, even overdose, and fall into a more profound addiction. 

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Pros and Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Tapering alcohol intake has its pros and cons. 

For example, some of the advantages of such an approach include:

  • Decreased risk of AUD — binge drinking and heavy drinking have been associated with a higher risk of alcohol use disorder. 
  • Improved immune system — excessive drinking can weaken the immune system, increasing the body’s lihood of developing an infection. Diseases pneumonia and tuberculosis are more frequent in individuals who chronically drink.  
  • Decreased risk of alcohol-related death — alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of mortality in the United States, with approximately 95,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes each year. 
  • Saved costs and time — inpatient treatment may be an expensive option in terms of time and money. However, with tapering, individuals can maintain their everyday lives while improving their drinking habits step by step. 

Some of the disadvantages of tapering include:

  • Unsupervised medical care — individuals do not have the guided support by medical professionals who have knowledge and experience of such matters. This may make it more difficult for individuals to adhere to a plan in the long term and reduce overall drinking. 
  • Tapering does not work —some individuals may find that tapering is not a suitable option to stop drinking. This may prove discouraging and underlie a deeper problem, such as weak support groups or stronger alcohol dependence. 

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Side Effects of Tapering

For heavy drinkers, it may take the brain some time to return to its normal state. When individuals decide to stop or reduce drinking, they may experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Fortunately, when alcohol withdrawal symptoms arise, there is a predication pattern. Although, it is important to mention that not every individual will experience all symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. 

  • Tremors — individuals may begin shaking within 5 to 10 hours of consuming their last alcoholic beverage. Individuals may also experience rapid heart rate and breathing, sweating, nausea and vomiting, irritability, intense dreaming, trouble sleeping, and hypertension (high blood pressure). These symptoms often peak within 24 to 48 hours. 
  • Alcohol hallucinosis — after 12 to 24 hours have passed since the last alcoholic drink, individuals may begin to hallucinate. Alcohol hallucinosis may last up to 2 days, and individuals may report seeing crawling insects or coins dropping. 
  • Seizures — within 6 to 48 hours of the last drink, individuals often suffer from several seizures. The risk of seizures peaks at 24 hours. 
  • Delirium tremens — individuals with delirium tremens will experience a dramatic change in breathing, circulation, and temperature control. The heart rate quickens and blood pressure increases, resulting in serious dehydration. This health condition can also limit the amount of blood flow to the brain for a short period. Delirium tremens often occur within two to three days of the last alcoholic beverage but could arise after a week has passed. Symptoms of this life-threatening condition also include stupor or loss of consciousness, disorientation, irrational beliefs, drenching sweats, hallucinations, and more. 

You don’t have to overcome your addiction alone. Professional guidance and support is available. Begin a life of recovery by reaching out to a specialist today.

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How to Safely Taper Off Alcohol (Medical Detox)

For individuals with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, several different options are available:

  • Outpatient care 
  • Inpatient care
  • Partial hospitalization program

In general, outpatient detoxification is a safe and effective alternative to inpatient care, with fewer costs.  However, healthcare providers should consider optimal care treatment on a case-by-case basis, as some individuals may require inpatient treatment instead, regardless of symptom severity.

Individuals who are more suitable for outpatient detoxification, combined with safe tapering, include:

  • Those who lack a history of severe withdrawal symptoms, withdrawal seizures, or delirium tremens 
  • Those without multiple prior detoxifications or a healthy, reliable support system
  • Those without psychiatric or medical illness connected with drinking habits in some form
  • Those with recent excessive drinking 
  • Those who are pregnant

Similarly, to increase tapering efficacy, healthcare providers may prescribe withdrawal medication, supplements, such as thiamine and a multivitamin, and electrolytes. In outpatient care, healthcare providers may recommend a fixed tapering schedule to ensure adherence. 

Medications Used in Tapering Off Alcohol

Healthcare providers may prescribe benzodiazepines to reduce the effect of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system and can prevent complications, such as combativeness, hallucination, or agitation. 

The most commonly used benzodiazepines include:

  • Lorazepam (Ativan®)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium®)
  • Oxazepam (Serax®)
  • Diazepam (Valium®)

In general, benzodiazepines, as mentioned earlier, work effectively in treating alcohol withdrawal. However, diazepam does have the shortest time to peak effect and the longest elimination half-life.

The elimination half-life is the amount of time the body takes to metabolize at least half of the drug doses.

The benefit of such an elimination half-life is that the withdrawal can be smoother, with a lower incidence and severity of symptoms and rebound risk. 

If you or a loved one are considering quitting alcohol or changing your drinking habits, it is important to seek medical advice first and foremost. A healthcare provider can evaluate your case and determine what treatment program is most suitable and discuss other treatment options. 

What's Next?


How to (Safely) Taper Off Alcohol

Pros and Cons of Tapering Down Alcohol Intake

Alcohol use disorder (AUD), more commonly known as alcoholism, is a chronic relapsing brain disorder. Long-term alcohol use can lead to alcohol use disorder, making it hard to quit or taper your alcohol intake.

Tapering off alcohol refers to cutting back on your alcohol intake (to none). You may decide to taper off alcohol if you worry that you are developing an alcohol addiction.

If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol abuse or alcohol use disorder, reach out for professional help. Detoxing from alcohol can be dangerous if you don’t do it carefully. It is not safe to detox alone if you are dealing with alcoholism.

Pros and Cons of Tapering Off Alcohol

Cutting back on your alcohol intake has major health benefits. Drinking alcohol can take a toll on your physical and mental health, as well as other aspects of your life. So limiting your alcohol consumption is always a good idea.

The effects of alcohol abuse vary depending on how much you and how often you drink. They also depend on other factors your weight, age, and gender. 

However, excessive alcohol consumption can have physical consequences that include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Unhealthy weight loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Liver damage
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart damage
  • Low blood sugar
  • Low sex drive
  • Weakened immune system
  • Certain cancers
  • Central nervous system issues
  • Accidents due to impaired judgment

Excessive alcohol consumption can also hurt your mental health. Consequences include, but aren’t limited to, the following: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Personality changes
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation

Alcohol dependence can also lead to social consequences that include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

  • Detachment from loved ones
  • Skipping school or work (which can, in turn, lead to financial loss)
  • Dropping hobbies that were once enjoyable

It makes sense that cutting back on the number of drinks you have, or quitting alcohol altogether, is a move in the right direction. By tapering your alcohol consumption, you can get your life back on track.

But you have to be careful about alcohol tapering. The detoxification process can be tricky. Some people suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome can lead to life-threatening health conditions and even death.

Again, you should not try to taper off alcohol alone if you are struggling with alcoholism.

How Do You Safely Taper Off Alcohol? 

To safely taper off alcohol, you need to work with a medical professional on a detox program that they feel is right for you. You should not try to fight alcohol addiction on your own at home. An accredited medical professional can help you.

Tapering your alcohol intake may not necessarily be an easy feat. If you or a loved one are having a difficult time, here are some tips:

  1. Contact professional help. Overcoming an alcohol addiction is not easy. Even if you are not at the point of addiction, cutting back may still be challenging. The support of medical professionals and psychologists and help you along your journey. You may be surprised by the number of treatment options available.
  2. Stay away from situations that involve alcohol. If you are struggling to stop drinking, do your best to avoid places and situations that involve alcohol. Temptation makes cutting back even harder. You may even ask your family members and friends not to drink while they are around you.
  3. Reach out to a support group. Sitting and talking with other people who share your struggle can help you to feel supported. Local groups Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can provide you with the moral support and strength you need.
  4. Talk to a therapist. Alcohol misuse and alcoholism are largely linked to depression. Many people abuse alcohol as escape and coping mechanisms. If you can treat and tackle the depression that may be driving you to drink, it can help.

At the end of the day, if you suffer from alcohol addiction, you should not try to taper your alcohol intake alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.

Side Effects of Tapering Off Alcohol

Tapering off alcohol with professional help can lead you to feeling better and healthier. While the road to recovery may be longer for some people than others, you might start noticing positive changes right away.

What are Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

If you have an alcohol problem and try to quit, you may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Delirium tremens (shaking, confusion, high blood pressure, fever, and hallucinations are some symptoms)
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion
  • High blood pressure
  • Intense cravings
  • Depression

Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can become so severe that alcohol withdrawal can lead to death. The safest way to prevent and cope with withdrawal symptoms is by working with a medical professional who can monitor you.

How to Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

If you start to feel withdrawal symptoms when cutting back your alcohol intake, reach out to a professional for help. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from slight to severe. They may be uncomfortable, but they may also be deadly. You’re better off safe than sorry.

Other Challenges of Detoxing From Alcohol 

Detoxing from alcohol is not necessarily easy. Besides potential withdrawal symptoms, you may also face social pressure. Because a lot of social events involve alcohol, it can be challenging to stay away from it.

Because alcohol use disorder (AUD) and depression often go hand in hand, detoxing from alcohol might exacerbate mood disorders. Withdrawal symptoms can make anxiety and depression feel worse. And, if you abused alcohol as a coping mechanism, you might feel lost without it. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help.

Is it Safe to Quit Drinking “Cold Turkey?”

No, it is never safe to quit drinking cold turkey. Significantly cutting back on the amount of alcohol you drink can put your body into shock. If you are struggling with alcoholism, the safest way to quit drinking is through professional rehabilitation.

Dangers of Stopping Alcohol Use Abruptly 

Stopping alcohol use abruptly can be alarming for your body. When your body is expecting alcohol and does not get it, it can start to react with withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms range from nausea to seizures, and some can be fatal.

If you are suffering from alcoholism, you should not quit alcohol abruptly. Reach out for professional help to discuss a treatment plan that is safe and effective.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) — Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session.
  • Outpatient programs — Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety.
  • Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) Certain people qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support groups — Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach. However, there are also secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach.
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